united states project

Michigan’s Bad Integrity Report Card

A close look at coverage in the “Trust Us State”
March 21, 2012

MICHIGAN — It looks bleak: Michigan gets an “F” on a “corruption risk report card” released this week by the State Integrity Investigation, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International. The data for the national survey was collected by veteran reporters in every state including, here in Michigan, Chris Andrews, who was the Lansing State Journal’s political editor for 21 years. The report evaluates risk factors for political corruptibility, touching on many of the murky matters with which political reporters regularly wrangle. (Disclosure: The Integrity Investigation was funded in part by the Omidyar Network, which is also a funder of the Swing States Project.)

For example, the report gives Michigan a failing grade in “lobbying disclosure”, a “D” in “public access to information”, and an “F” in “political financing” (campaign finance laws and public’s access to related records). Among the reasons given for Michigan’s overall ranking of 43rd out of 50 states, per Andrews:

[Michigan] has major flaws in tracking money spent to elect officials and shape policy. The set of laws regulating campaign spending, lobbyist activity, and financial disclosure guarantee essentially says to the public: Mind your own business.

Surprised? “Pure Michigan”—as the state’s slogan has it— is not known, as Andrews notes, for government scandal. Indeed, he writes, even as Michigan’s campaign finance system is pocked with holes, the state still gets many things right. On the bright side:

[The state government] is not plagued by pay-to-play allegations in procurement, or by nepotism or cronyism in the civil service system. Its Freedom of Information Act usually, if not always, works to give journalists and others the information they request at a reasonable cost.

Corruption in Wayne County and Detroit—which the Detroit Free Press’s Pulitzer-winning investigative team continues to unravel—is not mirrored in Lansing, the report adds. And Gov. Rick Snyder’s recent push for transparency gives citizens greater online access to information about state spending than ever before.

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But there is no state law requiring elected officials to disclose their sources of income, assets, investments, and such. And Michigan is one of three states where legislators police themselves on conflicts of interest. Special interests and the deep-pocketed can court lawmakers and influence legislation in the dark—and they do just that.

You might have expected Michigan journalists to be among the first to nod in exasperated recognition at the investigation’s findings, and some reporters did treat the release as news. A Monday article in The Detroit News, for example, usefully sets the report in the context of failed efforts to amp up Michigan’s transparency laws, as well as a current reform push by House Democrats. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t offer much sense of what those latest reform measures might do, and it doesn’t make clear how murky campaign finance standards impede journalists in their “watchdog” capacity—a vantage point that might have been especially valuable coming from reporter Chad Livengood, who is part of the paper’s Lansing bureau.

And on Tuesday, popular Michigan Radio commentator Jack Lessenberry used the news of the report to home in on the state’s loophole-ridden campaign finance reporting system:

I have talked before about our bad joke of an abysmal system for reporting campaign finance spending, in which you can pretty much get around any disclosure requirements by producing “issue oriented ads.”

Thanks to that, over the last decade, nearly $70 million worth of campaign ads for state office didn’t have to be disclosed under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act.

(That stat, by the way, comes from the tireless Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, who outlined some of the ways the state’s weak laws create obstacles for journalists in a recent column for Dome magazine.)

Lessenberry also quoted the governor’s head of communications, who apparently said in response to the report that, “right now, legislators had ‘other things on their plate,’ than improving disclosure standards.” (Lessenberry missed the chance, though, to note that the governor himself championed greater transparency in his State of the State address a couple months ago.)

And Matt Sledge, a New York-based reporter at The Huffington Post, offered perhaps the most thorough account of what the report’s revelations mean for Michigan (though, like the Detroit News story, Sledge’s piece shorthanded the current proposals).

Elsewhere, though, coverage was thin. WWJ, a CBS affiliate in Detroit, posted a brief story online about the report, but, disappointingly, outside of the headline, the specifics on Michigan are largely unmentioned. The News-Herald of Southgate published a similarly short and specifics-free piece. The Traverse City Herald-EagleRecord-Eagle ran the broad-based AP recap and highlighted Michigan in the headline, opting out of a more local take (although a columnist did give the report a pre-release shout-out).

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.

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.