MICHIGAN — On Twitter and the Web Friday afternoon, it was clear what about Mitt Romney’s address to the Detroit Economic Club had captured the attention of national political journalists: the peculiar optics of putting an audience of 1,200 in a stadium that seats 65,000. As one headline put it: “Media Fixates On Near-Empty Stadium Rather Than Romney’s Speech.”
Here in Detroit, though, the snark focused on another subject: the efforts by Romney, who grew up in Michigan as the son of a popular former governor, to present himself as a hometown boy. At Crain’s Detroit Business, coverage of the speech ran under the sardonic headline, “Detroit native tells Detroiters in Detroit how much he loves Detroit.”
The difference reflects the special attention journalists here pay to how Romney does, or does not, ally himself with the state. That’s a logical, even laudable, role for local coverage to play, but it also raises the question of whether Michigan journalists can balance the local angle with the national relevance of Romney’s policy proposals. In this case, the result was coverage that was solid but incomplete—accounts that paid more attention to substance than awkward moments, but that did not address the full scope of issues that Michigan voters care about.
The Detroit Free Press and MLive, a widely-read statewide news site, both emphasized Romney’s local identity and his comments about the state’s car-makers. The MLive headline reads, “Mitt Romney in Detroit: ‘For Michigan to be strong, the auto industry has to be growing and thriving.’” The piece emphasizes Romney’s claim that “his national economic policies would help local automakers grow jobs,” while noting that the candidate bypassed any “direct reference to the auto bailout that saved General Motors and Chrysler even as he described recent struggles of the industry.” (A benefit of MLive’s webby ways: Jonathan Oosting’s post includes links to both Romney’s tax reform plan and James Kwak’s criticism of the plan for The Atlantic.)
The lead article in the Free Press took a similar angle, under the headline, “Romney tells Economic Club: Detroit must be ‘the Motor City of the world.” The first sentence indicates that Romney was introduced as a “homegrown ‘car guy,’” and the article adds in the second graf: “Romney said it will be the auto industry that will help lead the country and Michigan out of the recession.”
The Freep article does go on to outline Romney’s tax plan, and it mentions his proposals to raise the Social Security age and create a voucher system to compete with traditional Medicare. It also quotes him saying he wants to raise the Medicare eligibility age starting in 2022—a nugget that led the Associated Press account, but was hardly mentioned in local coverage. But it crunches these details into two paragraphs, before devoting much more space to political context (Michigan is a “must-win” for Romney because “this is his hometown”) and the response from listeners.
(Incidentally, Bill Shea, the Crain’s reporter who covered the speech, pointed out on Twitter that the Obama campaign engaged in some counter-messaging, purchasing a banner ad to appear above the Free Press coverage of Romney’s speech.)
The main account in The Detroit News was something of an exception among local coverage. Stepping outside the focus on Romney’s positions on the auto industry, bailouts, and unions, reporter Marisa Schultz led with Romney’s promise to raise the values of Michigan homes if he becomes president (a point echoed in the article’s original headline, which was rewritten later in the day to highlight Romney’s more general promise of an “improved economy).
While Schultz too gives an early nod to Romney returning to “his birthplace and the origin of the American auto industry,” the emphasis on home values put Romney’s speech in the context of a larger economic story—but one that’s especially relevant in a state where foreclosures and dropping home values have been a serious problem in both urban and rural communities, and both wealthy and poor neighborhoods. It’s an interesting choice that could have been strengthened by noting how rare it is for Romney to talk about the housing crisis on the campaign trail—and that he’s opposed targeted efforts to help homeowners.