While the media in Minneapolis poured its heart into coverage of a stunning confession that closed a decades-old murder case this week, a columnist at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune fired off a critique of a fellow journalist's skinny jeans.
The controversy began Tuesday after Star-Tribune columnist — who goes by "C.J." — posted a question via Twitter to Jana Shortal, an anchor for KARE 11 news. Shortal, a longtime Minneapolis journalist, was presenting coverage of the Jacob Wetterling case, an 11-year-old boy who was abducted, molested and murdered in 1989.
On Tuesday, Danny Heinrich confessed to the crime in U.S. District Court in exchange for a plea deal, a development Shortal was covering on the air. But "C.J." had something else on her mind:
Shortal and others offered a rebuttal while the initial criticism drew condemnation on social media:
. @DishCentral IDK what my clothing has to do with covering the tragedy of Jacob's death. My only 'wish' on Tuesday was for Jacob's family.
— janashortal (@janashortal) September 7, 2016
— Liz (@LizWelle) September 7, 2016
Undeterred, "C.J." doubled down:
Meanwhile, in addition to her salvo on social media, "C.J." wrote a column for the StarTribune.com that critiqued Shortal's fashion choice. The Star-Tribune took down the column, but a cached version is still available. Here's an excerpt.
Being hip in skintight pants while discussing this story was unseemly, perhaps disrespectful. Many TV types keep a spare set of clothes around the station just in case what they are wearing isn’t appropriate for what they end up covering. Maybe Shortal doesn’t.
Shortal took to Facebook to post a reply to C.J. Here's a snippet of the multi-paragraph post:
On Tuesday morning I got dressed. The light on my porch woke me up. Jacob’s light, his sign, to come home. Sick to my stomach I got dressed. Dreading the day I got dressed. Knowing I would learn, with all of you, what really happened to Jacob Wetterling. I dressed. I prayed. I went to work. I kept my head down. I learned what happened to him. I prayed again. I went on the air. I did my best. I gave that newscast every single shred of hope and love I had for Jacob. For his family. And for every single one of you who was hurting. I left everything I had on that newsroom floor.
You took that away.
You made it about my pants.
Shortal told me by phone today that she considers it be be the act of a columnist who "has been a bully in this market for years."
After the paper pulled the story from the website Wednesday, Shortal said Star-Tribune editors emailed to offer an apology. Shortal spoke by phone with the newspaper's bosses Thursday, but she said she still has heard nothing from "C.J."
The Star-Tribune has also posted a public apology:
We briefly posted a column that criticized KARE's Jana Shortal for her appearance while reporting on the Jacob Wetterling story. The piece was inappropriate, insensitive and did not meet the standards of the Star Tribune. We have apologized to Ms. Shortal and her station. And we apologize to you.
Star Tribune Editors
The apology, which was also posted on social media, garnered more than 1,000 comments on Facebook — this one captures the overall tone:
Maybe instead of a lame apology you could donate the columnists paycheck to The Jacob Wetterling Resource Center and then hire a new columnist who is focused on making a positive impact in our society.
The backlash was likely caused by the combination of emotions swirling around the Wetterling story and Shortal's ardent local following. She worked in the Minneapolis market for 13 of her 16 years in the business. By her own estimation, she has written hundreds of stories about Wetterling.
"I sat with his mother, I walked on that road where he was kidnapped," she told Poynter Thursday.
Wetterling's case is also an emotional one for the Minneapolis community. When news broke that his remains had been found and his killer confessed, journalists who covered his disappearance for most of their careers cried. That's why it's especially offensive a columnist would smear an anchor about her clothing choices while she anchoring such a high-profile story.
Shortal acknowledges she doesn't adhere to the standard "lady uniform look." In fact, the Star-Tribune found that very angle interesting enough to publish a column by Shortal in June. In it, she wrote about why she chose to "come out of the closet" in fashion terms. She wrote:
"Last fall KARE 11 gave me a permission slip. It’s a new show called Breaking The News. Our mission? Tell stories differently. Do things differently."
"During the six months we rehearsed the show off-camera, I found myself coming into work wearing my own clothes, the kind of clothes I wore in my 'real' life."
"And I starting wearing my hair curly — that’s how it naturally rolls."
"As the date of the show’s launch approached, I started thinking: Maybe I can break more than the news. Maybe I can break the mold of what a woman on television is supposed to look like."
By mid-day, that column, posted in June, was second on the Star-Tribune's "most read" list.
It would be a shame if the coverage of the Wetterling story is remembered by a nameless newspaper critic's fashion critique. KARE-11, WCCO, KSTP and KMSP, all outlets in the Twin Cities area, were in top form this week.
Each toned down the production and music. Anchor and reporters talked in muted tones. Radio outlets — especially Minnesota Public Radio — provided thoughtful deep coverage. And The Star-Tribune offered compelling multimedia stories and crisp reporting.
And yet: We are focused on an anchor's pants.
Well, most people are.
Just before noon, Shortal sent a note to the thousands of people who came to her defense attempting, once again, to refocus the attention on Wettering. She tweeted:
— janashortal (@janashortal) September 8, 2016