Over the past three months, major print outlets throughout the country largely failed to discuss rising structural inequality and poverty in the United States while reporting on policies and programs that affect low-income groups.
Detroit news reporters who've covered the city's fiscal problems for years say claims from conservative commentators that the recent bankruptcy is due to liberal agendas, federal policies, or even President Obama are wildly inaccurate.
Journalists, some with decades in the Motor City, contend such national coverage has missed the true cause of the financial debacle, which includes decades of population decline, mismanagement of city debt, and recent individual corruption.
By contrast, right-wing commentator and Detroit native Ted Nugent recently claimed that "Liberal democrats took hold of the greatest, most productive city on earth and turned it into a bloodsucker excuse-making hell," adding, "If allowed to continue, our President will do the same to the whole country. Heartbreaking and tragic."
Similar coverage from Fox News -- which misleadingly claimed other cities could fall into Detroit's bankruptcy path - and National Review's Rich Lowry, who tried to blame it on "a toxic combination of Great Society big spenders, race hustlers, crooks, public-sector unions, and ineffectual reformers," is misleading, local reporters say.
They contend that Detroit's problems are unique and driven by demography and decades-long trends, not ideology.
"I don't agree with that thesis," Jim Kiertzner, a reporter at ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV who has covered Detroit news since 1983, said about some of the conservative claims. "This was a city, like the auto industry, [where] in the heyday the money rolled in. When the decline started, nobody kept ahead of it and made the cuts necessary."
He added that the decline has "been in the making for decades. Detroit has been on a long steady decline."
Kiertzner and other reporters pointed to the population drop that began decades ago when wealthier families moved to the suburbs, reducing the population from 1.8 million in 1950 to 1.2 million in 1980 to only 701,000 in 2012.
Detroit-based journalists contend that drop reduced both job opportunities and city revenue, but with a rising maintenance cost because the city still had to pay for police, fire and other services. And with a 138-square mile area, one of the largest in the nation, the cost is vast.
"You have one of the largest areas that the police need to cover, the fire department, street lights, and keeping roads maintained and roads plowed," said Brett Snavely, a Detroit Free Press reporter covering the bankruptcy. "The cost of keeping this city maintained is fundamentally higher than in many cities."
With such rising costs and reduced revenue, the city of Detroit kept borrowing money and raising its debt, the reporters say. It also failed to pay into its pension fund properly, leading to the current situation in which city worker pensions are $3.5 billion in the red.
"The city didn't meet its obligations paying along the way, they gave the pensions IOU's, they are also looking at possible bad investments where they lost millions of dollars," says Kiertzner. "It wasn't just the employees, it is not a fair assessment to blame the unions."
Kathleen Gray, another Detroit Free Press reporter, added, "Its mismanagement, it's the downturn in the economy, it is not a single thing. We get a lot of [reader] feedback here that it is the liberal management of Detroit, but I don't agree with that assessment."
Charlie Langton, a reporter at WWJ News Radio and a 10-year Detroit journalist, said trying to link Detroit's situation to some outside influence is misleading.
"There is a combination of a couple of things, certainly mismanagement of the city's assets play a major role," he said. "For many years Detroit borrowed money to pay down its debt and Detroit lost a significant population."
Berman of the Detroit News said some of the problems were the result of the same sub-prime mortgage lending that hurt other cities, and even Wall Street banks continuing to lend Detroit money as its debt bloomed.
"The biggest mistake here is that no one tried to solve problems as they arose. They tried to paper over them, there was no problem solving, everything got pushed back," Berman said. "There was continued borrowing and there was no payback. They would shop the debt to Wall Street. You could blame Wall Street for not questioning that they were enablers, they gave them that credit. Why did Moody's write Detroit bonds?"
For Curt Guyette, news editor of the alternative weekly Metro Times, trying to blame liberal policies or some progressive approach is too narrow.
As Midwestern states assess the damage wrought by record flooding in recent weeks, scientists tell Media Matters that the media has missed an important part of the story: the impact of climate change. A Media Matters analysis finds that less than 3 percent of television and print coverage of the flooding mentioned climate change, which has increased the frequency of large rain storms and exacerbated flood risks.
Seven out of eight scientists interviewed by Media Matters agreed that climate change is pertinent to coverage of recent flooding in the Midwest. Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer told Media Matters it is "not only appropriate, but advisable" for the press to note that rainstorms in the Midwest are increasing in frequency and that climate models "suggest this trend will continue," which will contribute to more flooding. Aquatic ecologist Don Scavia added that this is the "new normal," and that the media is "missing an important piece of information" by ignoring this trend.
Indeed, climate change has been almost entirely absent from national and local reporting on the floods. Only one of 74 television segments mentioned climate change, on CBS News. ABC, NBC and CNN never mentioned the connection.
Meanwhile, USA TODAY was the only national print outlet to report on Midwest floods in the context of climate change. USA TODAY also created a video, featured above, explaining the connection as part of a year-long series on the impacts of climate change.
The Midwest has experienced near record flooding this spring, resulting in four deaths, extensive property damage, and disruptions of agriculture and transportation. Evidence suggests that manmade climate change has increased the frequency of heavy downpours, and will continue to increase flooding risks. But in their ample coverage of Midwestern flooding, major media outlets rarely mentioned climate change.
In a June 19 Detroit Free Press opinion piece, guest writer Gary Wolfram advocated for the privatization of Michigan's prison system. The Free Press editors provided a rather innocuous description of Wolfram's credentials: "Gary Wolfram is the William Simon Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Hillsdale College." An honest description of Wolfram, however, would also note that he is an adjunct scholar at the right-wing Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the "largest conservative state-level policy think-tank in the nation." While the Free Press has in the past identified Mackinac connections to their contributors, Wolfram's affiliation appears to have been overlooked.
