News Story

Legacy Media, Journalism Prof Question Mystery News Site

NY Times mischaracterizes CapCon article referenced by site

The Lansing State Journal recently reported that a “political information outlet” had been discovered in Michigan creating news sites such as the Lansing Sun, Ann Arbor Times, Thumb Reporter and UP Gazette. The sites do not appear to do much original reporting, but instead aggregate information reported by other sources.

Michigan Capitol Confidential became involved in the story when the Lansing Sun essentially repeated the contents of a Michigan Capitol Confidential story on its site (with full attribution).

The State Journal report stated that Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Research, considered it odd that a Lansing Sun item described the contents of a report by Michigan Capitol Confidential on the growth of state taxpayer dollars dedicated to the Michigan transportation budget.

According to the story in the Lansing State Journal, the Lansing Sun posted stories with a “conservative political bent.” The article also quoted Rachel Davis Mersey, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism whose title is executive director of the Media Leadership Center.

Mersey referred to stories on the Lansing Sun (and potentially the Michigan Capitol Confidential story) as “information with a perspective” rather than news, calling it “advocacy journalism.”

“I think any kind of politically slanted information which people think could be from a reputable news source really compromises the quality of discourse we have in this country,” Mersey said, according to the Lansing State Journal. “It’s not fake news but it’s not exactly what we want people to be consuming either."

Mersey also said there was a place for advocacy journalism by nonprofit news agencies as long as the perspective of the news operation was fully transparent.

The Michigan Capitol Confidential report described by the Lansing Sun appeared on Sept. 10 and was titled, “Even Without 45-Cent Gas Tax Hike, Transportation Spending Up 58 Percent Since 2011”.

The report compared past transportation revenue and budget figures published by Michigan Department of Treasury with future transportation revenue projections assembled by Michigan’s legislative fiscal agencies. It included a quote from the chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee, who praised a recent statement by Michigan’s governor on then-ongoing budget negotiations.

The story reported that annual state spending on Michigan roads and other transportation programs, including local buses and transit, would reach a record $3.64 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal year. It informed readers that fiscal agency projections showed state transportation funding rising to $3.99 billion by 2021.

This article was written to fill a void in TV, radio and newspaper reporting on a transportation budget showdown then underway between Michigan’s Democratic governor and its Republican-controlled Legislature. Specifically, none of the many reports reviewed told readers how much is currently being spent on transportation and road repairs, nor about increases projected for the next two fiscal years by nonpartisan fiscal agencies.

To cite just one example, the MLive news site released a video in August about political demands to spend more to improve Michigan’s roads. MLive reporter Emily Bingham was shown warning viewers that unless some type of gas tax increase became law, “Bottom line, there’s a steep price to pay if you do nothing.”

Like many similar media reports on Michigan roads this year, this one ignored how transportation funding has been rising and is expected to reach nearly $4 billion next year, due to a combination of economic growth and road funding increases approved by previous legislatures that are gradually being phased-in. Instead, readers were told that not increasing the state gas tax was a “do nothing” approach that meant no increase in road repair funding. The Michigan Capitol Confidential piece abstracted by the Lansing Sun provided this context, which had not appeared in the Mlive or other media reports.

Ironically, The New York Times also picked up the Lansing State Journal story and mischaracterized the tone of the Michigan Capitol Confidential report.

New York Times reporter Dan Levin wrote: “So when he clicked on an advertised article about Michigan’s roads spending that criticized the state’s Democratic governor, he was curious to know whether The Sun was a new outlet serving the state capital’s 118,000 residents and political leaders.”

Here is the text of the Michigan Capitol Confidential article:

“An ongoing debate between politicians in Lansing over how to get more money for road repairs hit a reset yesterday when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer acknowledged that the votes are not there for the 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase she had been seeking.”

“State Rep. Matt Maddock praised Whitmer’s decision to pass a state budget now and put off decisions on finding more resources for road repairs. He called it ‘very wise,’ and said that the Senate and House leaders are still looking for a way to do more to improve Michigan’s roads, preferably with no tax increase.”

“'In terms of finding more funding for roads, we need to find ways within our budgets we all know exists,' Maddock said.”