From Mother Jones to the National Review, aggressive point-of-view reporting has a long and often proud tradition in American media. But the teacher-of-the-year stories highlight the tensions in CapCon’s model. Lopez said the site distinguishes between news and commentary much like a traditional newspaper, but straight news is unapologetically framed in ways that are friendly to Mackinac’s policy preferences. (See also this.) The site promises “insightful analysis,” but stories recite talking points from in-house experts. There is formal balance, but often, little sign of real grappling with opposing views—a formula that works okay for muckraking, but less well for wisely hashing through policy disputes.
Also problematic is Mackinac’s—and thus, CapCon’s—lack of disclosure about its funding sources. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the center does not have to disclose its supporters, and says on its website only that it “enjoys the support of foundations, individuals, and businesses who share a concern for Michigan’s future and recognize the important role of sound ideas.” By contrast, the nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which I wrote about last month, makes a point of disclosing its financial supporters online and even makes its tax returns readily available for download, noting that these are public documents: “… as investigative journalists, we use (them) all the time to understand what organizations do. So here’s a look at us.” In contrast, various parties have attempted to bring sunlight to Mackinac’s ties—for example, this American Prospect article explores the State Policy Network, of which the center is a prominent member. But CapCon should have beat them all to the punch.
Bill Shea, the Crain’s reporter, sees CapCon filling a niche. “They obviously reflect a certain ideological point of view, and I think it’s important that statewide dialogue reflect as many of those points-of-view as possible,” he said. It’s a good point, and one CapCon embraces. “We’re not trying to… hide anything,” Lopez said when I asked about the site’s transparency norms. “We’re proud to be a product of the Mackinac Center.”
But while filling a niche and even breaking news is important, it’s not enough. The best news organizations demand transparency of others while practicing transparency themselves—particularly when it comes to funding sources and conflicts-of-interest. The best policy reporting—even reporting from a particular point of view—offers a fair-minded representation of other arguments. There’s no reason a pro-free-market news site can’t do those things consistently. Even amidst our modern media turmoil, these are journalism standards we should all be able to get behind.
Correction: This post originally identified Watchdog Wire as a publication of the Mackinac Center. It is not. CJR regrets the error.
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