MICHIGAN — Quinn Klinefelter is a longtime news editor at WDET, the National Public Radio station in Detroit. His voice is easily recognizable, and so, apparently, is his face. Klinefelter recalls walking down a block, absorbed in his thoughts, when he passed a man he’d never met. They were several yards past each other when the man turned back and yelled, “Kill the newsman! Kill the newsman!”
“It seems,” Klinefelter said mildly, “he meant me.”
Despite that mistrust from (at least some members of) the public, Klinefelter’s work is fueled by a sense of the public good. Politics was never his first love, but he chose to make it his beat because of its sheer urgency. “A lot of decisions that are made [by politicians] are because of incredible inside pressure, and not to help the public,” Klinefelter said. “If I were to do anything as a reporter to help push back on that, I’ll be doing important work.”
It’s a sentiment shared by many journalists in Michigan, where political reporting varies from extraordinary to humdrum to disappointing. But reporters here operate in a challenging environment—not just the retrenchments and layoffs that have made the state a symbol of the shrinking newspaper industry, but also a policy context that earned the state a failing grade from the State Integrity Investigation’s “corruption risk report card,” including low marks for “lobbying disclosure” and “public access to information.” All that could make it harder for reporters to see through a thicket of obfuscation this campaign season, even as the stakes are high: in addition to state and federal House races, the most recent polls suggest the contests for president and U.S. Senate, generally thought to favor Democrats, may be narrowing.
Against that backdrop, I recently reached out to some of Michigan’s leading political reporters to ask what they’re worried about going into this campaign, what strategies they have to surmount those obstacles, and what would help them do their job better. Here’s what I heard:
Dealing with information overload—and scarcity
Rick Pluta, Michigan Radio’s state Capitol bureau chief, said that he is “completely overwhelmed with information” from dozens of political and issue campaigns shoveling emails into his inbox. “It’s convenient (when campaigns email me) because I can check it at my convenience, but it’s not very manageable,” he said. In a streamlined world, there would be fewer candidates focusing on fewer issues, “and they would be waiting by the phone the minute I call.”
In the meantime, Pluta makes sharp decisions on what to pay attention to, leaving “hundreds of other messages and calls” ignored. Particularly in February, with Michigan’s primary in the national spotlight just as Pete Hoekstra, the Republican challenger to Debbie Stabenow’s U.S. Senate seat, ran a Super Bowl commercial widely decried as racist, Pluta said his ability to prioritize stories was tested. “It’s just a work in progress for everyone,” he said.
Klinefelter said that the rise of social media presents an inviting landscape for stories to be ignited, and shared. “But those stories aren’t often factchecked,” he said. “And once the information’s out there, how do you take it back?”
And Marisa Schultz, a Detroit News reporter covering her first presidential race, said that “following the money” is her key challenge. “In addition to tracking contributions from Michigan residents and groups to campaigns and committees, it’s also challenging to keep track of spending from campaigns and outside groups, especially on advertising,” Schultz said. “It would be extremely helpful if TV stations would make ad buy information available electronically,” she added. (Under a new FCC rule, many stations will have to do just that soon, though even the electronic data is likely to be in cumbersome formats for now; see here and here for thoughts on how journalists can make the most of the new rule.)
Schultz added that she’s finding communications from political campaigns to be “fairly smooth,” if sometimes roiled in overheated rhetoric.
“On the presidential side, the campaigns have regional or Michigan-based press staff who have been helpful with responses and access,” she said. “During the peak of the Michigan primary season, there was information overload coming from the campaigns. Sometimes, responses from campaigns can be very politically-charged emailed statements. It’s hard to cut through the rhetoric to drill down to something useful.”
Deploying resources: risk and reward
Todd Spangler, the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Detroit Free Press, is covering his second full presidential campaign. He said that he would like to see “more analytical political coverage that drives deeper into the numbers, beyond the drive-by blurb of the day.”
“As a political reporter, would I like to see my newspaper do more polling? Yes. Would every political reporter in the country want their news organization to do more polling? Yes,” Spangler said.