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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Two Alternatives to “Fake News”

March 30, 2018

There’s a lot at stake in Michigan’s upcoming state and national elections. The public needs to wake up to what’s happening to the quality of news and information it depends upon to make ballot-box decisions.

Only 64.87 % of eligible Michigan voters turned out the normally higher participating Nov. 8, 2016 presidential election.  It’s anyone’s guess how many will vote in this November 6 general election.  In 2016 it was 41.6 percent for the entire state of Michigan; the lowest since 1990.  Generally, non-presidential election years draw fewer voters. 

Add fake news, negative advertising and social media to voter apathy and you make way for special interests to control state and local government via untruthful information.

I’m not sure it can be turned around, but I will give two publications—Dome Magazine and Center for Michigan’s Bridge News Magazine—credit for trying to help Michigan voters wade through the political swamp in a nonpartisan manner to be better informed for this November’s election.   

Launched in October, 2007 by a former Detroit area journalist and press secretary for a governor, Tom Scott created Dome while working for a Lansing-based professional association.  As then editor & publisher, he wrote this in his inaugural edition:

“Dome’s mission is to give you a better understanding of what’s going on in Michigan when it comes to influencing and making public policy.  The normal news fare of press conferences, speeches and legislative votes is only a small part of the fuller story. This larger story includes the persuaders, personalities, relationships and forces at work, be they in or far from Lansing.  And we want to show and tell you what’s going on in a colorful, stylish way that can enlighten, even entertain.”

In launching Domemagazine.com, Scott announced his goal was to restructure Michigan Lobbyist Magazine in a way that it would come back better, broader in scope, less expensive and with greater frequency all by switching from print to online.  His cover story was Dennis Muchmore, then executive director of the once-powerful Michigan United Conservation Clubs.  Muchmore has since served as Governor Rick Snyder’s Chief of Staff, before leaving to work for a Detroit-based law firm.

Scott added dozens of Lansing-based writers to fulfill his mission and later sold it to its current owner and publisher, Chuck Pericone, former Michigan Speaker of the House.  The first Speaker to serve under term limits, he launched the Perricone Group of companies—including Capitol Strategies, LLC—after leaving office. 

The non-partisan Bridge News Magazine has also been making a huge attempt to reach the public beyond its reporting.  It is the largest effort made by any group I ever witnessed in Michigan political history to generate voter interest.

The Center for Michigan and Bridge Magazine staff of 15 just completed hosting the last of three free “Solution Summits” held in Lansing, Grand Rapids and Detroit.  Anyone could hear local and state leaders and experts talk about the issues concerning Michigan citizens ranging from education and the economy, to quality of life and the government.  Each summit was nearly sold out with between 250 and 300 people attending.

Participants left with Center for Michigan and Bridge’s free 54-page “2018 Michigan Facts & Issue Guide” detailing 100 key Michigan facts, as well presenting information on K-12 Student Performance and Higher Education affordability to Michigan’s Economy & Business Climate to public health, infrastructure, and state government spending: https://www.bridgemi.com/special-report/introduction-just-facts-2018-michigan,

“Whether you’re Democrat or Republican, white or minority, senior citizen, millennial, urban, rich or poor, engaged or isolated, staunchly opinionated or skeptical of all, the actual conditions on the ground matter for your state’s future,” read the guide’s introduction.

The non-profit, non-partisan, non-political organization points out the facts and issues the public has expressed matter the most as Michigan’s governorship, all 148 seats in the state legislature and other statewide offices all come up for election at the same time in 2018.

Bridge began in September, 2011 and regularly has more than 100,000 readers per month, or more than 1 million per year, according to the Center for Michigan’s President John Bebow.  Since then, Bridge has earned more than 100 state and national journalism awards and is the two-time defending Michigan Press Association, “Newspaper of the Year.”

Bridge now has a staff of nine full-time journalists, including seven reporters and two editors, with newsrooms in Lansing and Detroit, as well as Publisher Phil Power’s insightful weekly column based on decades of watching Michigan politics and leadership.

