On the Trail of Maddow’s Michigan ‘Scoop’

The MSNBC host botched the story in important ways. She should still stay on it

MICHIGAN — A big story is unfolding here in Michigan, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last week professed to have the “scoop”—but she has gotten plenty of pushback for how she presented it, from Republican lawmakers, liberal bloggers, and folks in-between. In exploring that dissent and tracing the anatomy of the “scoop,” I’ve seen that many of the criticisms were valid: Maddow and her team botched the story in important ways, and that mishandling made it easy for detractors to dismiss her claims outright.

At the same time, she was on to something—and her attention to the story highlights the different approaches of national and local media, and the importance of both insider and outsider eyes on state government.

Here’s a recap, as brief as it can be given the wonkiness of the material: Maddow’s April 5 show closed with a 16-minute segment about the controversy over the “immediate effect” rule in the Michigan legislature. As she explained, Michigan’s constitution holds that newly-passed laws do not take effect until 90 days after the legislative session ends—but that, with a two-thirds supermajority in each house of the legislature, new laws can be put into “immediate effect.”

And, with Republicans dominating Michigan government since landslide wins in the 2010 elections, bills are going into “immediate effect” at a quick clip. The GOP-controlled legislature has passed 556 bills since January 2011, Maddow reported (citing the Michigan Democratic Caucus), and 546 were passed under “immediate effect.” She spotlighted contentious measures made into law under this process, like the one that gives emergency managers unprecedented powers over financially struggling cities and school districts (which Maddow has reported on many times before) and suggested that, with new voter-registration laws being considered, the practice could “become a factor in 2012 race.”

But the real fireworks in Maddow’s report came when she showed video of a law being granted “immediate effect” in the Michigan House. Though Republicans have a large majority, they don’t control the two-thirds they need if Democrats unite to oppose “immediate effect.” And the footage makes it plain that there is no way any serious count of votes is happening: rather, “immediate effect” is gaveled through, despite Democrats’ audible requests for a roll call vote. It is for this practice—not recognizing requests for a recorded roll call vote on “immediate effect” motions—that House Democrats recently sued the Republican majority. Maddow Show producer Laura Conaway told me in an email that she was tipped to the story in the first place when a “blog I follow called Eclectablog.com wrote about the Democrats asking for record roll call votes.” (This may be the post she’s referring to.)

Maddow interpreted this corner-cutting as a radical—even revolutionary—diminution of voting rights in Michigan. “This is new in Michigan governance,” she declared, later adding that, “Michigan Republicans are using what’s supposed to be an emergency provision for everything.”

The problem is that widespread use of “immediate effect” is hardly “new in Michigan governance.” As Republicans were quick to point out, and the Detroit News’s Chad Livengood reported the day after Maddow’s initial segment, it is “a maneuver the Dems regularly used when they were in power.” More from the News:

Maddow implied that Republicans have been trampling on the constitution by using immediate effect so frequently, without noting the Democrats’ regular use of the procedure during Gov. Granholm’s tenure.

On Friday, Republican House staff members totaled up Democrats’ use of the procedure in the last legislative session and released the numbers to the media.

Those numbers? Of the 761 bills passed when the Democrats had control of the House, 744 had “immediate effect.” Ari B. Adler, press secretary for Michigan’s GOP Speaker of the House, confirmed these numbers for me, and added that only two of those bills had recorded roll call votes.

Also Friday, the The Rachel Maddow Show added the “Democrats did it, too” numbers, and a link to Livengood’s story, to its blog. And in an on-air update on Monday Maddow conceded that she:

should have made clear in our initial reporting, that both Democrats and Republicans in Michigan have passed lots of legislation by “immediate effect.” Republicans are not doing this more frequently than Democrats did when the legislature had Democratic control. Both sides have done this.

So the idea that widespread use of “immediate effect” is new is just not true. But that gets to the next part of Maddow’s scoop— House Republicans apparently ignoring requests for a roll call vote to determine if they had mustered the constitutionally required two-thirds majority. It seems clear that they were ignoring Democrats’ objections. But that raises another question: it’s rare that one party controls so large a bloc, so how was immediate effect used so often in the past? And in light of the GOP’s aggressively conservative agenda, why didn’t Democrats object before now?

I called Rick Pluta, managing editor and state Capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network. Pluta, who has covered the Statehouse for 25 years, added some important additional context, which the Maddow Show could have used last week.

