Looking beyond media narratives with James Dickson

Authored by James David Dickson

James David Dickson is the managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential, a daily news site produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He previously worked at the Detroit News, among other southeastern Michigan publications. While attending the University of Michigan, Dickson was editor-in-chief of The Michigan Review, a columnist for The Michigan Daily, and a James B. Angell Scholar. He recently spoke with American Habits editor Ray Nothstine.

What is the role of the fourth estate in a free society? How important is it?

James Dickson: Very important. Maybe never as much as right now. We’re at a time when everybody has access to the same search bar. Raw information used to be the real value add. I think about that scene in “Hoosiers” where a woman has damaging information on Gene Hackman’s character and she had to go to the library, find the microfiche, physically write down the relevant part, and read it off when she saw Gene Hackman. It was a multi-step process. You could do that without leaving your house nowadays. Now that everyone has access to the same search bar, the new value add is, can you connect the dots? Can you tell people what these things mean and why they matter?

Henry Ford, Library of Congress. (1934)

I think about this. There are two stories in the Detroit Free Press in 1883 where Henry Ford was involved in horse crashes. You go from horse crashes in 1883 which make the newspaper and don’t make you sound like the coolest guy in the world to 20 years later putting the world on wheels. You take in so much information that it may not even be clear in the here and now how it’s important, but historians can look back at it and connect those dots. We must connect the dots that are connectable but also give people enough raw information that years from now we might see a narrative forming that we can’t perceive immediately.

In what ways can journalism help complement the American tradition of self-government and federalism? Should it or does it have a responsibility to play a role here?

Dickson: When you think about some of the first newspapers in colonial and early American history, a lot of those emerged because the person who founded it had a particular viewpoint they wanted to get out. Michigan Capitol Confidential is part of the Mackinac Center. We are part of that early American tradition where you have people trying to move Overton windows through publishing—long before there were Overton windows. They were hustling to say these things are the acceptable ideas and good ideas or these ideas are bad and the people who like them are crazy.

In a sense, we’re doing what’s been done since before this was even a country. That’s important. Since then, we’ve had this almost century-and-a-half-long tradition of standardized news that is objective. It’s supposed to reach a large audience of people, not just the Whigs in one city. That was supposed to be this era of objective news. I think a lot of people want the benefits of objectivity while essentially acting as if they are a party organ. I would say, though, that the more objective you are, the less you can be tied down to these specifics. If you’re just doing journalism, you can’t labor under the expectation that you’d be pro-federalist, pro-monarchy, pro-democracy, pro-America, pro-Republican, or pro-Democrat.

You should be able to look at all those people in the arena and state what they say accurately but also poke holes in what all of them say. Whereas when you go to the more ideological version, it’s more news as told by Democrats, news as told by Republicans. I think there’s a comfort level with that right now, but that’s not what the ABCs and CNNs are supposed to be. They do that because it’s easier.

How should a young person out there who might be thinking about journalism as a career view the vocation today, particularly given that it might be one of the more ideologically charged careers out there?

Dickson: It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. The way to view any career, whether it’s a first-year journalist, a young reporter, or mopping floors, is seeing it as an opportunity. You must view the challenges as the obstacles that were put in your place because those are the hurdles God wants you to learn to clear. I think if you’re doing something like first-year reporting, you should see things that build the hunger in you. You should see maybe the colleague you admire or someone who is perceived as good, but they’re not as good as everybody thinks.

Those kinds of things and the hunger of working early mornings, working late nights, should drive you to develop your philosophy of the news where you have a radar on what you’re looking at and the flaws of it and the lessons to be learned from it. You should be looking at all these things as opportunities. You should be looking at the obstacles as, “Okay, this is what’s been put in front of me. This is my way to get better.” Is it ideologically charged? It can be, but I think in a lot of positions the more local you are, probably the less true that is.

One of the big problems is people come in wanting to be this or that or involved in these labels when chances are—as a young reporter—your job is going to be something like night cops, or morning cops. No one cares what you think about the presidential race or these bigger things. That’s why I think local can be a great launchpad because you get a proper perspective of how little your opinion matters and that it’s not your job to craft narratives for the country. Let’s just start with spelling names right.

That’s a good point. I can’t remember the name of the book, but Bob Novak’s memoirs…

Dickson: Yes, “The Prince of Darkness.”

What I liked is that he was very attuned to not holding these national figures in such high regard because he did so much local reporting and state reporting and regional reporting before he went to Washington and understood they are just men and women. Of course, there is an economic advantage to going national, but they just want to jump right to national stories. They don’t learn how to craft their skill and to ground themselves properly.

