Pushing back, making connections

Michigan political reporters have a job to do

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.

Spangler’s reportorial wish-list also includes more staff time and money to pursue investigations that may not have clear stories waiting at the end of them: using computer-driven research to pore over Romney’s tax return, for example, or Obama’s campaign finance reports and see “who’s linked to what, who’s getting what.”

About those polls: the surveys are increasingly expensive, but when news organizations commission them, they know they’re guaranteed at least one front-page story, Spangler said. But if one or more reporters spend a month doing nothing but tracking, say, candidate connections to corporate investments, their editors don’t know if there will be a story in it at all. It’s a big risk for news organizations to take, even though the most revelatory stories emerge that way.

“It’d be great to have the people to do that (kind of reporting),” Spangler said. “But very few organizations in the country can really do it. Here in Washington, you have Politico and the Post, and even they are limited. If you’re a political junkie, you read Politico constantly because they hit every blurb, but they don’t always make the links to bigger stories. Even the [New York]) Times has to make hard decisions on where to spend their resources. So you can imagine how the Free Press does too.”

Because of that risk, reporters that do pursue open-ended investigations might feel pressured to inflate a story beyond its significance in order to justify the expense. But, Spangler said, “it’s the reporter’s job, and the editor’s job, to be honest about what you’ve got and not to overblow it, even though there’s always pressure there to get the biggest bang for your buck.”

The economy, and beyond

Spangler is particularly interested in how Obama’s portrayal of the government loans to the auto industry will play with Michigan voters. When I spoke with him during the week that Romney began to argue that he deserves a share of the creditfor the revival of the auto industry, Spangler said that he is “relatively certain” that Romney will put a lot of campaign resources into Michigan—“if nothing else than to force Obama to spend money there.”

But while the campaign coverage is likely to focus on the auto bailout loans and other economic priorities, Pluta said he worries about other issues being crowded out. He knows his listeners want the crucial news about jobs and recovery, Pluta said, but they also will be uniquely impacted by presidential policies on agriculture and the environment, particularly the Asian carp, a destructive invasive species in the Great Lakes. In past elections, news organizations put together packages that had a comparative focus on candidate stances on a range of issues. But “in 2008, 2010, and in 2012, it’s been all the economy, all the time,” Pluta said.

How ordinary people and checking the rhetoric go together

There was a common theme in every conversation I had: trying to connect the sometimes abstract or impenetrable world of politics to regular readers and listeners. “What’s frustrating to readers, said Jeff Taylor, political senior managing editor of the Free Press, “is when they don’t have the kind of real public dialogue with candidates … getting past that is at the core of our job.”

Schultz said she tries to push her coverage “beyond the news of the days” by connecting national stories with local voices—a tactic that, she said, helps “humanize the story” and go beyond “the policy discussion and rhetoric.” And Spangler said that if he had the resources, he’d do more traveling, talking to voters in the Upper Peninsula, say, and Battle Creek, to see how policies are impacting their lives.

Klinefelter works, almost literally, to create that dialogue. He said he likes to take what candidates and politicians say and put it before “real-life people.”

“Because of how TV works, people will be interviewed with the light and camera and be thinking ‘I’m on TV’ … they change totally,” he said. “But I come up to the same person with my little [radio] mic, and it’s a totally different thing. I get really honest, interesting opinions on, for example, if a foreclosure policy will really be helpful to them.”

Those efforts don’t just make the news more accessible; they also help journalists hold politicians accountable and keep the debate honest.

Schultz warned against falling into the “he said, she said” trap. “When on deadline, it’s easy to get reaction from the other side in response to a political attack or negative ad, but it takes more time to dig into the issue, (and) research the record and facts,” she said.

Analytical research is often essential to factchecking, of course. But as attacks become “more vicious and more shallow,” attention to the lives of ordinary people can also help journalists cut through the political war of words, Pluta said.

“One thing journalism does okay at is to immediately turn attacks around,” Pluta said. “Good journalists will, after a week or so, step back and say, ‘let’s examine this.’ They get beyond the rhetoric on, say, working moms, and look at how a candidate’s policies will impact the real lives of working moms.”

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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.