Shallow 'Rolling Stone' Hit Piece is Just What Michele Bachmann Needed

by Abe Sauer

The backlash against the lashing out against presidential candidate Michele Bachmann has already begun. Following the Palin blueprint, Bachmann plans on fully leveraging the negative publicity with her base: they see leftist attacks as a point of pride and an indication of strength.

This outpouring of disgust is coming at the expense of the excellent local bloggers in Minnesota who have long tracked and fact-checked Bachmann. Their work will be the uncredited foundation of probably every Bachmann hit piece you’ll read between now and 2012. It’s begun with the self-destructive chewing-out that Matt Taibbi gave Bachmann in Rolling Stone.

“He did prove my point about clueless journalists making Stillwater out to be another Wasilla full of wingnuts,” said Karl Bremer, editor of the Ripple in Stillwater blog — a reporter who’s been covering Michele Bachmann so extensively that he instantly catches when publications use two Ls in her first name.

Bremer has a vested interest in protecting Stillwater, Minnesota’s reputation. He’s a town native. He calls it a “great place to live” and three days before the Rolling Stone piece described it as a “a Midwestern version of a Currier & Ives set piece” with “no black people,” the “perfect launching pad” for a “retro-Stepford” candidate, Bremer published an essay wondering “Is Stillwater the next Wasilla?” In it, Bremer predicted the future by addressing Rolling Stone’s lazy contentions about Bachmann and Stillwater. Bremer wrote:

In defense of my own hometown of Stillwater, I have to inform them that if they are looking for the typical Bachmann Teabagger voter, they are more likely to find them elsewhere in the 6th District, since Bachmann has failed to carry Stillwater in any of her three congressional races. In fact, it wasn’t until she moved to ultraconservative West Lakeland Township, which went for Tom Emmer over Mark Dayton by a margin of more than 2:1 in 2010, that Bachmann ever managed to even carry her own precinct.

After pointing out that nearby Wright County, the home of right-wing nutballs Tom Emmer and Bradlee Dean is the source of her power, Bremer said, “Nonetheless, the parade of media to the Birthplace of Minnesota on the St. Croix is likely to continue.”

The parade of uncredited use of material from Ripple in Stillwater, and several other Minnesota blogs that have dogged Bachmann for years now, is likely to continue as well. Publications such as the Minneapolis City Pages and the Dump Bachmann blog have been the original sources of numerous stories about Bachmann’s career foibles.

For example, in the Rolling Stone piece, Taibbi writes:

“For the most part, though, Bachmann’s upbringing seems like pure Americana, a typical Midwestern girl who was ‘in a couple of beauty pageants’ and ‘not overtly political,’ according to her stepbrother Michael LaFave.”

Compare that to the 2006 City Pages profile of Bachmann, “The Chosen One,” which interviewed LaFave:

“By his own admission, LaFave, 51 years old and a union representative who lives in Forest Lake, did not get to know his new stepsister all that well. ‘I remember that she was book-smart, and did pretty well in school,’ he recalls. ‘And she was in a couple of beauty pageants…. She was not overtly political.’”

Another passage from that same 2006 City Pages profile:

Stephens and other parents soon had confrontational meetings with Bachmann and the rest of the charter school group. ‘One member of Michele’s entourage talked about how he had visions, and that God spoke to him directly,’ Stephens says. ‘He told us that as Christians we had to lay our lives down for it. I remember getting in the car with my husband afterward and telling him, ‘This is a cult.’

Rolling Stone:

‘One member of Michele’s entourage talked about how he had visions, and that God spoke to him directly,’ recalled Denise Stephens, a parent who was opposed to the religious curriculum at New Heights. ‘He told us that as Christians we had to lay our lives down for it. I remember getting in the car with my husband afterward and telling him, ‘This is a cult.’’

City Pages, 2006:

‘I came in wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and moccasins, and I had no makeup on at all,’ the story quotes Bachmann as saying. ‘I had not one piece of literature, I had made not one phone call, and spent not five cents and I did not solicit a vote.’

Rolling Stone:

‘I came in wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and moccasins, and I had no makeup on at all,’ she said. ‘I had made not one phone call, and spent not five cents, and I did not solicit a vote.’

Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates told me that this was his doing — that due to space concerns, two of Taibbi’s original notes attributing work to the City Pages piece had been removed, to save space.

Bates added that he would “get some links included in the story online.”

That particular City Pages profile is sure to be one of the most-borrowed texts of the upcoming election cycle. (The Daily Beast June 15th profile of Marcus Bachmann was noble enough to cite it.) Written before Bachmann was known outside even her own district, it captures quotes by those in Bachmann’s orbit before the rising star was able to clamp them down. G.R. Anderson Jr., the author of that City Pages profile, did an earlier profile of Bachmann “Somebody Say Oh Lord!” in 2005.

Long before Bachmann landed in the national consciousness, let alone on a presidential ballot, Bachmann bloggers were already fighting for credit.

In 2007, Bremer broke the story about how even when Bachmann was voting her public anti-government handout values, she was collecting more than $47,000 in federal farm subsidies on “a 949-acre Wisconsin farming operation in which Bachmann owns up to a quarter-million-dollars interest.” Bremer also revealed that “the Bachmann Farm Family Limited Partnership has collected as much as $127,868 in federal farm subsidies since the partnership was established in 2001.” When Bremer asked blog TruthDig for credit when it republished his story, uncredited, Bremer says its editor, Robert Scheer, told him “You don’t have a copyright on the facts.”

