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.
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.
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.
Purely a plug: The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of publicly-funded organizations and local government. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!