Monthly Milestone: A Different Beast

Can elected officials debate in public, and not feed a media frenzy?

Editor’s note: The monthly milestone column, which appears on the second day of each month – the anniversary of The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Sept. 2, 2008 launch – is an opportunity for either the publisher or the editor of The Chronicle to touch base with readers on topics related to this publication.

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The May meeting of the University of Michigan board of regents was remarkable for a rare display of discord. It’s the only time I can recall that this particular board has publicly voiced disagreement with the administration. It’s the only time I can remember some unscripted debate unfolding among regents on a substantive issue – the issue was a resolution recognizing the right of graduate student research assistants to unionize.


Bezonki, like The Chronicle, is a different kind of beast – he's sometimes surprised by what he reads in the newspaper. This is a preview panel from the upcoming June edition of The Chronicle's comic – a monthly nod to the time-honored tradition of the Sunday funnies. Bezonki is created by local artist Alvey Jones. (Image links to Bezonki archive.)

After the meeting, I happened to be leaving at the same time as UM president Mary Sue Coleman. As we walked down the hall together, I told her that despite the tension and clearly deep disagreement on this issue, I had found it refreshing to see an actual public debate at the meeting. It simply never happens.

Whatever disagreements exist among regents – or between regents and the administration – seem to be aired privately. When tuition rates are set, some regents will read statements of polite disagreement, before casting their votes of dissent. But most action items are approved unanimously, with little if any comment. I told Coleman that I realized the meeting had been at times uncomfortable, but that I appreciated the debate.

She gave me a withering look. “I’m sure you do,” she said, crisply.

Her pointed disdain took me aback – though I should have seen it coming. From her perspective, she’d been delivered a very public defeat on an issue she is passionate about, grounded in her personal experience. She seemed weary. But her comment also revealed a view of the media that’s more prevalent and more justified than I like to admit. It’s a view of reporters as hungering for headline-grabbing, website-traffic-sucking stories – and if the facts don’t quite deliver the juice, well, there are ways to spice up reality. There’s a reason why news gathering is sometimes called “feeding the beast.”

From that perspective, Coleman perhaps heard my remarks as the comments of someone who was hungry for more drama of regents mixing it up in front of the plebeians. Ouch.

So on my drive home from UM’s Dearborn campus – where the regents meeting was held – I thought about why the exchange had touched a nerve for me. For one, I’m dismayed that elected officials and other civic leaders are so often reluctant to hold difficult discussions in public. The board of regents is not the only body that does its business like a tightly choreographed kabuki dance. But as a journalist, I’m angered when irresponsible actions by those who earn a livelihood as part of the news media give public bodies a cheap excuse to be even more closed-off.

Keeping Deliberations in Public View: Why It Matters

Any reader who  follows The Chronicle’s editorial stance – reflected in our approach to regular coverage, our columns and these monthly milestones – is likely aware that we’re relentless in pushing for openness and transparency in local government. Frankly, it often feels like a Sisyphean task. There are many more forces pressing on public officials to conduct business out of public view than there are motivations for holding all deliberations in public. That’s nothing new. You can make arguments of efficiency, or politesse, or politics – and yes, deliberating in public can be messy.

To which I say: Too damn bad.

That’s why laws like the Michigan Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act are in place – it’s a recognition that legal constraints are sometimes the only thing powerful enough to prompt the type of behavior that citizens of a democracy require of their government.

Openness is also a matter of degree. I was disappointed when Ann Arbor District Library board members recently rejected a proposal to begin videotaping their monthly meetings for broadcast. At their May meeting, the newest AADL board member, Nancy Kaplan, brought forward a resolution to videotape meetings. But it was defeated on a 2-4 vote, with support only from Kaplan and Barbara Murphy. (Trustee Ed Surovell was absent.) It was also disappointing that no trustees spoke publicly during the meeting about their reasons for voting against it.

Those kinds of discussions – explaining the rationale for a particular vote – should happen at the board table.