The Rolling Stone story briefly mentions the subsidy.

Bremer has continued to chase this subsidies story, noting that in 2011, Bachmann’s father-in-law Paul is still registered as agent and general partner for the family farm. Paul Bachmann died in 2009.

(Bremer also contends that Rolling Stone’s comment on his research about Bachmann’s farm subsidies is wrong and that Bachmann, not just her father-in-law, financially benefitted as well.)

The Dump Bachmann blog was started in 2004 by a lesbian Minnesotan who had become outraged by Bachmann’s anti-gay agenda. A year later, Ken Avidor and Karl Bremer begin contributing. Avidor says that he never really signed on for this, that he wishes for a day where Bachmann is no longer worth covering. “I’m sympathetic to the national media,” he told me. “Here comes this person and suddenly they all need all this information and, well, there’s just so much shit. So much.” Avidor, who also drew and inked the “Dump Bachmann Trading Cards,” slams the local media for dropping the ball, saying that the self-censoring “Minnesota nice” practiced by papers like the Star Tribune seems much like the old gag rule is still in effect.

Last year, Bremer spun off to begin Ripple in Stillwater. “I started Ripple last fall because I got tired of getting submissions rejected by other media. Figured if I was going to give my work away at least I should get the credit for it,” he said. Stories are still often cross-posted at the two blogs.

Credit he got. In June 2011, Bremer won an award for “Best Use of Public Records” from the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists for his story on Bachmann donor Bobby Thompson. The story resulted in an investigation and conviction of Thompson by the state’s financial disclosure board. (And Dump Bachmann/Ripple in Stillwater are not exclusively about Michele. During the 2010 election, Bremer also broke the story about GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer’s malpractice lawsuit.)

The laundry list of stories broken by this Dump Bachmann-Stillwater crew represents a trove of original reporting on the congresswoman. For campaign trail reporters looking for the crib notes, Avidor suggests Dump Bachmann’s “skeleton closet” page, a list of all the best bits from seven years of coverage.

While Rolling Stone and many others focus on the sensational anti-gay storylines that play well to the coastal elite choir, Bremer and Avidor have been the leading muckrakers in Bachmann’s connection to the Petters ponzi scheme, which might end up being far more damaging to her campaign.

Bremer broke the story on Bachmann’s “pardongate,” a 2007 request from the congresswoman to pardon a donor of hers, Frank Vennes Jr. Vennes, a Petters Ponzi scheme accomplice, was later indicted for fraud and money-laundering. Avidor has been covering the trail in a separate blog, Vennes Info. Vennes represents the near-entirely uncovered corruption angle of Bachmann’s career. Avidor suggests that if Vennes pleads not guilty, Bachmann could be compelled to testify at his trial — not the best of looks for a candidate mid-campaign.

It’s forgivable that Rolling Stone’s take-down is at best re-reported and at worst poorly sourced. It’s less forgivable that it’s self-detonating. It’s a screed that warns America that Michele Bachmann is to be taken seriously — right before doing exactly the opposite.

The profile is the kind of battle-axing of Bachmann that is going to do great pageviews for the magazine but ultimately play right into her hand. It gives Bachmann legitimate evidence that the fabled leftist mainstream media is attacking her. Consequently, it will make her more popular with a base that looks for which conservative leader is being most reviled in the media, and then assumes that person is their best bet. (It’s not a coincidence that Tim Pawlenty has completely avoided harsh criticism from the MSM while at the same time being unable to gain traction with Tea Party-influenced primary voters.)

Not only is the profile unnecessarily mean, it’s sloppy.

One of the original sources Taibbi does quote at length as a huge Stillwater critic of Bachmann is Mary Cecconi. Cecconi ran against Bachmann for a school board position. [Editor’s Note, added June 24th: Cecconi emailed with a request that it be made clear that it was Bachmann who ran against her; Cecconi was the incumbent. While we are happy to amplify, we are also happy to note that Cecconi ran for office and Michele Bachmann was her opponent.] She has been a registered lobbyist since 2006 for Parents United for Public Schools, an advocacy group that has fought Republican budget-cutting in the state — a position that necessarily entails constantly opposing Bachmann.

“My current position did not come up as a topic,” Cecconi told me. “We spoke of my impressions of Michele a decade ago.”

Taibbi’s other Stillwater source, Bill Prendergast, is credited by Rolling Stone as a former local newspaper writer. It goes unmentioned that he’s currently a blogger at left-leaning Daily Kos.

On the same day Taibbi’s story hit the web, The Blaze called it a “seemingly slanderous” piece that “attacks Bachmann’s faith.” Elsewhere it was called an “anti-Christian hit piece.” By tomorrow, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bachmann’s own campaign distributing photocopies of it in Iowa.

But Bremer’s greatest complaint is Rolling Stone “smearing the town of Stillwater as some whites-only, wealthy gated community that propelled Bachmann to the national scene.” And Avidor said that “the smear of Stillwater is what sticks out for me.”

“I can’t believe he ever came here,” Bremer said. Actually, he didn’t: Taibbi confirmed to me that he never set foot in Minnesota for the piece.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com.