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Rob Port, North Dakota’s media firebrand, knows how to change the conversation

In November 2015, Rob Port was on a family trip to Fargo when he took a call from the office of one of North Dakota's most powerful men. Port is the 37-year old firebrand behind Say Anything -- the state's "most popular and influential political ...

Rob Port in his Minot home, sitting at the desk from which he runs his blog and makes regular radio broadcasts. Sam Easter / Forum News Service
Rob Port in his Minot home, sitting at the desk from which he runs his blog and makes regular radio broadcasts. Sam Easter / Forum News Service

In November 2015, Rob Port was on a family trip to Fargo when he took a call from the office of one of North Dakota’s most powerful men.

Port is the 37-year old firebrand behind Say Anything -- the state’s “most popular and influential political blog,” its Google search result claims -- and that call lived up to the tagline. Doug Burgum was weighing a decision to run for governor , and once Port had arrived at his office, he asked for the blogger’s advice.

“He asked me if he could beat (Attorney General Wayne) Stenehjem,” Port recalled in a June interview in his home. “I told him it would cost a lot of money. I said, ‘Stenehjem is a guy who’s been winning elections in North Dakota for a long time, he’s got a ton of name recognition statewide. You’re going to have to build that, and you’re going to have to build a bridge into western North Dakota.’ Apparently he did, because he won in a landslide.”

Ten years ago, Port was a store manager at Minot’s Home of Economy. Now he has the ear of North Dakota’s most powerful, and claims a constellation of well-placed sources. As a senior legislator scolded a group of lawmakers for sharing information with him, Port says he heard about it, in text messages, as it happened.

A self-described “conservatively libertarian” writer, he’s called Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s reluctance to announce her 2018 electoral intentions “phony as hell.” In another, he chides liberal outcry over President Donald Trump, linking liberal “hysteria” to immigrants’ fear, and thus flight, from the U.S. He’s also broke big stories, like the state tax collector’s struggles with alcohol.

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Port writes columns for Forum Communications Co. , which owns publications in North Dakota and beyond -- including the Grand Forks Herald and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He anchors regular FCC radio broadcasts , and his blog is now hosted on FCC’s AreaVoices platform.

His work has won him critics. By some, Port is seen as an interloper -- rushing to conclusions and commentary that a trained, more even-keeled journalist would avoid.

Bill Marcil Jr., publisher of The Forum and president and CEO of Forum Communications, comes to Port’s defense, calling him “misunderstood,” “humble,” and “respectful.”

“He has embraced new media and the traditional and has risen above any criticism that has come his way,” Marcil said. “I am proud we have his voice on our platforms."

Alaska-born, North Dakota-raised Port, his wife, Jessica, and their three children live in his parents’ home, which the family rents while the elder Ports have moved to Arizona. He runs his blog and makes radio appearances from a desk tucked into a corner in the front room, near New York Yankees posters and a model of the leg-lamp from “A Christmas Story.”

Port was born in Anchorage, Alaska, and grew up in nearby Wasilla, a town of less than 10,000. It’s where Sarah Palin, former Republican vice presidential candidate, began her political career. Port’s mother was a clerk at City Hall, and Palin was a local girl who played basketball with one of Port’s four older sisters. The families keep in touch.

Rollie Port, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, was an Alaska state trooper during his son’s early childhood. After he accepted a buyout in the late 1980s and Carol’s family ties in the area brought them to Minot, Rollie began a private investigation firm.

As an Alaska boy, Port was befuddled by common things in the lower 48, like sidewalks -- “They had, like, little paved roads next to the roads that people walk on,” he said -- and remembers the first time he heard tornado sirens.

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“All my friends were like, ‘Oh, a tornado’s coming.’ And I thought they were putting one over on the new kid,” he said. “I thought tornadoes were something they made up in the Wizard of Oz. (I had) volcanoes and earthquakes in Alaska, but never heard of a tornado.”

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Rob Port holds Cooper, 1, while his wife, Jessica, looks on. (Herald photo/Sam Easter)

Meanwhile, Port’s political beliefs were beginning to coalesce. His uncle dropped off a set of Robert Heinlein science fiction books, and “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” captivated him. It takes place in 2075, when the moon is overseen by the harsh rule of Earth -- until the lunar society rebels. A teenage Port saw the same themes that another boy, more interested in westerns, might see in a settlers of the Old West railing against the overreach of the U.S. government.

Port graduated from Minot High School and attended NDSU before leaving after a year, unhappy, aimless and racking up college debt. He joined his father’s private investigation business in 2000. He gained his “thick skin,” he said, serving foreclosure and divorce papers.

In 2007, he left his father’s firm to work as a manager at Minot’s Home of Economy -- the last job he held before making the leap, in 2010, to full-time media man.

Port launched his blog in 2003 , and his media career has built momentum ever since. In 2010, he began work in a media venture with radio host Scott Hennen, which Port said lasted until it ran out of money.

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Starting in 2013, Port produced pieces for Watchdog.org, published by the conservative-leaning Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Critics see a donor-driven attempt to boost conservative viewpoints around the country. Port says it’s just like a left-leaning magazine hiring its own writers. He left in 2015, when falling revenues forced the group to cut him loose.

All the time, Port’s prominence grew. He was among the first to report former Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley’s extra-marital affair , and speaks proudly of spooking the state Legislature with a request for public information.

“I know there’s things that happen in committee meetings, and it’s on the blog 15 minutes later. He’s very well connected,” said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson. “Who those people are that he’s connected with, I can’t tell you.”

