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Too few media covering the Legislature


Once upon a time, newspapers and even TV stations in this state devoted intensive resources to covering Lansing. That wasn’t because nobody had heard of the Kardashians; it was because news organizations back then realized that when it comes to affecting our lives, state government really is the most important.

Federal money is passed down through the states, and the states make rules for what local governments can do. Back in the 1980s, at least one Detroit TV station had a full-time Lansing bureau, and for a time the Detroit News had thirteen reporters in Lansing.

These days, I don’t think any newspaper has more than one.

In the old days, citizens were regularly told when controversial bills were introduced, and could make their opinions known. Now, we’re lucky if we get to read a story about what the legislature has done after the fact.

This isn’t good for anyone. I am in better shape in terms of knowing what’s going on than most, because of a private news service called Gongwer, which does provide subscribers with a very detailed account of what state government is doing or about to do.

Virtually every lobbyist and special interest group subscribes to Gongwer, or its rival MIRS, the Michigan Information and Research Service. What this means is that we now have two kinds of citizens.

A large group who know very little about what is being done to them, and a small set of elites with a lot of information.

History would indicate that this is not a long-term prescription for a healthy and stable society. That’s not to say we are in anything like a revolutionary situation, but this is clearly contributing to a sense of alienation.

The lack of intense media scrutiny also fosters bad behavior in government. When the ancient Greek philosopher Plato imagined an ideal society protected by a class of guardians, Socrates supposedly said something like

“Who will watch the guardians?”

For our society, that’s always been the news media. These days, they are mostly not there. Yesterday, in a blatant power play which had nothing to do with anything the people wanted, the Republican leadership in the senate locked everybody in, stripped the minority party of their staff, and rammed through a bill outlawing straight ticket voting, killing one that would make it easier for people to vote absentee, and preventing voters from being able to overturn it.

Senator Steve Bieda, one of the chamber’s more principled members, compared this to “fascist dictatorship,” and he was right. It is hard to imagine the architects of this coup, Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and Elections Chair Dave Robertson, getting away with this had it been on live television.

Elsewhere yesterday, Gongwer interviewed Governor Snyder, and the news service reported that

“he would not say whether there was anything he had learned from the Flint water crisis.”

Thirty years ago, something that lame would have gotten any governor eviscerated by editorial cartoonists. Now, the odds are that nobody will notice.

There’s a whole lot wrong with this picture. Actually, when I think about it, what comes to mind is not Plato’s Republic, but Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. The stone really is at the bottom of the hill, and we the people really are alone.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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