The site has had some successes. Jacques, of The Detroit News, said, “CapCon is … an informative site that does break stories, despite a very small staff.” Another writer at a traditional in-state news outlet agreed, saying “they’ve broken some big stories that the traditional media has ignored.” The News’s editorial page editor, Nolan Finley, suggested that CapCon’s perspective is a plus in Michigan media: “Certainly they report with a point-of-view, but it’s a point-of-view often not otherwise represented.” (Alternatively—and humorously—a Free Press staffer told me, “I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to CapCon, at least not recently. I think The Detroit News follows them more closely than we do.”)
CapCon’s most influential reporting to date is probably its coverage of so-called “dues skimming”—an arrangement in which state-supported home-based caregivers, including parents caring for disabled children, were required to pay monthly dues to the Service Employees International Union. That was “a big story that caught the attention of the ‘mainstream’ media,” says Jacques. It’s also a story that dovetailed nicely with the Mackinac Center’s decades-long push for anti-union legislation, which is widely credited for helping to propel swift passage of a right-to-work bill during the lame duck legislature in December—a shift once deemed impossible in a state with such a rich union legacy. (I wrote about it for The American Prospect, a left-leaning magazine, in December.)
More recently, CapCon reporting provoked a large state union on a touchy issue—and in the process, revealed the benefits and limitations of CapCon’s journalistic model.
The occasion was Michigan’s 2012-13 Teacher of the Year Award, which the state bestowed on Grosse Pointe North High School science teacher Gary Abud Jr. CapCon submitted a records request to obtain Abud’s salary. (While newspaper journalists here tell me that strapped budgets limit their ability to make records requests, CapCon uses the strategy frequently, and one of its staffers is described as a “FOIA expert.” Mackinac is hosting a series of town halls this summer explaining how FOIA works.)
In a June 10 story, CapCon’s Tom Gantert revealed the salary information online, and noted that Abud, a relatively junior teacher, made less than both the state and district average. The story makes a case for merit pay, a key topic for school reform advocates (who, as I wrote recently for CJR, are experimenting with many models in Michigan). Gantert’s story also highlights a specific policy fix to what is presented as an injustice—House Bill 4625, introduced in the state legislature this spring.
The June 10 piece is no screed: the article maintains a balanced newspaper-style voice throughout. CapCon spoke with officials at Abud’s school and gave them space to explain the district’s pay structure. Abud is quoted at length, and in his first quoted comment, he de-emphasizes the importance of compensation for retaining high-quality teachers. CapCon also reached out to the Michigan Education Association, a teacher’s union, which did not respond.
Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that the story’s reason for being is less to present a debate on an issue—or even make the case for a specific policy—than it is to use a fairly innocuous news event to pump up a particular pending legislation, and to give a Mackinac wonk an opportunity to opine. The center’s education policy director is quoted as arguing that “unions and school boards have historically agreed to ignore teacher effectiveness altogether when determining salaries,” and so Michigan’s best teachers are underpaid. Though there is a tagline below the site’s logo that says CapCon is “a news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy,” there is no disclaimer about the relationship in the text, and no other experts are cited.
Gantert followed up with a June 21 story on an earlier Teacher of the Year finalist earning a comparatively low salary. Again, a Mackinac think-tanker was prominently quoted without a disclaimer, and again, HB 4625 was presented as a possible solution. (This time, the MEA provided a local education professor to argue against the bill.) A July 8 article repeated the formula, though without mentioning the bill.
The initial teacher-of-the-year story was picked up widely by education reform advocates, conservative news sites, and blogs. It also inspired an angry counter-reaction from Mackinac’s liberal-blog antagonists, and a more measured but still critical response from Abud himself. While many complaints suggested that Abud’s story had been co-opted by CapCon and school reform groups to back a policy that he doesn’t support, Abud also claimed one of his statements was misrepresented by CapCon. (Lopez, CapCon’s editor, disputes this, but a blog post Abud published, which echoes his comments to CapCon, backs up his claims.)