As an aside, I should point out that, unlike most traditional media outlets, it’s not The Chronicle’s typical practice after a meeting to “get a quote” from public officials on which to base our meeting reports, though we will seek clarification, if necessary. Our rationale is based on the belief that the media shouldn’t need to act as an intermediary – if someone from the rank-and-file public takes the time to attend a meeting or watch it online or on cable television, that interested citizen should have access to the same information that a journalist does.

In the same way, we don’t believe the media should encourage public officials to make statements to reporters privately instead of at a public venue – where those statements can be on the record for everyone – and challenged publicly by their colleagues if they disagree. Obviously, this does not eliminate the role of investigative reporting or basic source development.

But too often, there’s an unhealthy symbiotic relationship between a reporter and a public official as an exclusive source. Readers and viewers often attach undue credibility to journalists who seem to have privileged access to key officials, so it’s in a journalist’s interest to maintain that access. The price for that access is that journalists allow quotes from those officials to frame the public narrative. Sometimes that price is paid unwittingly, simply because an inexperienced journalist lacks enough understanding, history or context for the subject matter.

But back to the library board. I was disappointed by the board’s decision not to make their meetings more accessible – both for anyone who’s interested now, but also for archival purposes. The archival angle is one that I’d think would be especially compelling to a group responsible for the stewardship of the local public library. If no audio or visual record of the meeting is made and preserved, then for someone who is not able to attend in person, the only way to experience the content of the board deliberations is through a reliance on reports from the media, or the official meeting minutes that are available a month or two later.

The argument that it’s a matter of resources doesn’t carry much weight with me – it’s actually a matter of will and priorities. And it seems clear that for AADL library trustees and for the UM regents (whose meetings are also not videotaped for subsequent public access), most members don’t believe a greater degree of public access is important.

And in fact, there’s often not much to witness at these meetings, in terms of deliberations on action items – perhaps an occasional question, though rarely one that’s very pointed or critical. For the regents in particular, who oversee the university’s massive budget and set policy with far-reaching implications, it’s remarkable how little can be gleaned from public meetings about the rationale for their decisions – even if you’re paying close attention.

So I suppose that one argument against spending any resources on videotaping these meetings is simply that there’s not much worth recording for posterity, other than the outcome of votes. And that, I think, is a more fundamental issue.

Public Deliberations: The Media’s Responsibility

While I would certainly put the onus of public deliberations in the hands of elected and appointed officials, the media has some responsibility here, too. That responsibility is to report based on a solid understanding of the subject matter.

That responsibility lies in developing a deep understanding of what’s being discussed around the board or council table, and in providing accurate context and background information so that readers can make sense of it. What prevails, though – in much of the national, regional and local news coverage I see – is parachute-style journalism. A reporter drops in on a public meeting, plucks out the most controversial aspect of the interaction, and trumpets that controversy as if that public body accomplished nothing else at their meeting.

That’s partly an artifact of the basic approach to news as “churnalism,” which puts a premium on speed, brevity and frequency. It’s more of a reporting-as-discussion-prompt approach. Alternately, it’s reporting as a delivery device for a poll. With provocative headlines and scant facts, readers are left to fill in the blanks with comments and speculation. And it’s always easier for someone to have an opinion, if a publication serves up issues as if all a reader needs to know is Choice A or Choice B. All of that drives website traffic, which brings in more ad revenue – if you’re selling ads based on page views and click-throughs. Chronicle ads aren’t sold on that basis.

Believe me, I’ve got nothing against ad revenue – bless the local businesses and organizations that support The Chronicle’s work. And bless the generous individual voluntary subscribers to our publication. But I believe the mission of a news publication should be driven something different from a desire to generate cheap page views.

Against a backdrop of marginally informed, eager-to-hype reporting, it’s no wonder that people in the public eye – even those who might otherwise have no problem with scrutiny – pull back from putting their business on the table. And for those who aren’t inclined to do their work in public in the first place, they’re provided with an easy excuse.

This results in a “governing class” in our community, where the path to making decisions isn’t clear unless you’re member of that class or in the network of someone who is. And those who actually follow public boards closely still have only a partial understanding of decision-making – because it often doesn’t happen where it should: In a public venue.

So while I think I understand Mary Sue Coleman’s reflexive reaction to my comments, I’ll still advocate for more of that kind of candid discussion between her and the regents.

