Is the Highland Villager Accountable for its Misleading Anti-Bike Lane Advertisement?

[Cleveland Avenue as it is today, next to the University of St. Thomas.]
The short short answer is “no.”

The only slightly less short answer is “no, but they probably should be a bit more so, kinda.”

And here’s the long answer…

The Cleveland Saga

The debate over the Cleveland Avenue bike lane, like the Highland Parkway and Jefferson bike projects before it, was not an easy one. I’ve written about it a few different places and, thanks to my (volunteer, appointed) position on the Planning Commission, have had a first hand seat at the table during a long and intense community conversation with a whole cross-section of stakeholders.  

Basically, though increasing bike infrastructure has been a city goal for many many years, Saint Paul passed its first ever bike plan only last summer. The plan promised a more comprehensive and thorough process for striping bike lanes and, in my opinion, was a great first step toward realizing some of the great potential in the city to increase sustainable and active transportation. The plan passed the Council unanimously.

At the time, Cleveland Avenue was on the plan, but Council Member Tolbert expressed some reservations about including it. Then this summer, just before the County re-surfaced the road, there was a vote to delay the bike lane until more process could be done.

As a result, the city put together a 12-member task force and (as a Planning Commissioner and Transportation Committee chair) I became one of the members. We met about a half-dozen times to make a recommendation for a north-south bike route route in the area, and the meetings were very intense. In particular, there was one well-attended public meeting, and throughout the year, many people expressed their opinions over the year in person or online. Then in the winter, the committee voted to approve the original bike lane plan 8-4, along with some "parking mitigation" from the city to retain some convenient parking for businesses along the street.

This spring, the final plan with $200K worth of additional and tweaked parking was finally approved, along with plans for bike lanes to the North, where the County will be resurfacing the rest of the road this summer. The most recent City Council meeting, just two weeks ago, finally settled the matter.

Meanwhile, in the latest Highland Villager, this ad appeared yesterday.

[The ad in this fortnight's Villager.]

The Case of the Misleading Ad

The biggest problem with the ad is that, because of the way it’s arranged, it gives the impression that all the businesses listed authored or endorsed the message. It lists 33 businesses, pretty much everything within a few blocks of the street, many of which (Rihm Trucking, Regina's Candies) have their own private parking lots.

In fact, they’re not on board. For example, in an online exchange with the “Taste of Love” bakery, the bakery owner claims no knowledge of the ad. The same goes for Choo Choo Bob’s. I’ll let you know if any others were involved, but my suspicion is that they had nothing to do with the ad.

(In fact, if I were a business owner, I'd be trying hard to move past this divisive debate. You don't want to send the perception that it's difficult to park, nor do you want to alienate anyone with strong opinions on either side. The message businesses should be focusing on is: "parking will be changing, here's where the convenient new spots are located." Vituperative doomsaying is precisely the wrong message for small businesses!)

The other factual problem with the ad is its reductive portrayal of the public process. The ad describes the citizen advisory committee process thus: “The petition caused the City council to feign citizen participation in the decision by organizing a meeting at St. Catherine University last fall for those concerned. At this meeting, citizens were only allowed to pen, not vocalize, their preference for Prior or Cleveland for a north/south route.” He then goes on to list the results.

The problem is that the actual results were far more nuanced. Here’s a sample page:

[One of 53 pages.]

Like much public process, it’s difficult to reduce things to black-and-white, especially when discussing trade-offs between safety and convenience, and the potential benefit of a yet-unrealized project. During the process, I was most frustrated by the misinformation spread about things like lane widths, safety studies, parking occupancy, and mitigation strategies.

But though many people might have had their minds made up beforehand, I think the entire committee took their obligation seriously. I came into the task force process with an open mind, though I am someone who usually prioritizes safety over convenient driving. I know for a fact that a few committee members did not have their minds made up beforehand, and some maintained an open mind until the very end. At the final meeting where the committee voted 8-4 to support the bike lane proposal, the result was a genuine surprise to me.

[The author of the ad.]
Finally, I don't understand why the ad singles out Council President Stark. The proposed bike lane had the support of both area council members, a 5-2 majority of the City Council, appeared on the city's unanimously adopted bike plan, and was supported by a broad coalition that included pedestrian, public health, safety, and neighborhood livability advocates of all stripes.

In addition, Stark was on the record as supporting the bike lane before last November's election, while his opponent opposed the plan (and was visibly campaigning at the aforementioned public meeting and elsewhere). Then Stark won by over twenty points, suggesting that he has the support of the Ward 4 voters as well.

The rest of Bushard’s ad is some first-rate parking barking, if a bit odd with its reported refrain about “the convenience of a FEW bicyclists.” I predict that this will one of the most used bike lanes in the city, connecting a key neighborhood nodes with Saint Paul’s two largest colleges and the light rail. That’s why I voted for it, and precisely the reason that it gained so much support from the task force, including both the University of Saint Thomas and the University of Saint Catherine.