“In the culture of the Michigan legislature—though this is more true in the Senate—there’s very much a sense that once you lost on the substance of the question, you won’t be dilatory to the majority,” Pluta said.

In other words, legislative minorities would routinely accede to “immediate effect” motions. What has changed, he added, “is a group of House Democrats has become so frustrated [with this common practice], they are going against the culture.”

Thanks to Michigan’s term limits, Pluta probably has deeper historical knowledge than anyone, including lawmakers. But two of the Democrats who are plaintiffs in the suit told me basically the same thing about practices in the legislature. The casual use of “immediate effect” is “standard,” said Rep. Richard Hammel, and “longstanding practice,” according to Rep. Steven Lindberg (who added that Maddow “essentially has her facts right, though the way she presents them is a little dramatic.”) Both men said they had not approached or been approached by the Maddow Show, though Democrats here have started citing her coverage in their fundraising emails.

(On the Republican side, meanwhile, Adler said he spoke with representatives of the Maddow Show a week before the original segment aired, and he shared with them the GOP appeal to the Democrats’ lawsuit and “everything I shared with our capital press corps here.” He spoke with them again before Maddow’s Monday follow-up.)

So what is new, in the end, is that one party, having lost out for the moment on every path to power in state government, is trying to use this constitutional provision to slow the majority’s agenda—and the majority is trying to proceed with business as usual, which means ignoring that provision.

And, actually, that’s a pretty important story about the breakdown of legislative norms, and about what happens when lawmakers try to enforce rules in the absence of those norms.

As much as Maddow overplayed her “scoop,” though, most of the media here in Michigan have underplayed it. The story hasn’t been ignored by any means—in addition to the Detroit News article mentioned above, here’s a Free Press article about the legal battle from April 5, before the first Maddow segment aired, and here’s a News piece about developments in the legal battle—but neither has it been covered in real depth, even after other national media started paying attention. Even the Lansing State Journal, located in the capital, has been using wire copy (in one case under a headline referring to a “House spat,” code for “only politics geeks could possibly care about this”).

Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, trying to make sense of the story last Saturday, wrote that, “what we really need is for some longtime Michigan reporter to weigh in.” As far as I can tell, that still hasn’t really happened. There have been plenty of blog posts (here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example) and commentary pieces, but no authoritative reported account I’ve seen that could sort this story out for someone who came to it after seeing Maddow’s show.

It’s understandable that traditional statehouse reporters might be unwilling to take on story assignments that amount to following up on a national broadcaster who has a clear political point of view—especially when they’re keenly aware of the shortcomings in her show’s reporting. Pluta, for one, sees Maddow as operating in wholly different realm than he does: “Is it her job to tell the entire story?” he said to me. “I don’t know. Or is she supposed to lead the view to a particular point of view?”

Pluta could have told Maddow that the events leading to her “scoop” reflected “an incremental advancement of a culture that’s been in place since 1963,” as much as a sudden coup. He also pointed out that back when the 90-day provision was put in place, legislative sessions were much shorter, so there was less incentive to resort to “immediate effect.” The insider knowledge that he and other Statehouse reporters, like Livengood, possess would have bolstered Maddow’s reporting.

On the other hand, the fact that legislative railroading has become standard practice for both political parties does not make it consistent with the state constitution, and just because “this is how things are done” does not make something un-newsworthy. Michigan’s courts will ultimately rule on the legality of the “immediate effect” practice. But Maddow’s position as someone who wasn’t immersed in the day-to-day “spats” of the legislature (combined, to be sure, with her politics) led her to put a sudden spotlight on an issue that may have been too endemic to be visible to insiders.

On her Monday night segment, Maddow vowed to stay on the story playing out in Michigan. I hope she does: an outsider’s eye on the state government can offer a valuable perspective on what seem to be dubious governing principles. But Maddow must bring much more skepticism and restraint to her story, and she would be wise to tap into the deep knowledge held by Michigan’s Statehouse press corps: by obscuring basic facts, she’s undermining herself.

At the same time, Michigan’s reporters should acknowledge Maddow’s influence, and provide a timely and comprehensive account of the story for those who want more depth in the wake of her broadcasts. And while it is easy—and important—to critique Maddow for her errors, Michigan’s journalists might also acknowledge where she is right: that this is a story that resonates beyond election-year politicking.

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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 www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.