Dickson: No, and I think that that can lead to being starstruck, whether by your colleagues or some of these names you’ve seen: “Oh my God, this person’s on TV all the time, and now I work with them.” That doesn’t mean they’re a great journalist. It certainly doesn’t mean they’re a role model. They just have a particular hustle that appears to be working at that moment and may not have anything to do with reality. You get out to DC—Nancy Pelosi’s not your friend. I could see how a young person might  shade portrayal of a story this way or that way. “If I see her, I can present it as, ‘See, I get you. I really get what you’re trying to do. A lot of people are just trying to get the clicks, but I really care. I get you.’” A lot of people in that sphere started auditioning for these national jobs. It’s the West Wing problem. Everybody wants to be a speech writer. Everybody wants to be a strategist. No one wants to do what they’re hired to do, which is tell readers things they don’t know.

This is a wide-open question. What annoys you or frustrates you the most about the profession of journalism today or just the media by and large?

Dickson: I would say this shift from news to coverage. News tells you things you do not know. You learn something by reading it. It enriches you by reading it. It gives you more data points to someday connect the dots. Narratives tell you what to think. I think about a lot of the AP coverage of national politics. They had a story several months ago about Donald Trump giving a speech to a group of Jewish Republicans and all these terrible things he had said—it read like the author had never left their couch. You wrote what was supposedly offensive. You briefly quoted Trump. You quote a few people at the event, which could have been done from watching a live stream, and that’s it.

The weakness of that story is that it wasn’t based on events that happened that day. It didn’t seek to tell readers things they didn’t know. Someone came into the event with a narrative formed, and they were going to file that story, whether it matched reality or yielded any fruit. They offered coverage of that event, but a news-minded mentality would have offered something fresh—maybe end up debunking the storyline they came in with. That makes for interesting journalism. When you come in with a narrative already written, you almost get shy around the people you’re supposed to be sourcing because all these people could only serve to complicate and even debunk your preconceived narrative.

That’s not why you’re here. You’re here to come out with the story you came in with. The more people you talk to, your story might get ruined.

You’ve covered this to some degree already, but I’m interested in this lack of curiosity issue because I think that’s one of the frustrating things I see. I can accept some of the ingrained biases that reporters have. We all have a worldview to some degree. Why do you think we’ve seen this trend where many reporters are no longer curious? Even if they are progressive or conservative, it’s much more about cheerleading, reinforcing narratives, or outright tribalism. There used to at least be nobility in uncovering the truth. Is that just being drowned out or is it something that has just largely dissolved today?

Dickson: The incentives have also changed. Once upon a time, if a reporter at the Detroit Free Press had a great story, that was a bad day for their competition at the Detroit News. It meant you had to follow what they had and try to get your version of it, maybe even try to debunk it. Now there’s more of an instinct to ignore what the competition has done because there’s this idea that perhaps if I ignore it, it’ll go away, whereas, if I bring attention to it, then I’m just telling everybody that I got scooped. The alleged star reporter, now they have a bad day. Now they’re mad at me. Whereas if we just all pretend it didn’t happen, then it can be easier for everybody.

This is the danger of superstar-type journalism: your biggest names don’t want to get their hands dirty. When that becomes true in a newsroom, you’ve got a soft newsroom. When we talk about sports teams and when your captain and your best player is your hardest worker, those are thought to be the best teams. Whereas in a newsroom, you hit a few successes on a project and maybe you’re exempt from having to do the follow-up. I’ve even seen it where people don’t even have to correct their own errors.

When a newsroom is geared around the manager having an easy day and the reporters having an easy day, that’s going to be a soft newsroom, and it’s going to start drifting into coverage, which is easy to produce, rather than news, which is difficult to produce.

Within the growing demise of local journalism, particularly newspapers, how has that impacted Michigan Capitol Confidential? What opportunities does that create for your team and Michigan?

Dickson: I think it’s a blue ocean that has been created by the abandonment of traditional news and traditional dot-connecting that you would expect from the news. I think about this report during the pandemic where basically the news was that the auditor general found an undercount of nursing home deaths. Then this person was brought in for testimony. Whatever the headline was, it came out in such a way, and every paper in Michigan ran the same headline that tried to neutralize and blunt the objection. It might have been an overcount, but nothing was illegal, or nothing was improper. The headlines were meant to exonerate.

I was critical of my own team. I was at the Detroit News at the time. How did you go to the same event? You were talking about Bob Novak earlier. He used to talk about how to be a successful journalist. You must be able to hear the same 18 things that are said at a press conference and be the one person who hears it differently and goes for the angle that the others miss. That’s how you could break news even during a time of herd media. The more you understand that, the better skilled you become at learning what the herd missed.

This guy, Charlie LeDuff, was a columnist at the Detroit News at the time. He ended up having the critical stories and the best stories about the auditor’s report because he was the only one looking at it from that blank slate, “Is this true?” He was asking, “What’s the interesting stuff from my reader’s perspective?” while everyone else was acting more akin to a mouthpiece for the administration.

Your publication plays a unique role in Michigan’s media landscape and just the landscape of the state in general. There are about seven million taxpayers and over 10 million people living in Michigan. What kind of responsibility do you feel to them in your role?

