On the Detroit Free Press and Its Relationship with Michigan and Michigan State

It is a commonly held article of faith among Michigan fans that the Free Press is biased in favor of Michigan State and against Michigan. This belief is not without basis. When comparing their recent coverage of Michigan and Michigan State, the two teams have clearly been treated differently. In the Free Press investigation on Michigan's football practices, the Free Press showed a blatant disregard for anything resembling journalistic ethics and wrote a story that did not reflect reality. Here's a repost of what I've written elsewhere detailing my thoughts on the matter:

As a Michigan fan, my perspective of the issues surrounding the practice violations can be summed up thusly:

1. In August 2009, the Detroit Free Press released a story that stated the University of Michigan football team had flagrantly ignored daily and weekly limits on practice time and the use of quality control assistants. The story further went on to claim that some of these limits had been exceeded by a factor of 2 and then some.

2. Subsequent investigation of the allegations in the NCAA and the University of Michigan yielded a number of violations. The substance of the violations can be summed up thusly:
a) Michigan’s biggest offense was the illegal use of Quality Control staff in roles that constituted coaching activities. This was the fault of a failure by the compliance staff to provide the football coaching staff with guidelines (as backed up by documentation) and the coaching staff failing to clarify what was and was not legal with the compliance staff. As such, numerous people are at fault here, one of whom is Rich Rodriguez. However, in defense of Rodriguez, the rules regarding QC staff are rather vague and a number of rules violations committed by the QC staff would no longer be violations today, as the NCAA changed these rules after the investigation, realizing that they were dumb.
b) There were very minor practice overages. The most serious overage was a number of 1-hour overages during the offseason, in which voluntary hours with strength and conditioning staff are limited. During football season, there were a number of practices that exceeded the 4-hour limit by 20 minutes. This excess occurred because the football coaches were present while the players stretched. The coaches were unaware that stretching constituted a countable practice time. Incidentally, stretching is considered voluntary unless observed by a football coach.
c) There were a few other isolated violations. The only serious one was a graduate assistant lying to the NCAA. He was fired before the allegations were released.
d) The violations combined to result in a failure to monitor charge by the NCAA.

3. It is our position that the violations are really not that serious. Contrary to the Free Press report, which stated that Michigan had consistently and egregiously violated practice limits, Michigan only had a few minor overages. More serious is the QC staff problem, but to be fair, the NCAA has been changing and clarifying those rules because they realized that they were neither well-defined nor logical.

4. We also believe, based on comments from NCAA football players throughout the country, including some at Ohio State, that these violations would turn up at any other school. While this is not a defense, it is a reason that we get annoyed when fans of other schools either gloat or are smug about them with regards to us.

5. As the violations that actually occurred do not even begin to approach what was initially reported by the Free Press, one of the lead reporters on the Free Press had written numerous anti-Rodriguez opinion articles, the coverage by the Free Press showed tremendous bias, and the Free Press reporters displayed a disregard for journalistic ethics while putting together the report, I consider the report to be a hit job on both Rodriguez and the university.

Also notable is that when the Free Press posted its series of articles on the investigation, they also posted a brief article entitled, "MSU plays by the rules, say ex-players". In this article the Free Press decided that after investigating Michigan over a significant period of time and writing about Rodriguez's 'outrageous' practice program, doing due diligence in checking how widespread Rodriguez's methods were meant asking a couple ex-players from MSU whether they broke practice rules at school. They, obviously, said no.

Michigan fans also like to note that the Free Press was very soft on MSU* when 15 MSU football players were involved in a fight at a dorm where, by all accounts, they came in to the dorm and just started beating people up. This complaint also holds merit, considering that the Free Press only wrote a few articles on the topic, including this gem that they (presumedly) removed from their site, which was the version of events according to the parents of the guilty players and is (presumedly) inaccurate, considering the criminal charges filed.

These, and other complaints are, in my opinion, reasonable. As a result, many Michigan fans have concluded that the Freep sports section is maliciously anti-Michigan and would like nothing better than to crush the Michigan football program. This sentiment is why people do not take Michigan fans seriously when complaining of media bias. And frankly, people shouldn't take Michigan fans seriously when they express that sentiment, because it is ridiculous that a nationally respected sports section would risk losing all of its credibility in order to take down a local football program.

Having shown major examples of imbalanced coverage with regards to the two programs, I think it is reasonable to say that in the last year or two, the Free Press has been favorable to Michigan State over Michigan. As such, it seems reasonable to ask why the Freep would do this, especially when you consider that the Michigan fanbase is far larger than the Michigan State fanbase and thus, on the face of things, attacking Michigan has the potential to hurt viewership than attacking Michigan State.

My thoughts on this matter are by no means correct. However, they do seem to make sense when you assume that a) the Free Press makes editorial decisions that are designed to ensure that its readership is as high as possible and b) the reason that the Free Press appears to be crossing more ethical lines than they have in the past (excepting Mitch Albom, obvs.) is that they are in a dire financial situation and are therefore willing to sacrifice a degree of their journalistic integrity in order to get more readers. The first assumption is clearly logical and the second assumption is derived from the recent practices of their sports section. Therefore, based these assumptions, I believe that the Free Press has concluded that by covering MSU football in a positive manner and by producing major investigations into alleged improprieties by the Michigan football team, they will get more readers. And I think that this conclusion is correct.

There are multiple reasons I believe that the Free Press's coverage of Michigan and Michigan State allows for getting the largest number of readers possible. First of all, a large portion of the Michigan fanbase has always taken pride in the relatively spotless reputation that the Michigan football program had acquired off the field by never having committed a major violation. This, combined with the large level of interest in Michigan nationally, meant that accusing Michigan of committing a major violation was sure to attract a large number of readers. When compounded with Rodriguez's lack of popularity as a coach, it seems reasonable to conclude that a lot of Michigan fans were unlikely to cease reading the Free Press sports section as a backlash to their investigation because they dislike Rodriguez and that that any potential backlash was worth the huge numbers of readers that would be interested in their story.

Meanwhile, covering Michigan State in a negative light has almost no benefit to the Free Press. Michigan State football is not feared or respected that much nationally because they are not a major power. They are a regional power, to be sure, but they have no real national pull. As such, writing a large series of negative articles on Michigan State's off-the-field issues, such as the 15 players in the Rather Hall incident or Glenn Winston rejoining the football team immediately after being released from prison is not likely to produce an influx of new readers. Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio remains a very popular coach at Michigan State by virtue of beating Michigan and not being John L. Smith and Michigan State fans are generally content with the current state of their football program. As such, writing a long string of negative articles on the Michigan State football program would result in backlash from their fanbase and alienate the fans of a local team for little gain. Therefore, it makes sense to provide positive coverage on Michigan State football.

My overall conclusion is that the impetus for the Free Press' recent imbalanced coverage that has favored Michigan State over Michigan is economic and not heavily determined by any innate biases held by the editors or reporters at the Free Press. While this is still rather unethical and not really comforting to Michigan fans at the moment, it should be noted that if the tables were turned and Rodriguez began winning and Dantonio started losing a lot, then the coverage would likely shift so that Michigan would receive more favorable coverage. Therefore, whining about the Free Press' anti-Michigan bias and developing a persecution-complex as a result is pointless and self-defeating. Instead, if you want to be taken seriously by fans of other programs when talking about the Free Press, I would advise sticking to the facts about the recent coverage of both programs by the newspaper and providing a more believable economic context as explanation.

*Compare the number of articles on a practice investigation of which the overages described ultimately amounted to the coaches being present while players stretched to the number of articles about an incident that saw 15 players involved in a fight.

[/end mildly arrogant take on the subject]

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