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.)
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.”