Dickson: Probably our biggest responsibility is to the Michigan taxpayer, and that’s organization wide. We get our values as a news organization from the Mackinac Center. We have this phrase that everything we do has to do Mackinac work. It’s not only arguing in favor of certain things or against other certain things. Our legal team has filed a lawsuit, including against two state lawmakers who were around for the original law and around for the tax cut we’re trying to preserve. At stake is $700 million plus of taxpayer money, depending on whether our income tax rate is 4.25%, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants, the attorney general wants, and really all the Lansing Democrats want. The rate was 4.025% last year.

Our argument is the tax cut should be permanent, not just event driven. That’s the difference. The difference in that number is $700 million. Whereas other media outlets treat it like it’s already baked into the cake—that it’s going to happen, whatever Whitmer decrees. We’re free to view it from a more even-handed perspective of, “Okay, there’s this other argument that we think is a good one and it’s taxpayer-centered, it’s taxpayer-forward.” Yes, as an organizational belief, that’s important. We get to promote things like our lawsuit. Also, when you hear about things like free universal school lunches, we get to remind people that there’s nothing free—there are no free lunches.

Those are paid for by taxpayers, and they’re a gift given by taxpayers, not granted by politicians. Even if you can’t win the battle, you can remind people of the actual source of the money, which is not politicians. It is we the people.

For the person who might be a little bit disillusioned about things today, in terms of sources and where can they go for content, can you point to a few examples of great journalism out there today? What comes to mind in your reading of the news?

Dickson: Absolutely. There are two. Some of my favorite stories are about money in politics. I think about Parker Thayer over at Capital Research Center. Great reporter. He started at Cap Con back in 2020 as an intern. He does Influence Watch, where a lot of times in his reporting you’ll hear of a new leftist group. There’s not much out there so you learn a lot. You look them up on Influence Watch, and they’ve already done a lot of the background and the legwork to tell you who the heck are these people and who are they funded by.

If you want to understand where the conservative big money is relative to the liberal big money in America, I’d start with Capital Research. I would start with Parker Thayer. He also did some really good work adjacent to Michigan where he looked at the national popular vote campaign and found that everything but about 1% of the national popular vote money in Michigan came from outside of Michigan.

Another guy along the same lines—more Michigan focused—is Craig Mauger at the Detroit News. I’m a critic of the Detroit News and Mauger, but the guy is as good as it gets.

He’s a good mix of in-person reporting and developing sources but also document-based reporting. He’s uncovering the finances that people go out of their way to keep hidden from public view.

What’s a good analogy or picture of the overall state of the media today if you were grading it or looking at it objectively? Where do you think it goes from here? Do you see improvements or a continued slide? I’m thinking about transparency, factual reporting, and getting the story right.

Dickson: What I see as a business, particularly local news, they’re in the death spiral. However, that presents an opportunity. They’re in a place where the paper keeps getting thinner and more expensive. The only people who care about that paper are 60 plus and they’re dying by the day. Your last strategy is to squeeze the few people who care about your product for as many dollars as you can before the whole thing falls off a cliff. There’s also an unhealthy attitude in news. It’s like Stringer Bell said in The Wire, “Whatever we call news, it’s going to get sold.”

…they’re in the death spiral. However, that presents an opportunity.

They’ll value event coverage, and I talk about that news versus coverage distinction. You go to open the Monday paper and it’s, “Oh, this was at the farmers’ market, and this person had a 95th birthday, and a good time was had by all.” To the naked eye, that looks like a newspaper. It’s just the easiest stuff to write, which is to show up at a place, write down what the people said, and quote them accurately. It’s not anything important. It’s not anything that takes real effort. They’re counting on you, the reader, not being able to discern between news and coverage and between the stuff that you’d pay money for and whatever they’ve chosen to serve you that day.

I see a lot of unhealthy attitudes toward the news consumer. There seems to be an attitude that takes them for granted and that needs to end. Their presence is far from granted. The idea that these people would back you no matter what, I think we’ve seen them do otherwise and I think that as bad as the numbers look, it could get much worse. It likely will.

There is one thing that excites me, though. I saw yesterday that the owner of Sinclair Broadcasting just bought the Baltimore Sun and its related newspapers. This is what newspapers used to be. A rich guy. I think about the Detroit News, founded by James Scripps in August 1873.

Before cars drove roads, before planes flew skies in Detroit, you had a guy sitting in his little corner office who believed he could cover the whole thing with just a few guys and their little telegraphs. They thought they could do it, and it was ambitious.  This picture behind me—those are Detroit News vehicles from about a century ago, all lined up to deliver the newspaper. There was no way to be big except to have big amounts of manpower. Right now, you can be big without huge amounts of manpower, but you still need to make an investment and so that’s what I look at in Baltimore.

All right, you’re free from the hedge fund, you’re free from the vultures, but will he make the investment, or will he fall into the temptation that the hedge funds did, which is how cheap can we run this thing and get all the butter out of it and assume that the reader can’t tell the difference.

Authored by:James David Dickson


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