At The Chronicle, we’re committed to proving there’s another way to approach the business of reporting – one that assumes readers can be intelligent, with a sufficient attention span to digest more than a sound bite. It’s an approach that treats the work of individuals and institutions we cover as worthy of our sustained attention – for longer than just the time it takes to collect a few quotes and pound out a few paragraphs.

I believe it’s possible to breed something other than a media beast. That’s why, against some daunting odds, we’re working hard to make The Ann Arbor Chronicle a different kind of creature.

About the writer: Mary Morgan is co-founder and publisher of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.

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  1. By Rod Johnson
    June 2, 2011 at 6:15 pm | permalink


    In the University’s case especially, the increasingly tight control over “messaging” is a disappointing thing to see. A university is supposed to be open, not the controlling, paranoid, hierarchical organization UM has been growing into since the Duderstadt era.

  2. By Jan Barney Newman
    June 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm | permalink

    I’m writing this from vacation in Central Europe,currently in Prague, late at night typing with my thumbs on my BlackBerry, so I apologize in advance for any typos. Your piece on public debate by governing boards of public entities, like all your posts in the Chronicle, is well written and thoughtful. Therefore I’d like to point out the reasons for my vote against video taping for Community Television the meetings of the Trustees of the Ann Arbor District Library. Our staff director of public outreach and information, Tim Grimes, expressed these at our May meeting:CTN would not be able to show the meeting live because of the conflict with the live coverage of the Ann Arbor City Council meeting at the same time. In addition, we seldom have visitors or much interest in our meetings, though our meetings are publicly posted, nor, other than Trustee Kaplan’s suggestion that we do so, has there ever been,to my knowedge, a citizen request for our meetings to be televised. As you suggest that may be because the meetings aren’t very interesting, but I contend that it’s more likely that matters relating to the library are available so many other ways more immediately and efficiently through meeting minutes posted on our frequently visited web site, our Director’s blogs, through direct responses from Library staff to questions called or emailed in, or, for heaven’s sake, in the coverage in the Chronicle, which has always been excellent. I don’t know how many Ann Arborites use CTN as their source of public information. My guess is relatively few, especially when there are many other sources on line more quicky available.
    My vote against televising ADDL meetings was because I felt our commication with the public was strong through the various means we currently employ.
    Best regards from the Czech Republic,

  3. June 2, 2011 at 6:35 pm | permalink

    Jan, I’d encourage you to rethink the videotaping. I can’t possibly go to all the meetings I’d like to go to, and it never occurred to me to ask for the meetings to be taped until I saw it raised in the Chronicle. I do sometimes watch the other meetings that are available, and I think quite a few other people do too (city council, county commission, school board). In fact, even if they were only taped and then placed on the library web site, I think that would be great–with the county meetings, you can go to the spot that you’re interested in if you only want to watch part of a meeting.

    Mary, You make a lot of great points here. One point that should be added is that the quality of the minutes that are provided to the public from many public meetings leaves a lot to be desired–both in terms of the timeliness with which they are made available, and the thoroughness/descriptions provided in the minutes. From both a public access point of view and an archival point of view, saying that “So and so moved to approve the allocation of $100,000 for x” and nothing else gives no sense of the substance of the discussion.

  4. By Marvin Face
    June 2, 2011 at 6:50 pm | permalink

    Rod, I’ll agree with everything you said with one exception: Duderstadt was not the issue. The new control-freak, paranoid organization was put in place by one Lee Bollinger. I can remember almost to the day when things changed.

  5. By Rod Johnson
    June 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm | permalink

    That’s why I said *since* the Duderstadt era. Sorry to be unclear. Jim Duderstadt may have had his faults, but he believed in free discussion.

    I don’t necessarily think the President is the instigator either–UM is no different from many other schools in this respect. It’s the climate we live in.

  6. By Rod Johnson
    June 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm | permalink

    I feel like I’m more provocative than I mean to be here. There are no black hats, just a general systemic drift that’s kind of an accumulation of a million decisions to play things safe. Society is so polarized and so confrontational (and litigious) these days that that might be wise, I dunno.

