And unless I’m missing something, that’s it—which, to me, is surprising, especially as the report echoes several themes recently present in some solid journalism here.
For example, the Detroit Free Press delivered impressive Sunshine Week coverage last week, including this piece by Jennifer Dixon that challenged state politicians to voluntarily identify donors to their nonprofits—and in the process, shed some light on how weak disclosure laws make investigations more difficult.
And a Free Press editorial on Sunday took up a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would require disclosure of political expenditures by corporations. The editorial praised the move toward greater transparency, even as it came down hard on the proposal’s exemptions for unions and individual donors—similar issues that helped doom the federal DISCLOSE Act. (The editorial acknowledges that unions must disclose their political spending to the federal government, but argues those rules are less strict than what was proposed for corporations in Michigan.) Jocelyn Benson, the law professor and former Secretary of State candidate who is leading the amendment drive, announced later that day—on the eve of the State Integrity Investigation’s release—that she was postponing the initiative and modifying it for a later ballot.
Did the Free Press editorial cause Benson to postpone the campaign? We can’t know for sure, but the timing is striking. Benson told The Associated Press, in an article that the Free Press ran, that the extra time will be used to “build our coalition, broaden our coalition, get more voices involved We want to make sure this is the best possible amendment we could have.” It is hard to imagine that the points raised in the editorial will not be part of this conversation.
The potential for real-world impact illustrates why it’s important for journalists to cover “sunshine” issues—and to do so in a way that’s timely and relevant, and that weaves disparate threads into an accessible story. And despite some individual examples of strong work, there were missed opportunities on this score.
The Benson amendment, for example, was an obvious story to integrate with coverage of the State Integrity Investigation, but the two were barely mentioned together. The Huffington Post article on the investigation did quote Benson, but devoted little space to the amendment other than a brief concluding mention that implied it is one of Michigan’s better (if far-from-guaranteed) hopes for reform. And perhaps it is. But a stronger story would have included details about the pushback leading to the postponement of the amendment drive, clarifying the hard work of reform. It also might have gotten into the specific proposals of the amendment, giving readers the tools to judge whether or not it is an apt response to the problems detailed in the integrity report’s analysis.
Likewise, the Free Press did great work in its Sunshine Week articles, but missed the chance to make a stronger connection between the transparency issues it articulated in the series, the postponed amendment drive (for which the paper mostly relied on AP material) and Michigan’s failing grade in the integrity report (of which I could find no coverage on the paper’s site). These news stories would have brought timely real-world context to the transparency limitations the paper demonstrated in its recent series, and thus given readers a fuller sense for how these issues play out. The paper also might have anticipated the patchwork way readers move through articles both in print and online, and integrated the coverage through textual references and links. Readers would have been more likely to come away with a full understanding of what is at stake.
Political spending in a state with minimal transparency standards is difficult to cover; it is, by definition, shadowy ground. But between the State Integrity Investigation’s release, the disclosure ballot initiative, and enterprising Sunshine Week coverage, reporters here had an unusual opportunity to cover this ground from several angles at once. The best examples of this work valuably shined a light on particular patches of territory. But the treatment of these stories as separate news items weakened the overall effect—and led to a missed opportunity to show what’s at stake when transparency laws are weak or nonexistent.
Correction: This post originally misidentified the newspaper in Traverse City. It is the Record-Eagle, not the Herald-Eagle. The relevant sentence has been fixed. CJR regrets the error.