MinnRoast 2011: The Trouble With Stupid Good Fun

Mar 31

Purple pants: Joel Kramer, editor and CEO of MinnPost, at 2010's MinnRoast
Purple pants: Joel Kramer, editor and CEO of MinnPost, at 2010′s MinnRoast

If you still miss “Laugh-In,” you might like MinnRoast. It’s as funny as an old man falling off a tricycle was in 1971.

The 2011 MinnRoast is scheduled for Friday night at the Pantages Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. If you’ve never heard of it, MinnRoast is an annual shmooze-and-booze fest of journalists, lobbyists, politicians and wealthy patrons who come together to drink, tell unfunny jokes, sing badly and raise funds for MinnPost, an online news site that bills itself as offering “a thoughtful approach to the news” (every other effort is run by thoughtless tossers). Throwing good sense and good taste to the wind, journalists become jesters, singing, dancing and smirking their way through an excruciating evening of “entertainment” while some of the state’s most powerful and privileged wince condescendingly, secure in the knowledge that no blood will be drawn (MinnRoast’s wimpy slogan: “Journalists and politicians gently skewered.”)

H.L. Mencken would have had the whole lot beheaded.

The point of the evening is to raise money for MinnPost, and I am a rotten churl  for criticizing an effort to assist a nationally recognized “non-profit, non-partisan” news site that is helping create new ways of meaningfully informing the public.  I happen to be in favor of that kind of thing. But MinnPost could accomplish its goal without putting on a burlesque of bad taste that creates the appearance of conflicts of interest and suggests that the press and the people they should be bird-dogging are swell drinking buddies.

To cite just one of many apparent conflicts:

Himle Horner, the public relations firm owned by Tom Horner, the Spin-Meister-cum-2010 Independence Party candidate for governor, is one of MinnRoast’s lesser sponsors.  Horner’s firm serves well-heeled clients who lobby for and against bills in the Legislature, but Horner refused during the 2010 campaign to reveal his client list. So, a gubernatorial candidate (whose positions might better be subject to serious criticism, not light-hearted lampooning) with an influential clientele is a sponsor of one of Minnesota’s best-known “alternative” media outlets. What’s “alternative” about power brokers and the press cozying up to each other? (Other sponsors include the board chair of the StarTribune, as well as the newspaper’s publisher, demonstrating either that they are good sports or that they feel they have nothing to fear from MinnPost.)

There are other awkward connections and possible conflicts among the list of MinnRoast sponsors and benefactors, a list that — despite a heavy sprinkling of “wealth creation” and investment firms — runs strongly towards the liberal-left end of the political establishment, which is the kind of thing that causes hard-right conservatives to dismiss MinnPost as a snake pit of Democrats, despite the online site’s lack of liberal bite.  Am I suggesting anything improper?  No.  I am suggesting the appearance of impropriety. And that’s enough, in my view, to cast doubt on the wisdom of a bad idea.

MinnRoast is modeled on The Gridiron Dinner, a hoary Washington D.C. “roast” that outlived its relevance decades ago but is still staged by insiders in the Washington Press Corps who should know better. As the Washington Post observed after this year’s March 12 Gridiron, it is an event, “Where leading politicians and media elite dress up in their finest — white tie, in this case — to eat, drink and lob passive-aggressive jokes at each other, celebrity roast-style, in a way that seems pointed and mean but only serves to feed the beyond-the-Beltway suspicion that They Are All In Bed Together.”

Well, maybe they are.

I witnessed the 1999 Gridiron Dinner, one of the most repulsive in the 126-year history of an event notorious for back-scratching, butt-smooching and journalistic prostration. The Gridiron, like MinnRoast, assembles 700 or 800 folks — power players, politicians, press yobs — and tosses them into an unnatural mix, a strange brew where people who don’t return each others’ phone calls and who plot to stab each other in the back suddenly play kissy-face in public. Throw in a boat load of career mediocrities like cabinet members and small-town publishers, preening senators and ambitious presidential candidates, and you have a Stygian nightmare that would cause a decent soul to flee. If there were any decent souls in the room. I was so disoriented — it was as if I had been asked to leave my conscience at the door — that I spilled a glass of red wine into the beautifully gowned lap of Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift while reaching across the crowded table, where we were sardined elbow-to-tuxedoed-elbow. Clift looked as if she wanted to kill me, and I wouldn’t have minded. If someone had dropped a flaming pork roast in my lap and set me on fire, I would have embraced it as the quickest way out of my misery.

