Oh, to be part of The Big Story
The Minnesota Connection
by Mike Mosedale
Indeed, "the Minnesota Connection" has become the favorite tease on the 10 o'clock news. When it was learned that one of the boys involved in the gruesome schoolyard shootings in Arkansas once resided in Grand Meadow, Minnesota, for instance, legions of local print and television reporters descended upon that bucolic burg. The promise of shocking "hometown" details, details which would provide a local link to this three-day national pre-occupation, were pushed relentlessly before the nightly broadcasts. Surprisingly, reporters didn't have much difficulty extracting comments from the cooperative townspeople, including the wicked child's own relations. Terrible story, yes, but a nice little coup for the troops over at 'CCO, KARE et al., many of whom saw their pieces picked up by the national news services. To be fair, the Minnesota Connection to the Jonesboro story was newsworthy, though, of course, horridly over-played. So why not forgive the piddling-puppy enthusiasm so evident in some reporters' dispatches? After all, they were a part of a mega-story. For the pack animals in today's media, there is no greater glory.
Yet, more often than not, "the Minnesota Connection" comes off as utterly ludicrous. It reveals a pathetic sort of provincialism, one whose presentation - even in the bleakest of contexts - assumes the distinct, nearly chipper manner of the booster. I suppose the pre-occupation with the Minnesota Connection arises from our great regional neurosis: the burning need to appear relevant on a national level, the need to appear, for lack of a better word, positively coastal. Like insects hovering about the porch light, reporters are drawn to the glow of the new model mega story. Especially if that story contains some element of celebrity. "This isn't really flyover land," the broadcasts and newspapers nearly shout. "We're part of The Big Story."
Take, for instance, the recent murder-suicide of comedian Phil Hartman and his wife. As everyone now knows, Brynn Hartman grew up in Thief River Falls. She was once, in the grotesque parlance of television, "a hometown girl." It seemed no tv station or newspaper could resist the urge to fly a reporter up to Thief River Falls to dig up details on the Minnesota Connection. Afterall, this story ruled the national airwaves and wires for a full two days - a sort of mini-mega story, kind of a j.v. version of O.J., or Di, or Monica. Our friends in the local media, who are famously slavish in their devotion to the cues from their better-paid counterparts at the networks and national papers, couldn't help but focus their attentions on this seedy, southern California melodrama? Surely, the editors and producers must have concluded, the viewers' thirst for details could not have been slaked by the innumerable accounts on CNN, and the network news, and Entertainment Tonight, and so on.
Alas, there was little substance to the Minnesota Connection here - not shocking, as the former Miss Omdahl had not resided in these parts for some 20 years. Oh, yes, the vampires bumbled about town for a day, performed the obligatory remotes and, in the end, reported - with false admiration - that the natives were simply too decent to oblige with any tasty gossip. The Strib's Neal Justin, dispatched on the futile venture, wrote that family acquaintances "firmly refused to talk, wary of the media and of the potential backlash." In the very next paragraph, however, Justin concluded that, after sharing "a couple of beers and cigarettes with these folks [What a regular guy!]...it's not that they don't want to say anything; they just don't know what to say." So, which is it: are "these folks" media wary or just dumb-struck?
Television's efforts to make "the Minnesota Connection" to the Hartman story were similarly vapid, but far more shameless in their promotion. Viewers were subjected to a gaggle of dispatches - teased relentlessly - that offered accounts from reporters "live in Thief River Falls" who, in the end, had nothing to say. Alas, it seems, the technologies which make remote broadcasts possible do not function as a substitute for informed or interesting reporting.
The award for the most preposterous moment in the coverage of the story surely must be granted to WCCO-TV. It came in the form of a live stand-up spot outside an Edina home by Bill Carlson, entertainment reporter, former teen dance show host and, interestingly, Thief River Falls native. Why was Carlson talking about Hartman live from Edina? Because that's the location of the home in which the Phil Hartman character in the film "Jingle All The Way" was purported to reside. Ah, yes, the Minnesota Connection. Like much in local news, the piece defies parody - so absurd on its face that it is, like The Weekly World News, pointless to lampoon.
The coverage of the Hartman story, though, was revealing in one aspect. As we all know, the contemporary media has become increasingly infatuated with the notion of celebrity: Hence the great growth in "personality journalism" and the emergence of a mass media which has developed an embarrassing resemblance to People magazine. On the second day of the Hartman story, the Twin Cities airwaves were filled with woozy tributes and recollections of Hartman by local reporters - Carlson, KARE's Jim Rich, et al. It seems quite a few of our boys had interviewed the slain comic in the course of publicity tours. Did these reporters offer anything substantive, anything beyond the usual "he was a real nice guy" accolade? Of course not. But, by testifying to the fact that they did indeed have a moment of personal contact with Hartman, they showed, for just a moment, that they were in touch with the West Coast, fount of fame and money and culture. And that, it seems, is the ultimate self-validation in these benighted times. And, come to think of it, maybe that's the real Minnesota Connection.