Journalism

Michigan campaign coverage scorecard: The good, the bad and the silly

Pre-election political reporting varies from inspired to insipid and from public-minded to self-indulgent. In other words, it resembles some candidates.

In this season of subjective judgments, here are one reader’s votes for campaign coverage at both ends of the spectrum. They report, I decide.

  • Public Service Award: Bridge magazine, an in-depth news and analysis site launched in September 2011 by the Center for Michigan, presents a “Ballot Mania” guide to the six statewide proposals that’s the clearest, most useful resource of its type. One click for each prop delivers straightforward details we need: What would a “yes” vote mean? What would a “no” vote mean? Why did this reach the ballot? What do “Truth Squad” fact-checkers say about each side’s ads?
    MLive earns a runner-up Public Service Award for an impressive six-week Michigan Decides series on the proposals, with 48 pieces that include articles, guest commentaries, editorials and reader polls. The in-depth presentations can inform readers willing to dive deep, though a three-page index may intimidate those tuning in late and seeking a handy guide.
  • Enterprise Reporting Award: The Detroit Free Press has poked aggressively into the background of Oakland congressional candidate Kerry Bentivolio, an unconventional Republican who rebuffs media inquiries and even election guide questionnaires.

    Kathleen Gray

    Columbia Journalism Review recognized the paper’s impact in a Oct. 17 article by local contributor Anna Clark: “Among local journalists, Kathleen Gray, the Free Press staff writer, has done the most impressive and enterprising reporting. In late August, she used Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act to obtain Bentivolio’s teaching records and delivered an investigation that revealed how, just months before the GOP primary, Bentivolio was forced out of his high school teaching position after allegedly bullying students. . . . Stephen Henderson, the paper’s editorial page editor, contributed a sharp commentary that put the investigation in the context of Bentivolio’s hide-and-seek campaign and his responsibilities to his prospective constituency.” An Oct. 14 feature by Gray “took a similar approach, digging up court records and interviewing Bentivolio’s old acquaintances,” CJR adds.

  • Reader Engagement Honor:  Rick Haglund, a dean of Michigan business columnists, chose a smart time to revisit Mitt Romney’s 2008 commentary in The New York Times – the one with a stark, haunting headline: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” Haglund considered the essay “in a new light” Oct. 27 at MLive and showed why it “isn’t as jarring as it seemed four years ago.” Within half a day, comments totaled 237 as a largely substantive, respectful discussion ensued. Nearly 90 more views were added by the next day.
  • Comment Disciplinarian Crown: Jen Eyer, community engagement director for the statewide MLive News Group, cracks the whip because “political arguments . . . are increasing in intensity.” In an effort “to create a place where people who are genuinely interested in discussing political issues civilly can do so in a constructive environment,” she draws clear boundaries. “Unless you are commenting on a story about German history, please avoid Nazi references,” she wrote. “To compare any current political party to one that murdered six million people on the basis of their religion is highly offensive.”Also: “If we notice that a user’s comment history is nothing more than blanket attacks on one segment of the population, we will likely take measures to intervene.”
  • Campus Journalism Hat Tip: As a long-ago managing editor of The Daily Orange at Syracuse University, I admire professional-quality student journalism. A multimedia election feature this week by The State News at MSU definitely qualifies. Three staffers spoke with 10 students who’ll cast their first presidential votes. Extra credit for this catchy presentation at right.

Really? Yes they did . . .

  • Trivial Pursuit: MLive, the same crew that generated six weeks’ worth of comprehensive looks at state ballot proposals, stumbled with frivolous reader questions. Six hours before the final presidential campaign debate, a poll asked if readers would watch that or the Lions-Bears game. It drew 364 votes (68 percent planned to watch just football) and nine comments. Including two calling the president a liar and one saying the same about his challenger. A sage named Brent added a voice of reason:  “Thank God for DVRs. Now we can watch both.” An Oct. 17 poll drew far fewer responses (141 votes, seven comments) to a question about whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney “has the best plan to help a city like Detroit.” (Maybe readers couldn’t picture what city is like Detroit.)
  • Odd ‘Polls,’ Cont.: At Michigan Patch’s network of 29 daily news sites, editors use an online survey tool for opinion roundups from “influentials” in each party. ” These electronic focus groups or discussion forums are labeled as polls and flash surveys, with a disclaimer that they’re “not a scientific random sample of any larger population, but rather an effort to listen to influential local Republican and Democratic activists, party leaders and elected officials in Michigan.” Headlines confirm no-surprise outcomes: “Influential Michigan Democrats Say Obama’s Auto Bailout Will Resonate at Polls” and “Who Won the Debate? Red Mitten Members [Republicans] Say Romney.”
  • Frank Beckmann

    Playground Taunt: WJR weekday host Frank Beckmann, writing in his Detroit News column Oct. 1, defended Oakland County Executive L. Brooks’ Patterson against “insensitive and selfish” statements by his Nov. 6 opponent and the Democratic county chair. Their “effort to use Patterson’s recovery from serious [car crash] injuries for political advantage, represents a new low in local politics,” Beckmann wrote, “even for a party whose former Oakland County chairman was convicted of perjury and election fraud just last year.” The gratuitous reference is to Mike McGuinness, who pleaded no contest last October in a case involving attempts to add fake Tea party candidates to 2010 county commission and state legislative ballots to dilute the Republican vote.

  • Swallowing the Bait: If these awards and demerits were for campaign coups, Patterson would win Master Media Manipulator by default.  Exactly a week before Election Day, Oakland County’s top official staged a comeback photo op and spoke to reporters  Tuesday (Oct. 30) after nearly three months of hospitalization and rehab following a car wreck. That’s worth coverage, and he got it from three papers, all three local newscasts and other outlets. Actually, the candidate for a sixth term as Oakland County’s top official earned several days of timely attention. An orchestrated drumbeat began with articles based on Oct. 26 and Oct. 29 releases announcing his return. The Oakland Press, The Detroit News, MLive and WDIV’s used this handout quote: “I’m looking forward to getting back behind my desk where I can work on county business firsthand.” Advance articles also ran in the Detroit Free Press (Friday, Monday and Tuesday morning), Detroit News (Friday and Tuesday morning), Daily Tribune in Royal Oak, Observer & Eccentric biweeklies, Patch sites and on Fox2 News’ website. Press conference dispatches were in The News, Free Press, Oakland Press, Crain’s Detroit Business, MLive, Patch and aired on WDIV, Fox2 News and WXYZ. Charlie Crumm of The Oakland Press wrote 22 paragraphs, shot video and quoted Patterson’s daughter Mary as urging voters to “give him back his job.” A candidate couldn’t ask for more obedient fawning.

Your turn: Who else merits praise or a poke?

[ This post was published at the Deadline Detroit news site Oct. 31, 2012. ]

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