Propaganda and news: there’s a difference

Friday I praised our local newspaper, the Sun and News, for the quality of its reporting of local civic and political news. Saturday the latest issue of the Sun and News published a glaring failure in the same category. Here is a letter I just sent to the Sun and News. I don’t think normally publish letters to the editor (which is fine), so I am making it public myself. —jde

To the editors:

Printing a press release as a news story is OK if the topic is a TOPS meeting, a blood drive, or an award, but not if the topic is conflict regarding a partisan political figure.

These examples are all from the January 14 issue of the Sun and News, which has an unsigned story titled “Caledonia Republican Angela Rigas snubbed from serving on House committees this year.” That is indeed a newsworthy development. But it requires investigation and critical analysis.

“Snubbed” in the headline may or may not be a prejudicial term, but the article itself is at best uncritical. In fact it appears to be pro-Rigas propaganda, probably a press release from Rigas herself.

Paragraph 4 states as fact that Speaker Joe Tate’s agenda does not align with citizens of this district. Maybe that is true of many residents of this district, and perhaps most, but it is certainly not true of our population en masse. The article provides no supporting evidence, nor does it identify this as Rigas’s own assertion, which I suspect it is.

Paragraph 5 characterizes the speaker’s action as a “bitter act of retribution mixed in with some cheap political theater.” The article does not characterize Rigas’s own withholding of the routine courtesy of a vote to seat the Speaker as “bitter” or as “cheap political theater,” and it does not print a reply from the Speaker, or any indication that the Speaker was offered opportunity to reply.

Paragraph 8 reverses the headline and first paragraph (which say that Rigas was not appointed to any committees) to say that Rigas was belatedly notified that she was appointed to a subcommittee, but it characterizes the subcommittee as “obscure” and as “having no clear direction.” The committee is not named, and no source or evidence is given for this pejorative characterization of its importance. I assume that this is Rigas’s own characterization. The article provides no analysis of or response to this assertion.

The final paragraph of the article reports that Rigas is “disappointed” because she was hoping to improve the state’s education system, and because she believes that educating children is important. Again, this is Rigas’s own self-representation. In fact during the recent campaign season, neither Rigas nor the candidates whom she endorsed in various school districts presented any positive, constructive ideas for improving the schools. She herself launched the campaign season by slandering the Caledonia school district in an open meeting on May 15, 2022. She and her school board candidates were aligned with and supported by a PAC funded by a billionaire with a long record of trying to divert public education funding to private ventures that are not accountable to the public and not required to serve all students (which is against the Michigan constitution), and their campaigns featured unsubstantiated complaints about the schools and homophobic dog-whistles (or “speaking in code”).

An argument could be made that it would not have been reasonable to seat a person with Rigas’s tight connections with an anti-public-education movement on the committee that oversees public education. A competent news article would have explored that angle.

In a recent blog post I praised the Sun and News as an example of a local newspaper with excellent, unbiased reporting of local civic news. I believe that is true of signed articles in the Sun and News: the reporters and the reporting are excellent. I hope that in the future the editors will take more care to preserve the journalistic integrity of this true gem of a local newpaper by declining to serve as a propaganda channel for partisan politicians.

Sincerely yours,

James Ernest
Caledonia MI

Readers of this open letter who would like to see a real news story about this episode are invited to visit https://michiganadvance.com/2023/01/14/new-gop-house-members-complain-about-committee-assignments/. For the usually ceremonial vote to seat the speaker, see https://michiganadvance.com/2023/01/11/8-republicans-vote-against-tate-as-house-speaker-as-gop-grapples-with-life-in-the-minority/.


UPDATE: Here is how the editor of the Sun and News replied to me:

Thanks for the email and the fair critique. As a small, local newsroom that focuses on covering issues at a county/township level, we don’t have the luxury of covering state government quite like the big guys. But, I do realize in these politically divisive times, that trying to present an important statewide story without deeply sourcing it is a mistake and we’ll do better going forward. Maybe it’s a matter of us “staying in our lane” and relying on our partnership with great journalistic organizations like Bridge Michigan to deliver the state news. A re-thinking of our strategy is certainly in order, though.

I can run your letter in the upcoming issue of the Sun and News. Across all our publications, I’ve had no problem running letters that criticize both the paper and me personally. Not sure why you threw in “I don’t think they will publish it, so I am making it public myself” as sort of a public taunt, but thin-skinned we are not.

I’m always available to chat if needed – [number redacted]. Thanks, James.

This was an excellent reply. I was sorry to see that my my statement that I was posting my letter on the web because I did not think it would be printed in the paper came across as a taunt. So I replied as follows:

Sorry, “I don’t think they’ll publish it” was not meant as a taunt! though I can see how you might read it that way. I never see “letters to the editor” apart from the letters that were published as a batch before the last election, so I assume that letters to the editor is not a normal feature. You’ve got limited space, and I don’t assume that running letters from readers would be the best use of it. That’s why I posted my letter to my blog and cross-posted to several community groups and lists. Which gets me limited exposure—as of this morning, my blog post had around a hundred views.

At any rate, I appreciate your response. I’m far more interested in calling out Angela Rigas and her bullshit (technical term, you know—Harry Frankfurt’s essay “On Bullshit” is a classic that every writer and citizen should read) than in complaining about the paper. So if you are willing to run the letter, I could provide a recension that focuses more on Rigas’s own bad faith in these comments of hers than on the paper’s unfortunate decision to run her press release as a news article. Just let me know and I’ll gladly send a rewrite.

And yes, I understand that you can’t do in-depth reporting on stuff that happens in Lansing. Bridge Michigan is a great source. My point is: OK, but don’t run partisan politicians’ press releases on controversial topics and happenings as news stories. Print an Angela Rigas op-ed if you want to. But then you’ll have some of us wanting you to print responses.

Bottom line: I really do appreciate the Sun and News. The thorough, accurate, and unbiased reporting on village and township and school district meetings is immensely valuable.


UPDATE 2: When I read the “article” I was pretty sure that it was an amateur (or rookie) press release. (I say amateur/rookie because it twice breaks character in a way that a professionally written press release would not do. In a professionally written press release, the neutral voice of the release would not be confused with the complaining/self-advocating voice of Angela. The allegations that the Speaker is out of alignment with our residents and that the subcommittee to which Rigas was assigned is obscure and directionless would have been attributed clearly to Rigas.)

Subsequently a friend sent me the press release as it was posted to Angela Rigas’s campaign Facebook page. Angela long since blocked both my friend and me (in my case, at least, I believe it’s because I criticized her campaign tactics and she had no good answers). But of course that’s hardly a watertight strategy. Here, in two photos, is the press release.

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