Another memory seared into my brain: My late stepmother, Gridiron stalwart Deborah Howell, who was then the head of the Newhouse News Service in Washington, performing in a risque musical skit in which she played an old timey dance hall gal, dressed like a cross between Lady Gaga and Miss Kitty.  I still have nightmares.

The main course at that 1999 Gridiron was President Bill Clinton, who had just narrowly survived Impeachment, squirming and laughing through hours of “jokes” about semen-stained-dresses, Monica Lewinsky and penises with “distinguishing characteristics.”

As Slate’s Timothy Noah wrote:

“The Gridiron is a monument to the idea that there’s no political behavior so awful that it can’t be forgiven and forgotten after a good self-deprecating joke. But after the last year … a certain amount of lingering hostility between the Clinton administration and the press would be … well, healthy. Clinton deserves to be mad at the press because, even granting (the Lewinsky affair) was a legitimate and important story, it was permitted to swallow up too large a proportion of Washington news coverage. Hell, he even deserves to be mad at the press for telling the truth about what a liar and a creep he was. And while it’s not the press’s job actually to be mad at Clinton, its members should not be providing a forum for Clinton to make light of perjury. But that’s what it did: Unbelievably, Clinton joked at the dinner that he was going to title his memoirs, ‘My Story and I’m Sticking to It.’

When journos and politicians get together to yuk it up, you want to go see a cock fight in order to restore your faith in humanity.

Here’s the bottom line: MinnRoast is modeled after a tired pile of retro foolishness that makes the press look desperate to suck up to the powerful they cover, and to pretend, for a night, that they are all in the same club.  That’s where mere silliness turns into stupidity.  In a skit during the 2007 Gridiron, the late conservative columnist Robert Novak portrayed Vice President Dick Cheney in a stupefyingly offensive spoof of the trial of Cheney’s chief of staff, Scooter Libby, who, you may remember, was indicted for leaking classified information about CIA  agent Valerie Plame Wilson to — wait for it — Bob Novak!

The whole pathologically unfunny Gridiron idea should have died right then.

But the first rule of Gridiron-style roasts is that they are tone deaf: Despite the warning signs of the Novak-Cheney embarrassment, the first MinnRoast was organized the next year, in 2008. This year’s will be the fourth MinnRoast. I won’t be there, again. But I had wanted to be.

I contacted MinnPost to request a press pass in order to attend MinnRoast 2011 as a working journalist. I was rejected, even though I made it clear that I wanted to attend in order to report on it, not to snort and cavort until the chablis came out my nose. My reason for requesting a pass was simple: Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is scheduled to speak at the event and any appearance by the governor may — and should — be covered as a (possible) news story.  Other politicians also are scheduled to show up and crack jokes at MinnRoast, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman (my brother) and a token Republican or two, along with a gaggle of local media “celebrities” like Don Shelby and Cyndy Brucato, both MinnPost contributors. Mark Dayton was last recorded making a joke in 1997, but he is the governor. Nearing the end of a difficult legislative session and facing big political and budgetary problems, Dayton may not be in the mood for laughs. But his appearance — and all the rest of the foolishness — should be subject to free and open coverage — by anyone who wants. It turns out, however, that the barons of our alternative news media aren’t much different from the barons of Old Media: MinnPost editor and CEO Joel Kramer — my boss at the Star-Tribune from 1983-86 — turned down my request for credentials not once, or twice, but three times.

“The President of the United States usually speaks at the Gridiron dinner in Washington, attended by many journalists,” Kramer told me in an email, dismissing my request while explicitly linking MinnRoast to the Gridiron. “The Gridiron Club doesn’t give press credentials, and neither do we.  I have considered your request, and my rejection of it stands.  As I said, you are welcome to purchase tickets.”

Well, Boss: Journalists shouldn’t have to buy tickets to an event — even a worthy one — to see the governor and other public officials play pattycake with the journalists  who should be covering them. This is something that has been lost in translation as MinnRoast has picked up a bad habit from inside the Beltway. We’re not supposed to entertain the privileged and the powerful.

We’re supposed to make them nervous.

This year’s MinnRoast falls on April Fool’s Day. Perfect. Fools are often slow to know when the joke is on them.

What You Are Missing: Below, YouTube video from 2010′s MinnRoast, poking fun at MinnPost’s bete noire, Minnesota Public Radio: