Our Common Good

This is a long read, but worth the time.

A big story is unfolding here in Michigan, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last week professed to have the “scoop”—but she has gotten plenty of pushback for how she presented it, from Republican lawmakers, liberal bloggers, and folks in-between. In exploring that dissent and tracing the anatomy of the “scoop,” I’ve seen that many of the criticisms were valid: Maddow and her team botched the story in important ways, and that mishandling made it easy for detractors to dismiss her claims outright.

At the same time, she was on to something—and her attention to the story highlights the different approaches of national and local media, and the importance of both insider and outsider eyes on state government.

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So the idea that widespread use of “immediate effect” is new is just not true. But that gets to the next part of Maddow’s scoop— House Republicans apparently ignoring requests for a roll call vote to determine if they had mustered the constitutionally required two-thirds majority. It seems clear that they were ignoring Democrats’ objections. But that raises another question: it’s rare that one party controls so large a bloc, so how was immediate effect used so often in the past? And in light of the GOP’s aggressively conservative agenda, why didn’t Democrats object before now?

I called Rick Pluta, managing editor and state Capitol bureau chief for the Michigan Public Radio Network. Pluta, who has covered the Statehouse for 25 years, added some important additional context, which the Maddow Show could have used last week.

“In the culture of the Michigan legislature—though this is more true in the Senate—there’s very much a sense that once you lost on the substance of the question, you won’t be dilatory to the majority,” Pluta said.

In other words, legislative minorities would routinely accede to “immediate effect” motions. What has changed, he added, “is a group of House Democrats has become so frustrated [with this common practice], they are going against the culture.”

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So what is new, in the end, is that one party, having lost out for the moment on every path to power in state government, is trying to use this constitutional provision to slow the majority’s agenda—and the majority is trying to proceed with business as usual, which means ignoring that provision.

And, actually, that’s a pretty important story about the breakdown of legislative norms, and about what happens when lawmakers try to enforce rules in the absence of those norms.

As much as Maddow overplayed her “scoop,” though, most of the media here in Michigan have underplayed it. The story hasn’t been ignored by any means—in addition to the Detroit News article mentioned above, here’s a Free Press article about the legal battle from April 5, before the first Maddow segment aired, and here’s a News piece about developments in the legal battle—but neither has it been covered in real depth, even after other national media started paying attention. Even the Lansing State Journal, located in the capital, has been using wire copy (in one case under a headline referring to a “House spat,” code for “only politics geeks could possibly care about this”).

Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum, trying to make sense of the story last Saturday, wrote that, “what we really need is for some longtime Michigan reporter to weigh in.” As far as I can tell, that still hasn’t really happened. There have been plenty of blog posts (here, here, here, here, here, and here, for example) and commentary pieces, but no authoritative reported account I’ve seen that could sort this story out for someone who came to it after seeing Maddow’s show.

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On her Monday night segment, Maddow vowed to stay on the story playing out in Michigan. I hope she does: an outsider’s eye on the state government can offer a valuable perspective on what seem to be dubious governing principles. But Maddow must bring much more skepticism and restraint to her story, and she would be wise to tap into the deep knowledge held by Michigan’s Statehouse press corps: by obscuring basic facts, she’s undermining herself.

At the same time, Michigan’s reporters should acknowledge Maddow’s influence, and provide a timely and comprehensive account of the story for those who want more depth in the wake of her broadcasts. And while it is easy—and important—to critique Maddow for her errors, Michigan’s journalists might also acknowledge where she is right: that this is a story that resonates beyond election-year politicking.