MICHIGAN — Call him the perfect source.
Whether they work in newspapers, radio, or online news, Michigan political journalists rely on a single indefatigable man to sort out the increasingly byzantine relationship between money and politics. Rich Robinson is the one-man operation behind the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. He crunches numbers and mines public inspection files at local television stations across the state. He does the legwork that time-strapped reporters don’t always have resources to do, particularly in a state that doesn’t make it easy to find information: Michigan gets a failing grade for transparency. Journalists seek Robinson out for both their reporting—some of which is better than others—and their behind-the-scenes education on who’s spending money in Michigan, and why.
“My land, he’s an incredible source!” exclaimed Lester Graham, who covers the investigations and accountability beat for Michigan Radio, when I reached out to him to ask about Robinson. Graham planned nine or 10 interviews with Robinson as part of his 2012 political coverage, and he seems likely to blow past that number. He has done eight already, including a strong piece on secretive spending on political ads for which Graham took a week-long road trip with Robinson, so that he could see what his source was seeing in the raw data.
Most of Graham’s segments with Robinson verge on eight minutes, which “on radio is really long,” he said. “The more I know this guy, the bigger fan I am,” Graham added. “He’s incredibly careful about his conclusions. He’s never given me any reason not to trust him.”
It’s a trust that Robinson had to earn. He’s driven by a desire to tell the public about the “investments” that big donors make in the political process, and from the time he started digging, “I realized that [journalists] have a readership that is much broader than mine, so it makes sense to work with them as much as possible.”
But it took time to build credibility with reporters—in part, he says, because it can be hard to believe the amount of political money that flows through untrackable channels. “But over time, (reporters) understood that this was for real.”
Today, he’s a fixture of campaign-finance and accountability coverage in Michigan. Earlier this month, the Detroit Free Press and MLive.com relied on an MCFN report that showed that neither presidential campaign committee has spent a cent in Michigan since the Republican primary—but “independent groups” put up $6.4 million on “issue ads,” most denigrating President Obama. (The Free Press smartly caught that Crossroads USA announced a further $2.1 million ad-buy in Michigan just after the report was released.) The Detroit News called for tougher campaign finance laws in a recent editorial that cited Robinson’s numbers. An Associated Press story that appeared in Crain’s Detroit Business and on the websites of public radio stations WGVU and WNMU highlighted MCFN’s questioning of fundraising by lame-duck politicians. National journalists, too, are discovering Robinson as a solid source, as in a July 12 Mother Jones piece about a less-than-transparent group called the Michigan Alliance for Prosperity.
“Rich is by far one of the most helpful professional sources I’ve come across,” said Ian Kullgren, a young reporter with the Kalamazoo Gazette and MLive who has been drawing on Robinson’s expertise for about a year, including on a story about anonymous donors paying residents to gather signatures for ballot initiatives. Robinson showed Kullgren how to navigate certain government sites and access the documents he wanted.
“He knows more about campaign finance than anyone I know,” added Kullgren. “I use him both as an on-the-record source, but he’s also a great source to just call up and say, ‘Here’s what I found, and what this other source said: what do you think? Am I barking up the wrong tree? Am I missing something?’ ”
Robinson first got involved in campaign finance when, he said, he started trying “to get my arms around what happened” with the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore ruling. He became executive director of MCFN, which then existed “in a nascent state,” in 2001. He has since followed the ways in which a series of new laws and Supreme Court decisions—not just Citizens United, but also the 2007 Wisconsin Right to Life case—paved the way for huge amounts of anonymous donations to influence the information that reaches voters during a campaign.