“Shock” might be the best way to describe the reaction of journalists and political watchers to last Tuesday’s result in the 5th State Senate District primary.
State Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights) — a rising star in state politics — was defeated by a candidate who ran no campaign, spent no money, never spoke with the press, had no public platform whatsoever, and seemed to have no interest in actually running for the position. Betty Jean Alexander also has a criminal background and a number of civil cases that have come to light. But those things were not reported widely until after the primary election.
Now, people in that heavily Democratic district — which covers parts of Detroit, Dearborn Heights, Inkster, Garden City, and Redford Township — are left with a choice between Alexander or a Republican named DeShawn Wilkins.
Why was it that no one in a major media market like Detroit looked into Alexander before the election?
It’s not the first or worst case of this in Michigan in recent memory. Flint voters elected Wantwaz Davis to city council a few years ago after the press in that town failed to report ahead of the election that he had spent 19 years in prison after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in 1991.
Is this starting to become a pattern? Can we blame dwindling resources in newsrooms, laziness — or both?
“There’s a lack of vision and there’s a lack of understanding that it’s critical that we help voters figure out who they’re voting for,” says Elrick, who says media outlets have done good work in the past exposing candidates’ pasts when they work collaboratively to do so. But he says that wasn’t the case this time around.
“There’s a lack of appreciation for how important these races are.”
“I think newspapers spend a lot of time — waste a lot of time, quite frankly — endorsing candidates when their time and resources should be spent vetting candidates,” he continues.
Fortman says it’s critical for the press to keep and refer back to the reporting they’ve already done on candidates and issues.
“(It’s) an important conversation to have about archiving newsrooms and about the importance of us being able to search back in our own information,” she says.
Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation.