Who Writes the Presidents Words? And Who Is Responsible for Them?
Justin Horvath 30 June 2010
Regrettably, my voice in this column slot is replacing President Robert Bruininks -- who has been one of The Minnesota Daily's most important contributors for years. The Daily requested voice verification from Bruininks that he gave his submission a green light, a request University of Minnesota Spokeman Dan Wolter, denied. So we declined to publish Bruininks' submissio
Wolter has in the past negotiated deadlines via e-mail and edits all of Bruininks' submissions with the Daily.
Recently, Wolter sent us an e-mail stating "Bruininks" was working on a submission for our consideration, but he later stated "they" could get the submission down to a certain word count, which got us wondering just who writes and edits Bruininks' columns. We said in an e-mail that we'd print the submission if Bruininks first called us verifying that he himself wrote it, along with all of the other submissions we've printed under his name. Wolter replied they would have problems making our 11 a.m. deadline for the next day because there was a Board of Regents meeting.
After that exchange, Wolter sent us another submission for consideration in this issue, and we revised our request: a voice confirmation from the president that he approved the draft Wolter had sent us.
But Wolter, in an e-mail, called the request "unusual and unacceptable."
"We have never had that kind of requirement from the Daily nor any other publication and have never had any problems. President Bruininks and our entire team treat Daily reporters and writers as professionals and expect that same treatment in response."
Our request stands and we do think voice verification is a much more professional policy than printing a submission without hearing from the person who wrote it.
Crafting a presidential column
In light of this disagreement, we set out to understand just how a newspaper submission under Bruininks' name is crafted.
Plenty of Bruininks' communications staffers and administration officials provide input for his submissions before they see ink, and some told me that most of the words -- and all of the ideas -- are the president's. The process appears to be comparable to that of a newspaper, in that a single byline does not give credit to the dozen or so editors who shape the piece.
Wolter, as former communications staffer for Terry Branstad, the former Republican governor of Iowa, wrote his speeches, including one state-of-the-state. He said that having come from the political world, the meticulous editing process for Bruininks' columns is at times frustrating.
"Every word is essentially his. The process is not quick, either," Wolter said. "We are an academic institution. We are not a spin machine. We do compromise a lot in time. If the question is about the genuineness of the product, it's no question that it's his."
Wolter said that Bruininks initiates his columns. "He comes in with a hand-written and hand-scrawled page of notes. And somebody takes it from there."
That somebody is likely Jim Thorpe. He is the man whose words you might hear or see a lot, even if you don't recognize his name. The University pays him $75,000 annually to serve as Bruininks' communications officer, a post he's held since 2007. He handles most of Bruininks' substantial written communications, including speeches, correspondence, University-wide e-mails and newspaper submissions.
A Yale alumnus who has also worked as a newspaper reporter and managing editor, Thorpe is now the man catching the president between meetings and appointments, trying to grab a few hours to go over ideas and notes for a speech or column. When he's not reviewing ideas with Bruininks, he says he is usually researching them.
"Typically, I say, if it's a piece that's actually going to be represented in print, five to seven rounds of revision aren't uncommon," he said.
Thorpe shops Bruininks' columns around to University officials -- like senior vice presidents -- with knowledge of suggestions and changes. He said he then makes edits accordingly and brings them to Bruininks, or sometimes brings Bruininks their notes.
"He's always got an idea of what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. It's just a matter of making sure we get the details right," he said.
University media law professor Jane Kirtley chuckled when I asked her if she thinks powerful people write their own newspaper submissions.
"Important people, quote, unquote, get their staff to ghostwrite for them all the time," she said. "I think news organizations do have to ask themselves if they want to be complicit in this fiction."
Even if Bruininks' columns come from his fingertips, he does have an expensive communications apparatus behind him. Printing submissions that might be churned out from the staffs of powerful figures charged with message control is dangerous for newspapers that do not want to print their press releases.
To prevent that, Scott Gillespie, the editorials page editor for the Star Tribune, said newspapers should ask that people like Bruininks be pointed in their submissions. "The more focused we get these people to be in what they write -- the more opinionated we can get them to be -- the better," he said. "If we get them addressing a specific issue and making an argument about it, it becomes more personal."
Mike Burbach, the editorial page editor of the Pioneer Press, said that for editors, what matters is judging whether the content of a submission represents the writer's stated views. "I think we should be assured that anything that appears under their name is their position, their ideas and their work," he said.
Both said they seek confirmation from writers, whether by e-mail or over the phone. "Most of the time, people appreciate that because they know that you're looking out for them as well," Burbach said.
In Bruininks' case, we fear his arguments and the facts supporting them might be misrepresented. The extensive editing process a column appearing under Bruininks' name undergoes is comforting and concerning. Editors make mistakes as well as catch them, and the writer usually knows best. That's why we want to hear Bruininks' assuring us he's approved his final draft; a quick call for a column he's worked hard on is not demanding. Until then, we'll miss his voice on this page.
Bob, I don't think this is too much to ask. You should be aware by now that not all of Mr. Wolter's advice is good advice.