The largest newspaper in Minnesota is trying to distance itself from a disastrously tone-deaf column that scolded a female news anchor for her outfit amid one of the state’s biggest and most tragic stories of the past 30 years.
KARE11 news anchor Jana Shortal dedicated her program on Tuesday to the case of Jacob Wetterling, whose killer had just confessed to the 1989 murder and revealed the location of the 11-year-old’s remains.
Wetterling’s disappearance was a long-standing mystery in Minnesota, and the killer’s confession is a major story, to say the least. But to Cheryl Johnson, a Star Tribune columnist who writes for the Minnesota newspaper under the name C.J., the real headline was Shortal’s supposedly inappropriate choice of pants.
In Johnson’s column Wednesday night, she slammed Shortal for wearing skinny jeans and accused her of prioritizing “hipness” over “one of the biggest, saddest stories in Minnesota history.”
“She looked great from the waist up in a polka-dot shirt and cool blazer, but the skinny jeans did not work,” Johnson wrote. “I was among a number of media types who found them inappropriate and, given the gravity of the day’s subject matter, downright jarring.”
Media outlets, and even Star Tribune employees, called Johnson’s piece inappropriate and deeply ironic, given that she was accusing Shortal of disrespecting an important story by caring too much about fashion.
In a statement, Shortal called the columnist ― who has a history of obsessing over women’s appearances in media ― a “bully with the keyboard who took this night, this story, and made [it] into gossip about my pants.”
The Star Tribune several hours later apologized for the op-end (and to Shortal) and has since scrubbed the offending entry from its website.
Shortal accepted the paper’s apology, but explained in her statement the pain of having Johnson’s column divert attention from a story Shortal has cared about for years.
“I went on the air,” she wrote. “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.”
Johnson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The column was particularly offensive given the importance of the Wetterling case to an entire generation of Minnesotans.
“This case was the most talked-about cold case in Minnesota history,” Shortal told The Huffington Post on Thursday. “It’s the one case everyone wanted to see solved in their lifetime. And after 27 years, a lot of people were wondering if that would ever happen.”
“That case robbed small-town Minnesota of its innocence in a way I’ve never seen,” she went on. “People kept their porch lights on for 27 years, because that was the universal symbol to Jacob that he could come home.”
The columnist is a "bully with the keyboard who took this night, this story, and made [it] into gossip about my pants.” Jana Shortal, KARE11 News
University of Maryland Professor Jo Paoletti, who studies the history of fashion, said Johnson’s now-deleted column showed a stubborn adherence to gender and fashion norms that haven’t been relevant since the 1960s.
“Has anyone ever complained about a male anchor wearing too bright a tie when he’s reporting sad news?” Paoletti said. “For women, it’s always ‘They’re too dowdy, they’re too masculine, they’re too sexy.’ They’re always ‘too’ something.”
Paoletti said the “enforcers” of these expectations are often other women, and that “women really dress to please other women, to avoid that critique.”
But the fact that “anchorpeople tend to be kind of generic-looking” is no justification for criticizing someone with a more unique style, she noted.
“The irony of the op-ed is that [Johnson] said ‘The way she looks is trivializing the story,’” Paoletti said. “But no. The way you’re writing is trivializing it.”