He’s well-known on the left of the aisle, too. House Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, has been ridiculed on Say Anything for his “twee hipster aesthetic” and his criticism of Republican budget maneuvers, but said he doesn’t read Port’s blog -- preferring hard news to opinion.

“His mom was my Sunday school teacher when I lived in Minot, but that’s about as much as I know about Rob,” Mock said. He said he’s curious about how Port writes. “The relationship he has with policy makers and political leaders is fascinating, but I can’t put a finger on where that relationship is.”

Gov. Burgum’s staff said he was unavailable for comment, and the office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. -- one of Port’s frequent political punching bags -- said she was unavailable, as well. Port says Heitkamp is a good senator, but tied to a party aligned against North Dakota’s interests.

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President Donald Trump is a “little bit of an a--hole,” Port said, but his policy moves today are good for North Dakota’s future. He says he prefers to focus on state government -- why be the last in line to write about Trump, when he can be the first to write about Gov. Burgum?

Port claims he’s no provocateur, distancing himself from commentators like Ann Coulter. Her apparent habit of taking positions for effect, he said, offers little value to her audience. But at the same time, he looks for fresh angles to keep his work interesting.

“Just as a strategy, I mean, to make the content, you’ve got to give people something new. It’s a crowded landscape,” Port said. “People putting opinions and stuff on the internet, that’s limited demand and almost unlimited supply.”

Asked about the tension here -- he’s no provocateur, but he’s fishing for an audience? -- Port brought up the case of Kirk Ludwig, who was pilloried in a 2015 viral social media post after taking photos near Fargo’s Island Park pool.

Port marveled at how quickly the internet mob had written him off as a pervert before they’d seen his photos and before he’d been formally accused of anything. Ludwig is a professional photographer, and a police review of his camera found no evidence of wrongdoing .

“Everything I write comes from me,” Port said. “I don’t posture, but I definitely think there sometimes can be a little bit of groupthink. I think it’s my role to say ‘No, there’s another way to look at this.’ I think that adds value.”

‘He has an agenda’ Port joined Forum Communications Company at a time of great change in journalism. Traditional, mainstream media viewership is being splintered by the internet and political polarization while newspapers are feeling the pinch of declining ad revenues.

Sarah Cavanah, an assistant professor of journalism at UND, said Port’s style is at the vanguard of a point-of-view journalism in North Dakota that’s becoming prominent around the country.

“It’s different. It’s not necessarily bad,” she said of the style -- stressing that she’s not an expert on Say Anything in particular. “It seems like (Port) was part of the beginning of that, so he’s probably the forerunner of a lot of different people who are going be popping up.”

Jack Zaleski, the recently-retired editorial page editor for the Fargo Forum , sees Port as untrained and irresponsible, his current employment a “symptom” of a move toward faster-paced, shoddier internet journalism.

“I don’t know if his primary purpose is to get to the truth or to get some investigative stuff, or if it’s to be a provocateur or generate traffic,” he said. “Rob does what he does and he does it well, but he has an agenda. ... (He) seems to be selective in what he uses, and if it fits his narrative, fits his agenda, he’ll use it -- if it doesn’t, he won’t.”

If Port hasn’t heard these criticisms before, he’s heard something like it. Some North Dakota reporters don’t consider him a “real journalist,” he said, and his response is twofold: not only does he see himself as a commentator, but he questions the idea of objectivity.

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Rob Port in his Minot home, sitting at the desk where he runs his blog and makes radio broadcasts. (Herald photo/Sam Easter)

“You’re writing stuff down there, you’re not going to quote me (in my entirety) in this story,” he told a Forum News Service reporter. “You’re going to pick things that I say to put into the story. ... and you’re making those judgments in pursuit of what you think is the fullest, most true portrayal of this story, right? (But) those are still judgments, and those are still colored by your biases.”

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Mike Jacobs is the retired publisher and editor of the Grand Forks Herald. He sees Port as more responsible than Zaleski does, though he stresses that audiences should remember Port’s point of view.

“I guess that I would be more comfortable if newspapers were still in the position that we were in, say, 1984. But we’re not,” Jacobs said. He appealed to readers to understand the journalism they’re consuming -- what is its point of view? “If we maintain that level of sophistication and understanding and insight...then I think Rob Port is a very important and meaningful part of the media landscape. In quite sharp contrast, I want to emphasize, to a lot of the talking heads.”

Korrie Wenzel, the Herald’s current publisher, is also more amenable to Port’s work. He describes Port’s right-leaning views as a ballast to some of the paper’s left-leaning commentary.

“I get complaints about Rob Port, that he’s one-sided, and my response is always ‘That’s the idea,’” Wenzel said. “He states clearly where he stands on his issues, and it’s his opinion. And we run him on the opinion page.”

The Rob Report When a Forum News Service reporter visited his home, Port’s radio broadcast was about Fargo’s Woodrow Wilson High School and a push to rename it -- perhaps after someone who wasn’t a segregationist.

Watching Port shift from a conversational interview into a high-energy radio show host , it was easy to watch him put on the costume, so to speak, that every live media personality dons before taking the air. His voice rose and fell with confidence; his glasses reflected the light of the computer in front of him. Sometimes, he’d talk with his hands, nose right up to his microphone.

And then, at the end of his broadcast, Port signed off.

“Thanks for listening,” he said, introducing the next host and and plugging his blog. “We’ll talk again.”

Related Topics: NORTH DAKOTA
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