Minnesota Republicans are renewing their calls to privatize public television stations after new reports revealed that Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) deleted embarrassing footage of First Lady Gwen Walz at the request of the governor’s office.
MPR News broke the story earlier this week. The report centers around First Lady Walz’s involvement in criminal justice reform efforts and her promotion of a four-part film called “College Behind Bars.” In May, she joined TPT at its headquarters in St. Paul for an extended screening of the film followed by a panel discussion on criminal justice reform initiatives in Minnesota.
The panel took place “under bright lights in a television studio with sound and camera professionals on hand,” MPR News said. But the conversation went south when moderator Toussaint Morrison went off-script to discuss racial disparities in the prison system.
Days before the panel, copies of the questions Morrison intended to ask were circulated within the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office, but Morrison said he felt compelled to ask about race after observing that most of the inmates profiled in the film were minorities.
“I said, ‘can we talk about prison and education without talking about race?’ And then the panel just goes silent,” Morrison told MPR News, saying the audience was “a little razzed up” because “nobody’s answering the questions.”
TPT President and CEO Jim Pagliarini said he was approached the following day by Kristin Beckmann, deputy chief of staff in the governor’s office, who had concerns about the tape of the event and its distribution.
Sarah Walker, who was deputy commissioner for the Department of Corrections at the time, said she received a call from Beckmann the day after the panel and was told “to light up TPT because people are really mad at how the panel went.” Walker said she received another call from Beckmann later that afternoon and was informed that the “TPT president has now apologized and agreed to destroy all of the videotapes that were made of the event.”
Beckmann and the governor’s office still maintain that Morrison’s line of questioning was off-topic, but they conceded that pressuring TPT was an “overreaction.”
“We made an emotional decision at that time, and we realize in hindsight that it was an overreaction. We regret the decision,” Beckmann said.
Pagliarini agreed that Morrison “pursued a line of questioning that made people uncomfortable.”
“This is really pretty standard practice. This was never intended for broadcast,” he said in regards to destroying the tape.
The bottom line is that a taxpayer-funded public resource deleted footage at the request of the governor’s office, Republicans say.
“Taxpayers will pay over $3.6 million from the general fund and another $8 million in legacy funds to Minnesota Public Television next biennium,” said State Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) in a press release. “The risks of it becoming a propaganda machine for the state are incredibly high. And now the propaganda effort has been unmasked. This was not a news effort. It was a cozy agreement between the governor’s office and Minnesota Public Television. When the Governor’s expectations were not met, he communicated his anger, through his staff, and public television pacified him by deleting the footage. Governor Walz and Twin Cities Public Television are clearly corrupt.”
State Rep. Tim Miller (R-Prinsburg) said there are a number of “terrible things about this story,” noting that First Lady Walz went from “supporting a cause to doing what for any other citizen would be lobbying, which would require her to register with the campaign finance board.”
“But on top of that, she is using a public resource, something that the state taxpayers support through the State Government Finance budget. Presumably, tpt2 had to pay those videographers to record the event. Was the moderator working for free? The Walz administration let it be known that they were displeased with what happened at the event and tpt2 didn’t only archive the video; they deleted it. Taxpayer money down the drain,” he added.
State Rep. Jeremy Munson (R-Crystal Lake) said the story is just another example of why “the public distrusts the media.”
“Here we have local public television that somehow tries to pretend that it is unbiased and holds itself to the highest standards of journalism. Yet when someone from the Walz administration is unhappy with a recorded event that they thought was going to be a positive story for them, it quickly results in the footage being destroyed. That behavior is shockingly cavalier and tells us a lot about the priorities of public television and the ethics, journalistic and otherwise, of everyone involved in this sordid episode,” Munson continued.
State Rep. Cal Bahr (R-East Bethel) took things one step further, calling it a “great example of why public television should be privatized.” Bahr argued that television programs funded by the government are “not independent,” but are “extremely susceptible to pressure by government officials” and are at risk of becoming a “propaganda arm of the government.”
“It is beyond concerning that Twin Cities Public Television deleted unflattering footage of First Lady Gwen Walz at the behest of the Walz Administration. What was unflattering, one may ask? Apparently Walz was not prepared for the conversation of race to be brought up during a panel discussion about problems within our criminal justice system,” Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said in a statement. “If there is a theme for Governor Walz’s first year in office, lack of transparency comes to mind.”
– – –
Anthony Gockowski is managing editor of Battleground State News, The Ohio Star, and The Minnesota Sun. Follow Anthony on Twitter. Email tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo “PBS-TBT” by Twin Cities PBS.