SPENCER COLUMN: Court coverage can be needlessly confusing

Jack Spencer

Imagine a football game in which the lead changes several times. Now imagine that every time the lead changes the announcers act as though the game was virtually over. They never bother mentioning how much time is left on the clock to give the fans an overall context of the game.

In this imaginary game, what are the chances that the other team could come back again and retake the lead? Is there a whole half left to be played? Are there 6 minutes left? Are there just 6 seconds left? Without that context, the frustrated fans would be confused.

More often than not, that’s how the news media covers politically-charged issues that wend their way through the courts. As a result, all but the most astute court-watchers get confused about what each ruling really means. Was it final? Was it just a preliminary ruling by a lower court?  And was the ruling expected because the judge who ruled tends to lean left or right?

It’s likely that many John and Mary Q-Citizens just shrug their shoulders and stop paying attention. Others, who either agree or disagree with the latest ruling either cheer the decision, or grumble and groan about it.

At times, the news media mentions that the decision is likely to be appealed. At best, it will tell listeners, viewers or readers when a decision was unexpected. An unexpected decision is worth noting, but why didn’t the original news coverage of the case tell what the “expected” ruling was in the first place?

Why is the news media so reluctant show the public the bigger picture? All it would take is simply saying or writing something such as: “The judge is considered to be a conservative — and this could well be only the first step in a long process through the courts.” That sort of honesty would give the story its needed context.

Unfortunately news coverage tends to keep the public unaware of the judge’s leanings and nearly as unaware of what stage of the process (early, middle, near the end) the case is in.

What the public usually gets are helter skelter snapshots of the situation, with headlines such as “Court Rules whatchamacallit Unconstitutional” — and a few months later — “Court Rules whatchamacallit Is Constitutional After All.”

Those on the side of the issue that lost under the latest ruling express disappointment and dismay and vow to appeal. Meanwhile, the side that won under the ruling, issues self righteous news releases claiming the decision was proof that its cause has right and justice is on its side.

All of this is a charade if the ruling involved was widely expected by the “insiders’ who knew the judge’s tendencies to begin with. The last thing the public needs is more charades.

Reporters should never, NEVER openly predict decisions. When attorneys say you can never tell for sure how a judge will rule, they’re right. But predictions aren’t necessary. All that’s needed are:

  • A few facts (often already well known to insiders) about a judge’s track record or leanings.
  • A mention of where the case stands in terms of its likely step-by-step journey through the legal process.

Readers, listeners and viewers can take it from there.

On an array of issues, such as labor issues, gay rights issues, affirmative rights issues and a host others, a lot of rulings are nearly predictable. Court observers who make guesses on how a certain judge or panel of judges might rule on these kinds of issues can rack up  pretty high batting averages.

This is not a situation where the news media is necessarily withholding information. Most often it’s a situation where reporters never get in the habit of seeking out the information. It’s not standard practice — but it should be.

Reporting on whether the judge involved is considered liberal or conservative and how he or she has ruled on related issues in the past, should be part of the overall story before the ruling is made. If there appears to be no pattern to the judge’s past decisions – that should be part of the story, too.

An aspect of the problem is that our judicial system prefers to advance the illusion of unbiased decision-making. But the news media shouldn’t be feeding that illusion. The public knows better. Judges, just like everybody else, have their philosophical leanings.

Perhaps the biggest weakness in news coverage today is its continuing failure to provide context. Information about the judges who make decisions on key issues and perspective on the overall process would provide a valuable context. What’s more, news organizations that start doing so could find themselves having a leg up on their competition.

MEA vs. Republicans – the truce is over

This past week, the Republican-controlled legislature passed legislation (the so-called dues bill) to prohibit school districts from deducting union dues from teachers’ paychecks. Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign the bill.

There is a long held perception that large numbers of teachers might balk at paying the dues if they have to actually write the checks themselves. If so, the situation could prove awkward for the Michigan Education Association (MEA), which is the state’s largest teacher union. Being seen chasing down teachers to make them pay dues wouldn’t exactly be good public relations for a union.

Last year, legislative Republicans and the MEA were virtually at war over education spending and an array of changes to collective bargaining rules. The so-called dues bill was considered one of the potential weapons the Republicans had at their disposal in that war. Meanwhile, MEA launched several TV attack ads and legislative recall efforts.

By about 300 votes, the MEA succeeded in recalling one lawmaker, former House Education Committee Chair Paul Scott of Grand Blanc. MEA and the Republicans both dropped a ton of money on the Scott recall election.

Following the recall, the two sides seemed to have settled into an uneasy truce. Early last week, a coalition of unions announced an anti-right-to-work petition drive. The following day the so-called “dues bill” zipped through both the Senate and the House.

A somewhat unheralded part of the so-called dues bill is a provision requiring annual audits of the local MEA bargaining units. It’s difficult to tell at this early juncture, but this audit provision – which was added on the day the bill moved – could prove more troublesome to the MEA than the other part of the bill.

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy (MCPP). MPCC provides policy analysis. The political analysis represented in this column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Mackinac Center. 

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Posted by Jack Spencer

Jack Spencer is Capitol Affairs Specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

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