In unforeseen twist, Walz cabinet member appointed Star Tribune publisher found to have ‘problematic’ communications with state government

When a member of the Governor of Minnesota’s cabinet was named publisher of the state’s biggest newspaper in February 2023, eyebrows were raised from International Falls to Albert Lea. What did this cozy relationship between Minnesota’s Second and Fourth estates portend for media scrutiny of the state government? Or is a poacher the best gamekeeper?

Elsewhere in Minnesota’s media, the Minnesota Reformer — whose opinion pages are uniformly potty but whose reporting is some of the best in the state — reports that:

Steve Grove, the top executive at the Star Tribune and former commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, offered advice and compliments to Gov. Tim Walz’s office after his departure from the governor’s cabinetaccording to texts obtained by the Minnesota Reformer.

For example, in late April 2023, Walz Commissioner turned Strib publisher Steve Grove sent Governor Walz’s chief of staff Chris Schmitter:

…his public apology for publishing an editorial cartoon he called “very troubling” and “in horrible taste,” and asked that the governor and lieutenant governor be informed that he did not approve of the image.

(Presumably a reference to this cartoon, the fallout from which ultimately saw the position of Editorial Cartoonist eliminated completely).

A group of DFL Muslim lawmakers called the cartoon racist and Islamophobic, and Grove apologized publicly in a statement.

“It’s clear to me that the intent of the cartoon did not match its impact. While the cartoonist was trying to support the decision of the Minneapolis City Council, the piece drew many – particularly those in the Muslim community – to feel disrespected by its depictions,” Grove said in a statement posted to social media. “I’m sorry that the Star Tribune published it.”

Grove texted a link to the statement to Schmitter.

“Good statement; nice work,” Schmitter replied.

“Just as a heads up. If the Gov or (lieutenant governor) ask, would appreciate you letting them know, not as an excuse but as context, that I didn’t see or approve of that cartoon at all and thought it was very troubling and in horrible taste,” Grove wrote. 

“I shared with them, thanks,” Schmitter responded.

The Reformer goes on:

The exchanges between the governor’s office and the publisher of the state’s largest newspaper raise ethical concerns, said Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota.

Kirtley said she found the exchange between Grove and Schmitter about the editorial cartoon “problematic.”

“I don’t think news organizations should be in a position of feeling like they have to apologize to government for the editorial choices that they make,” Kirtley said. “It sets a really unfortunate precedent, because it suggests that if I don’t have government approval, I’m not going to do it, or if I have government disapproval, I’m not going to do it.”

In the Star Tribune Kirtley is even blunter, suggesting that Grove:

…”wanted to play it both ways; he wanted to continue to be an insider in the Walz administration, providing kudos and advice” while working as publisher, a role that in modern times has been independent of politics.

The revolving door in Minnesota doesn’t lead only to lobbying.