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When the Grand Rapids news media doesn’t hold those in power accountable: A WOOD TV 8 fluff piece on the City Manager

February 15, 2021

Last Thursday, under the banner of Black History Month, WOOD TV 8 ran a story about Grand Rapids City Manager and emphasized hat he is the first Black City Manager in Grand Rapids.

Had the story centered on why Washington was the first Black City Manager, then the story would have ultimately led to channel 8 having to come to terms with structural racism in Grand Rapids.

However, the WOOD TV 8 story didn’t take that approach, instead it was content with looking at the person of Mark Washington, rather than the policies he has implemented since becoming the City’s Manager in 2018. 

Now, I’m not saying that the person history of Grand Rapids City officials is irrelevant, but the problem with journalism focusing on personalities instead of policies, often removes them from any responsibility to hold those who have government power accountable.

MLive took a similar approach in 2018, when they provided a summary of the 8 years that Greg Sundstrom had been the City Manager. In that article we wrote about the former City Manager, we referred to the MLive article as a pff piece about the person who has the most political power in Grand Rapids. The same can be said about the story that channel 8 aired last Thursday…….it was a puff piece that did not provide any serious assessment of the policies and practices that the Grand Rapids City government has adopted since Mark Washington became the City Manager.

Journalism’s primary function should always be about the business of holding those in power accountable – those with political and economic power. This is not what the channel 8 story set out to do, even though there were openings for that to happen.

For instance, about half way through the WOOD TV 8, it states:

First, the pandemic struck, exposing racial disparities in its effects. Then in May, George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. On May 30, outrage over his death spilled over onto the streets of Grand Rapids when a riot broke out.

Then the channel 8 story quotes Washington saying:

We wrestle with the issue of making sure the department is appropriately funded and there’s this contingency that continues to want to see reduced resources in policing, reallocated to other parts of the organization or the community.”

Here, WOOD TV 8 missed the opportunity to either have another source on the issues related to the May 30th rebellion or those calling for Defunding the GRPD. Channel 8 also failed to acknowledge that it was Mark Washington and the Grand Rapids City Attorney, which undermined the community pressure to defund the police department. Several City Commissioners were in the process of proposing some fundings cuts, but Washington and the City Attorney stepped in to make sure that didn’t happen, as we reported in early July of last year. Just a few weeks after that, the City Manager again made an announcement (along with Chief Payne), about the new GRPD Strategic Plan and some bureaucratic side-stepping to completely avoid having to address the community call for defunding the GRPD.

This is the kind of stories that the dominant news media in this market need to pursue, not fluff pieces under the guise of honoring Black History Month. People who are in local government, whose wages are paid by the public should be held accountable to the public, but that will be difficult to do if the dominant news sources in this city do not provide an ongoing assessment and analysis of what Grand Rapids City officials are doing. 

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