  7. June 3, 2011 at 6:21 am | permalink

    J.B. Newman’s reasons for voting against AADL board meetings being televised put the onus on the public to ask for transparency, rather than providing leadership from the board to provide it. She “doesn’t know how many Ann Arborites use CTN” and there has never been a “citizen request for our meetings to be televised”. This lack of understanding of how the public uses information sources is rather startling in a trustee for the Library, of all things.

    I’ve been so pleased and impressed with the way the City of Ann Arbor now supplies videos of the Council discussions of each resolution. It gives a fuller understanding of each issue. The DDA also has meeting videos. Many of us (including me) who do not have cable make use of these avenues for getting a sense of the atmospherics and dynamics of discussions in public bodies. Minutes, especially action minutes, which are getting to be more frequently used, convey none of that.

    So how do we convey that citizen request? Here is a modest suggestion: let the AADL conduct a survey of interest via its website. It would be nice if they would also issue a news release that they are doing so.

    Thanks to the Chronicle for its coverage of the AADL. It has put a light on this otherwise inscrutable body.

  8. By Conan Smith
    June 4, 2011 at 2:42 pm | permalink

    Mary, I deeply appreciate the Chronicle consistently challenging all of us to think critically about the extent and value of public access to the governmental decision-making process. It is an extraordinarily complex environment, especially now with the diverse communications technologies that can be employed to engage and inform the public about their governments’ actions. The Chronicle is a rare beast, however, in that its journalists AND its readers nearly always prioritize civil discourse even in the face of ardent disagreements. It is always a pleasure, then, to read your honest and thoughtful missives and the responses to them.

    In that spirit, I want to share a few thoughts about government transparency and public discourse.

    The letter of the law in the Open Meetings Act provides the most basic and fundamental protection of the public interest in a representative democracy: decisions (i.e. the votes that advance an action) are made in public with electors able to hold officials accountable for their individual votes. Our Freedom of Information Act provides a complementary basic protection in ensuring that the information generated by the government that informs those decisions or is useful in evaluating them is accessible as well to the public. These foundations are necessary but obviously insufficient parameters for public engagement in government decisions.

    The question that creates the most tension in government-public discourse is the extent to which the muddier side of the decision-making process should be public. On one extreme you have citizens who would have even policy conversations between individual elected officials subject to public scrutiny, while on the other (as in the UM Regents’ case above) you have policy makers who feel only the recording of the vote is necessary.

    Neither extreme creates an environment for making good public policy. At the crux of the matter is the fact that all of our elected officials are human beings, as subject to the same passions, fears, discontents, failings and emotional needs as anyone else. Complicating the situation is the rabidity with which some people confront politicians that they disagree with. Equally challenging is the limited space or attention given by many in the media to complex issues and decisions. In the face of either constraint, government officials are often quickly vilified or celebrated for the decision rather than appreciated for being thoughtful and deliberate.

    In a representative democracy, we trust our leaders to evaluate proposals holistically, understanding not only the immediate impact of a decision but the tangential ramifications on other aspects of the political system and process as well. This introduces an array of issues — emotional, interpersonal, political, strategic — some of which, we might have the desire to know, but simply do not have the right to know, such as what personal life experiences might guide my actions. As the public we need enough information to judge the appropriateness of a vote; as public officials, we need enough trust to not have to share every detail of our individual decision-making processes.

    If we want more open and accessible dialogue among our leaders regarding issues, we must be able to publicly afford them the benefit of the doubt that they are approaching a decision with reason and good intentions. Policy makers, on the other hand, should understand that that trust is not forthcoming when deliberations are unnecessarily secretive.

    You, Mary, mention that the reporter has a responsibility of “developing a deep understanding of what’s being discussed around the board or council table, and in providing accurate context and background information so that readers can make sense of it.” I’d argue that this is a good benchmark for the public and for policy makers as well. I don’t need to share with you the emotional angst I feel about a given vote, but I do owe you a clear rationale for decision I ultimately make. I would hope, too, that the public ultimately accepts some occasional simple and vague answers, understanding that not every decision is driven by data — “I felt it was the right thing to do” is sometimes the very real and honest answer when information is inconclusive or long-term ramifications are unclear.