In Michigan, Coverage of Romney’s Speech Goes Beyond That Empty Stadium

But focus on local storylines obscures some important national angles

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.

Both the News and the Free Press complemented their speech coverage with features on the protesters outside Ford Field, many of whom were members of the union, the United Auto Workers, that Romney strongly criticized in his speech. (The MLive story noted there was a “a mobile billboard [circling] the stadium that read ‘Let DetroitRomney Go Bankrupt,’ a reference to his now-infamous 2008 editorial in the New York Times.”) The Free Press coverage also included a column by Tom Walsh, who argued that Romney overdid it with his critique of unions, while failing to rouse his audience with a countering positive message. Both of the state’s largest newspapers also noted a New York Times op-ed penned by Steven Rattner, who led President Obama’s auto task force, that was published ahead of the speech and challenged the Romney’s previous claims on the bailout. And both provided the full text of Romney’s remarks for readers who wanted a closer look.

On the whole, this was solid coverage that emphasized local angles for a local audience. Still, there were opportunities to do more. Though the speech mostly affirmed views that Romney has articulated before, with the event fixing attention on his platform, this was a chance to explore the implications of his full economic agenda.

A writer with a national audience, Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, showed one way to do that. Klein’s post broke down Romney’s proposals, pulling lengthy quotations from the speech to analyze the impact of his policies. That approach led to some insights about what Romney’s agenda means for Medicare and Social Security—topics that drew at least some coverage in the Michigan press.

But it also led to the separate point that to make his budget add up, Romney will need to effectively cut spending on Medicaid and other safety-net programs like food stamps, housing subsidies, and job training. Whether or not voters share Klein’s political preferences—and the Republicans participating in Michigan’s primary next Tuesday probably don’t—that’s a newsworthy point that went missing in the coverage here. While the local focus in Romney’s Michigan cred, and his auto industry and union views, is understandable, the real-life implications of all his policies deserve scrutiny—not just passing mention—in the state’s media.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.