Not everyone is expected to like the outcome, of course, and Robert Bushard is entitled both to his opinion, his right to free speech, and to spend his $1,100 how ever he pleases. (He really should buy a nice bike with the money instead!)

The funny thing is that at the final final Cleveland public hearing, he wasn’t even the most ridiculous testifier. But while technically factual, his advertisement remains both divisive and misleading.

[December's joint resolution by Council Members Stark and Tolbert supporting bike lanes.]

Accountability for Advertisements

The Villager, like any paper, does not have explicit editorial control over its advertisements. They’re not directly responsible for writing them, and in theory, anyone with the right amount of money should be able to purchase advertising there.

But is that the whole story?

I reached out to David Brauer, a former reporter who penned journalism beat at Minnpost for years. (Disclaimer: I’ve written a weekly column for Minnpost for the past year-and-a-half.)

David is the perfect guy to talk to because he’s the one that interviewed me about my “Villager re-blogging” when I began back in 2009.
I asked Brauer if the Villager had any responsibility for its advertisements, or if getting a statements to appear there was simply a matter of writing a check. Here’s what he said.
Legally, unless there is something false (and it appears not, it’s all opinion), a newspaper is blameless except in court of public opinion. If the businesses complain, that's probably the best weapon against the Highland Villager’s pocketbook. And of course letters to the editor. 
It’s misleading, yes, and the newspaper passed on right to reject. But the only response is more speech.

One on hand, the latest ad is just an advertisement, bought and paid for by one man who didn’t get his way on one issue.

To me, though, it’s frustrating to see the Villager print the ad without editing it to not appear misleading about whether the businesses endorsed the statements. I would have hoped that the Villager would display some accountability for what appears in its pages and have framed the ad so that it didn’t appear to misrepresent the positions of the community and its business owners.

And ideally, the Villager might not print it at all, in that it does little but throw gasoline on already-existing divisions without much attention to either facts or political reality.

In other words, it’s like like Trump campaign.

Wishing for Understanding

["Headwinds and Tailwinds" by Ken Avidor.]
When I first began “re-blogging the Highland Villager,” it was because I enjoyed reading it. It was and is the largest and most thorough community newspaper in town and, at the time, I was only frustrated that I couldn’t share the critical information it provided with others online.

But over the years, as I’ve become more and more involved and knowledgeable about Saint Paul’s development and planning debates, the paper has been increasingly letting me down.

As someone who both reads and writes for community newspapers, it’s depressing to see one that has become so slanted in defense of backwards parking policy. The parking meter insert flier, headline framing, and editorial position on the parking meters were a classic example, and this week’s misleading advertisement is another.

I’ve tried for years to understand how some people can get so upset over walking a little farther to get to their car or plugging a meter to park in front of a store. Is it a generational thing? Is it tied up in the psychology of driving?

At any rate, I had a front-row during the entire Cleveland bike lane saga. If this is the ending, at least it's memorable. It reminds me of a bad movie where the death scene goes on forever in the most ridiculous way.

In fact, I just watched two full montages of noteworthy death scenes from such films. If forced to pick one, I'd have to say that, if this Villager ad is final throes of the anti-Cleveland bike lane movement, it's most like the death from Kareteci Kiz (turkish for Karate Girl).

Only with more yelling.

[For more reading, see No Need to Pit Safe Streets Against Local Businesses, Cleveland Avenue Shows St. Paul's Need for Parking Creativity, Cleveland Avenue Bike Lanes, and Jefferson Crashes Rekindle Bicycle Boulevard Debate.]  


An example of a business fighting confusion caused by the misleading ad from Kopplin's Coffee Facebook page:



Alex said...

Having worked for a brief and unpleasant time with the advertising dept of a community newspaper, I'm somewhat shocked that the Villager printed the ad with the businesses listed. On the rare occasions that one of our ads mentioned another business, we always checked it out. More evidence that the Villager is more or less a vanity enterprise that runs at the pleasure or displeasure of its publisher.

PT said...

One of these is not like the other:

"the Villager is more or less a vanity enterprise that runs at the pleasure or displeasure of its publisher."

Bill Lindeke
"the best source of local streets/sidewalks news in Saint Paul is the Highland Villager"...."The Villager has actual journalists, and their stories are missing from the conversation,"

David Brauer
"the Highland Villager, a high-quality, free St. Paul-based community paper."

The Villager has been published for 60+ years and 2 generations of Mischkes have owned and published the paper for 45 years. More than four decades might give them an excellent understanding of their customer but maybe not I guess. Maybe they're just a front for the parking industry

Adam said...

I totally thought those business were behind the ad when I first saw it! (Although I didn't look that closely)

Bill Lindeke said...

I'd like to think I can appreciate and respect the Villager while also being critical of its stance and editorial choices. Newspapers all through time have had to negotiate between the tents of quality journalism and publishers with an agenda.

Bill Lindeke said...


Chase said...

Wow. If you thought the ad was the "last death throe" akin to some obscure Japanese movie clip...it seems your op-ed response was the last gasp. At least you didn't take out an ad?