2008-04-12 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

No News Is Not Good News
By George Weeks

"Thank God for newspapers."

- Columnist William Powers, National Journal magazine

Thanks, indeed, across the land - from New York, from Detroit, from northern Michigan.

William Powers, who opines on media matters for the National Journal, a Washington, D.C. publication that presents authoritative non-partisan voices on politics, writes:

"When some people first heard the news about New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and a prostitution ring, they thought: How awful, how tragic, how corrupt. When I first heard it, I thought: Thank God for newspapers."

He referred to the New York Times breaking the story that ignited "the kind of 'firestorm' that prompts breathless news junkies everywhere to burble clichés like 'firestorm' as they drool at the TV screen and click desperately from channel to channel.

"After all, TV was just following the Times, as were the bloggers and Twitterers and Diggers and Yahoos and the Googles and everyone else in the media universe."

So it was recently when the Detroit Free Press broke the story of the follies of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. Great fodder for broadcast Twitterers.

So it was in 2003 when Kalamazoo Gazette, digging into a prostitution case, led to the ouster of a local official.

So it was in 1994 when two Detroit News reporters won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering a scandal at the state House Fiscal Agency that led to convictions of four people, the downfall of a powerful lawmaker, and changed the way the legislature conducts business.

Newspapers, of course, sometimes get a tut-tut in the media universe. So it was when the York Times in February implied that John McCain years earlier had too cozy a relationship with a much younger, attractive female lobbyist. Newsweek's Howard Fineman called it a "salacious story thinly and anonymously sourced."

Nonetheless, as noted by Powers in the National Journal: "For the real thing, the stuff that outs corruption and hypocrisy, revealing the powerful for who they really are and shaking things up in the most immediate, consequential ways - in short, the scandals that are truly scandalous - nobody can touch newspapers. Where would we be without them?"

After reading the National Journal column last week, I called the Michigan Press Association (MPA) for examples of outstate newspapers shaking things up.

"Number One- Traverse City [Record-Eagle]," said MPA Public Affairs Manager Lisa McGraw, citing coverage of campaign finance issues that made it a runner-up to the Free Press for top honors last year.

The outing of questionable practices and policies is not limited to daily newspapers. When the Michigan Department of Transportation tried a takeover of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, the fuss raised by The St. Ignace News was instrumental in Governor Jennifer Granholm putting an end to the move.

Across Michigan, newspapers large and small are effectively using two important tools to bring the bright light of public scrutiny on public officials and employees at all levels of government - the Open Meetings Act (OMA) and the Freedom of Information Act.

"The public has a right to hear your comments or your deliberations toward a decision that's ultimately made," Detroit attorney John Gillooly told about 30 municipal leaders from the Eastern Upper Peninsula at a recent St. Ignace meeting about OMA. "That's it in a nutshell."

Crusader

for Transparency

Fourteen states and the federal government have Web sites that detail how taxpayer money is being spent.

Attorney General Mike Cox is blitzing the state to generate public pressure for the Track- Your-Taxes bill that would mandate a Michigan site and has been languishing in a House committee for more than 225 days.

"The House has had more than enough time to act" and "should not wait another day," Cox said last week in Traverse City. He calls the transparency bill "the OMA and FOIA of the 21st Century."

It was introduced by Representative Jack Hoogendyk (R-Kalamazoo), who has another uphill battle: He's running a long shot bid to oust Democrat Carl Levin, Michigan's longest-serving U.S. senator.

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