Several years ago I went down to the Vandal arena on a night when the WWE was in town just to interview people who were coming to the event. I asked them what did they find so interesting about professional wrestling and some people said the action, some the stunts, while others said it was like “a soap opera for men.” I asked them if they had any favorites, which most did. Some even proceeded to imitate wrestlers like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin.
Then the conversation shifted and I asked them if they had a choice of going to see the WWE or going to a candidate forum, which would they choose? Most of them just laughed at me and said of course they’d rather watch wrestling. I asked why? There was no shortage of answers. One person said that they know that the WWE is fake, because it is supposed to be, but elections are fake too, despite what we are taught from civics class as kids. The best answer I got was, “maybe if the candidates would engage in a little beat down, I might start to pay attention.” That comment got me thinking recently in light of the upcoming Governor’s race in Michigan.
What if the electoral process was more like the WWE? You know on second thought it kind of is. No, really. Let’s think about this for a second. First, there is all the hype around the elections. Granholm vs DeVos, the Rumble in Michigan. Political commentators and pundits have been beating this drum for some time and it is only going to get better or worse, depending on where you sit in the audience. DeVos began running paid political ads in February, the earliest ever for a Governor’s race in Michigan. Granholm’s campaign responded by putting out a call to supporters for money so that they “can tell the truth about Dick DeVos and his wrong priorities for Michigan. Make the largest contribution you can today so that we can spread the truth immediately.” OK, so the paid political ads are just promo spots to either slam the opponent or to generate good ratings, right? This is exactly what professional wrestling does. “I’m gonna crush my opponent. He has been deceiving you, but I’m
gonna expose him for what he really is.”
Then there is the fair play factor. She’s cheating. No, he’s cheating. In early March, the DeVos campaign filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office, claiming that the DTE ads that featured Granholm talking about heating services for low income families was unfairly providing free political advertising for the Governor. Then the Democrats shot right back and said that the DeVos ads were illegal because they used Amway workers and shot most of the ad in the Ada-based factory. No where in the local news coverage of this story did the reporters bother to tell people what the state campaign finance regulations were. Really now, that would put a damper on all this good drama. People don’t want to be informed, just entertained.
Which bring us to the political reporters, which in many ways are just like ringside announcers at wrestling matches. We have already heard in the local news comments like “things are beginning to heat up in the race for Governor.” Now, what the hell does that mean? The context of such a statement is usually when one of the opponents is complaining or trash talking about the other. Nothing about issues, just that candidate so and so is bad for Michigan. Even though the reporters work for different news agencies, it’s almost like they are seated together providing color commentary on the elections. I can imagine WZZM’s political reporter Peter Ross as the main announcer, not because he is skilled, but because he has been around for some time. He is joined by WOOD TV 8′s political reporter Rick Albin, who is kind of like a former wrestler/turned announcer. Albin, who once ran as a GOP candidate has also worked is a staffer for 2nd Congressional District Rep. Pete Hoekstra. So here you have Peter Ross using all the hyped language of a ringside announcer, but no experience as on and he is sitting next to Rick Albin, who has limited experience, but can sound like he knows what is going on. They make fun of each other from time to time, but what they don’t do, what they are not likely to do, is that they do not report on anything of substance. Here is how it kind of sounds; “Granholm is the current champ, so DeVos will have to pick up the pace if he wants to catch her. DeVos is gaining on her and Granholm has to be a little concerned. Oooh, they are really trading blows now, but I got to tell you it is too close to call. It’s any body’s guess at this point.”
Besides running those obnoxious political ads early on, the local news has also decided that polling data is what citizens want. During one week in mid March there we over a dozen political poll stories in the local news. Now, let me ask you does this stuff really mean anything? An EPIC/MRA poll spoke with 600 potential voters on the phone. Some said they would vote for Granholm, others for DeVos, and some were undecided. No where is these polling stories are people told what questions the pollster asked, where those called lived, nor their age, race, location, income, or whether or not they had political party affiliation. We really have to ask ourselves do these polls mean anything or not?
If you have ever watched the WWE you know that no one ever really wins. There is just this ongoing drama to keep viewers coming back. Which means, people keep buying tickets to go see these matches or buying the products that are advertised during the commercials on TV. Sort of like elections. People keep giving money, but what do we get in return? Look, both Granholm and DeVos have decided to not take any of the state (read taxpayer $$$) funds for elections, because that means there is a limit to how much you can spend. Both camps are expecting to raise and spend millions and millions of dollars, and most of it not on educating people about the issues or organizing. They will spend over three-fourths of their campaign budgets on paid political advertising. Most of that advertising money will go to TV and radio stations, which means there is no incentive for them to actually report on the election as anything other than a horse race.
If we had real reporting on the upcoming Governor’s race, this is what we might hear. First, let’s just get the money thing out of the way up front. We all know that Dick DeVos is disgustingly rich. We know about his family’s wealth and a little bit about his wife Betsy DeVos family, the Price family……they got money coming out of their ears as well. However, Granholm is no a working class woman either. She and her hubby are together worth a lot of money and they don’t live in some modest neighborhood either, rather in a rich southeast, Michigan suburb. Neither of them are working class people, like most of us, nor do they understand what our reality is like. Unfortunately, this race will not have an economic or class analysis.
What else might we know if this race were reported on with some substance? Any time you have an incumbent it is vital that voters know what the voting record is of that incumbent. Granholm has 3 years and a few months under her belt as Governor of Michigan, so what is her record on the issues that matter most – economics, health care, the environment, public safety, race & gender equity, public education, and transportation. In monitoring the local news, we have seen none of this type of analysis or investigation into Granholm’s track record. With DeVos what could reporters be doing? Well, for starters they could be looking at his track record as a businessman. What has Alticor done is terms of providing jobs in Michigan They could also look at issues of outsourcing and how much state tax subsidies (read corporate welfare) have gone to Alticor. Reporters could also look into what projects and organization DeVos’s money has gone to. They might check out the website of People for the American Way and find that DeVos has provided money for school voucher initiatives and for economic policy think tanks like the Mackinac Center. Reporters might read books like “The Religious Right in Michigan Politics” by Detroit area reporter Russ Bellant and find out that DeVos has bank rolled groups like Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Michigan Family Forum. Only with an honest investigation into each of these groups and their political involvement would voters be able to make an informed decision for who will be Governor in November of this year.
If you want to keep up with the type of local reporting, check out the Election Watch 2006 section of the GRIID website. There we track all the local GR Press stories related to Election 2006 and monitor the 3 GR-based TV stations, channel’s 8, 13 and 17. We will also be looking at paid political ads, how often they run and how much money the local TV and radio stations are making. We also provide link to sites like the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, an independent Lansing-based group that tracks campaign money in Michigan. So, this election year, don’t get caught up in the hype, the drama of Granholm vs DeVos. Arm yourself with information and don’t be fooled by the spectacle.
Jeff Smith is part of a local media watchdog group GRIID www.griid.org, which tries to get local news agencies to actually report on elections. You can contact him at jsmith ( at ) grcmc.org