Accurately describing Wolfram's credentials is vital to a reader's ability to judge whether Wolfram's opinions are academically objective and trustworthy or tainted by an agenda and background that should temper expectations of accuracy. Here, the latter is certainly the case -- the Mackinac Center has been described as "tied at the hip with the Republican Party establishment," and its donors include the hyper-conservative Charles G. Koch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Mackinac was integral to Michigan's controversial Public Act 4, which "lets the governor name appointees to take over financially troubled cities." (In fact, the Republican governor appointed a former Mackinac scholar to one of these "emergency manager" positions in Pontiac, MI.)
Mackinac Center research is often of low quality and because of this it should be treated with considerable skepticism by the public, policy makers and political leaders. Indeed, much of the work of the Mackinac Center may have cause more confusion than clarity in the public discussion of the issues that it has addressed by systematically ignoring evidence that does not agree with its proposed solutions.
On the issue of prison privatization specifically, the Mackinac Center has been pushing a privatization agenda for years, hand in hand with ALEC and the private incarceration industry. Mother Jones highlighted some of Mackinac's conflicts of interest (emphasis added):
A cause underlying much of the [Mackinac Center's] work is privatization. Its scholars have called for privatizing Amtrak, prisons, and even the state's flagship university, the University of Michigan. The center publishes the Michigan Privatization Report, and offers how-tos on privatizing school districts and suggests local contractors available for hire to replace existing public services.
The Mackinac Center is also connected to the American Legislative Exchange Council, the private organization that allows corporations and lobbyists to craft legislation for use at the state level. For instance, as NPR reported last fall, Arizona's draconian immigration bill was based on a "model bill" written by private industry, including the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's leading private prisons company that operates corrections facilities around the country.
In other words, Wolfram is part of an extensive network of right-wing ideologues pushing an agenda for the benefit of their private industry funders. But as far as the Free Press readers know, Wolfram is just a professor of economics and public policy at a small, local college.
Earlier this month, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) vetoed a bill that would curb the ability of asbestos-exposure victims to recover losses from some of the companies that are legally responsible for their suffering. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) approved a similar bill last week, joining Arizona, Idaho, and Utah, which all passed laws limiting corporate liability for asbestos-related claims in March. In recent years, these kinds of laws have passed in fifteen other states as well.
The rash of eerily similar bills appearing everywhere at once is not a coincidence. The legislation is a product of teamwork between the now-infamous American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Crown Holdings, Inc., a Fortune 500 company that has spent the better part of the last decade trying to legislate its way out of compensating cancer and mesothelioma victims who were exposed to asbestos by a company they purchased in 1963.
Despite this remarkably successful multi-state campaign to absolve a single corporation of liability to the detriment of thousands of suffering Americans, the ALEC/Crown crusade has been a quiet one, thanks to state media institutions that have failed to provide meaningful coverage of the issue (or, occasionally, failed to cover it entirely). As a result, important laws that profoundly affect the lives of many voters are being approved without serious public consideration.
Philadelphia-based Crown Holdings began its campaign to eliminate its asbestos liabilities through legislative action as early as 2001, when it spent $100,000 to influence legislators in its home state of Pennsylvania. Despite originally failing early in the year, the asbestos measure was resurrected successfully in late 2001 as an amendment to another bill. The move was led by State House Republican leader Rep. John Perzel, who has subsequently received tens of thousands of dollars from Crown Holdings over the past decade.
Perzel was awarded "State Legislator of the Year" from ALEC at the end of 2001. ALEC's executive director hailed Perzel as "a leader who truly personifies the Jeffersonian principles of liberty, limited government, and free-markets." But Perzel is now in state prison, after being convicted this year of helping to divert $10 million in public funds toward Republican campaigns for re-election.
Perzel's 2001 sleight-of-hand maneuver to resurrect the defeated asbestos liability provision is still being felt. With the momentum of a Pennsylvania victory under its wings, Crown Holdings, with ALEC's help, would successfully push identical legislation in 19 other states while employing a strategy of spending big on lobbyists and political contributions.
Last week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) approved a bill that curbs the ability of asbestos-exposure victims to recover losses from some companies that are legally responsible. The bill was pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Crown Holdings, Inc., a Fortune 500 corporation trying to legislate its way out of compensating cancer and mesothelioma victims who were exposed to asbestos by a company it purchased. According to a Media Matters analysis, Michigan's two largest newspapers, the Detroit Free Press and the Grand Rapids Press, have been utterly silent on the bill from introduction to its passage.
Numerous media outlets uncritically reported the assertion by Sen. John McCain's campaign that Sen. Barack Obama "voted against funds for American troops in harm's way." However, none of these outlets noted that McCain himself has voted against legislation to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor did they mention that Obama has voted in the past to provide funds for troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Detroit Free Press and Toledo Blade uncritically reported the false assertion by Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for Sen. John McCain, that Sen. Barack Obama would increase taxes on 21 million small businesses. In fact, Obama has proposed rolling back President Bush's tax cuts only on "people who are making 250,000 dollars a year or more," and according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center's table of 2007 tax returns that reported small-business income, only 481,000 of those returns are from filers with taxable incomes of more than $250,000.
In an online article, the Detroit Free Press reported of Sen. John McCain's May 6 town hall meeting at Oakland University: "As usual, McCain was candid and said things like fuel efficiency standards have to increase and the way to make the domestic automotive industry more competitive is to get other costs, like health care for autoworkers, under control." While the media routinely refer to McCain as a straight-talker who resists pandering, Media Matters for America has identified numerous instances in which McCain has promulgated falsehoods about himself and his opponents.