Bridge came at a good time in Michigan, now that once “legacy” news sources no longer provide the depth of political coverage the public once depended upon for statewide coverage.  Similar to Dome Magazine, Bridge provides a state-wide perspective of what’s happening, but offers hard news reporting once found in Michigan newspapers. Both Dome and Bridge offer opportunities for the public to become engaged and informed by hosting various forums.

Bridge takes advantage of the Center for Michigan’s 50-70 annual community forums held across the state to query how people feel on various state issues, compiles the data and then presents key finding to state lawmakers and leaders.  Some of that data is used by Bridge for future story development and investigative reporting.

“(Bridge) is part of a nationwide trend of nonprofit news startups working to provide local and regional coverage and public service journalism as traditional newspapers have declined precipitously (having lost more than half their staffs so far in this century,” Bebow said.  Credit for its creation goes to its founder and former Michigan newspaper publisher Phil Power who called upon state leaders to help him develop the Center and then put up his own resources, as well as contributions from numerous foundations, corporations, and more than 2,000 individual donors across the state, who see enough of the public service value in Bridge to help pay for it operation.

Unlike most traditional newspapers, Bridge publishes special reports on issues ranging from education and poverty to jobs and healthcare, based on reporting and its interaction with the public. Bridge staff expects to visit some 50 communities statewide during the coming year. 

You wouldn’t think it would be that hard to get people to talk beyond social media and its power of voter persuasion. It has become a challenge, particularly when it comes to getting a truthful understanding of politics and candidates as covered by social media. 

“I’ve come to think fake news represents by far the most serious current threat to our democracy, to our society’s sense of shared values, and to each person’s very conception of what is fact and what is not,” Power wrote in a recent column.

I define “fake news” as deliberate items of misinformation or outright lies, intentionally created to mislead people. Appearing amid traditional news reports and online social media, fake news is often disguised to look as though it’s factually accurate. An elegant term is ‘propaganda,’ but it’s really nothing more than lying with the intent to mislead in order to damage a person, a political group, an ideology by spreading falsehoods.”

Distorted truth (propaganda) certainly is not new to the public as it can be traced back in a primitive form by scholars to as early as 550 BC in time.  Power writes that the rapid rise in frequency, mention and importance of fake news in America has been relatively recent. I think its most closely associated with the enormous rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Facebook, for example, claims to have more than two billion users worldwide – far greater than any comparable event in human history. 

“The problem is that a fake news item on Facebook looks on the surface just like a real news story,” he says.  “Fake news is dangerous and pernicious because it is disguised as ‘truth’ with the intention of misleading users, who are usually accustomed to having confidence in traditional journalism, which places great emphasis on the factual.  The ultimate test distinguishing fake news from real news is through a reporter discovering with his or her own eyes or ears an empirical basis for a claim to accuracy and an editor whose job it is to verify that the search for truth is fair minded, rigorous and independent of bias or wrongful intent.” https://www.bridgemi.com/michigan-truthsquad/how-spot-fake-news

To combat this, the Center will stage “The Michigan Truth Tour,” and plans up to 100 stops across the state from April through Election Day in November. The Center for Michigan is partnering with community leaders to hold town hall meetings and documentary screenings, discuss substantive local and state issues, distribute its Michigan Facts & Issue Guides, profile communities in Bridge, and cover and fact-check prominent campaign events. https://www.bridgemi.com/center-michigan/announcing-2018michigan-truth-tour-get-facts-get-engaged

Now the big question: Will the Michigan electorate inform themselves to find the facts and truth, then, most importantly, vote for the best candidates to run our government?

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

March 29, 2018 · Filed under Winter

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Karole L. White // Apr 6, 2018 at 8:05 am

    I do not believe that most of the citizens will bother to inform themselves to the extent needed to be an educated voter on issues, because it takes too long, in a time starved world. There are so many versions of truth. Is there absolute truth? Isn’t all truth really the truth as I personally understand it? People do not trust “the media,” any more than government. They trust their friends and their own predisposed political lens through which they filter truth.

    This will not change until we start teaching government or civics in schools again right from first grade. People feel powerless and it is getting worse with our young people who are being let down by the voters in their families.

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