University of Michigan club FlipBlue hosted Michigan’s Attorney General, Dana Nessel, to answer any questions students had about her career. Some, myself included, wondered whether her recent “scandal” would be brought up. For those who are unaware, Nessel attended a tailgate during the Michigan vs. Michigan State game where she got drunk. The controversy was even given a name: “tailgate-gate.” The first words Nessel spoke at the speaker event came in the form of the question: “Are there any Bloody Marys?”
Politicians can be very tricky creatures. When faced with controversy, they have two options. They can either hire a public relations firm, release a statement and wait for the situation to blow over, or they can lay it all out and take the path of transparency. Nessel chose the latter. As such, she shared her side of the story, which was simply that she wasn’t on the clock, a rare occurrence for someone in her position, and decided to take the time and enjoy herself — something I am sure many of us are familiar with. The end. I don’t know about you, but that seems perfectly okay to me. What doesn’t feel okay, however, is the response it has warranted.
All the way from New York City, my dad sent me an article by the Associated Press titled, “Michigan AG says she drank too much at football tailgate.” At the moment, I didn’t think much of the article besides the irony behind the fact that I would be seeing her soon. However, after Nessel spoke on campus, it began to take up much more space in my thoughts. In the days that followed the MSU game, not only were articles about the “incident” the very first thing that would pop up after a Google search of “Dana Nessel,” but also two weeks after the game, the most important thing the public cares about the attorney general is still her drinking. If that doesn’t raise any questions for you, it should.
Not surprisingly, “tailgate-gate” is not the only thing going on with the attorney general. Two weeks ago on Nov. 10, her efforts played a big part in finally reaching a settlement for victims of the Flint Water Crisis with a payout of $626 million. It is the largest settlement in the state’s history yet, but as Nessel brought up in her talk, many people are unaware of the achievement; and being one such person, I know she is right. Nessel further commented on the situation by taking to her Twitter to point out that her incident warranted more media coverage than state Sen. John Bizon’s, R-Battle Creek, assault charges against a nurse practitioner. The reasoning behind such trends can be traced back to one simple thing: demand. The reason that Nessel’s weekend activities flooded Google for so long is simply that people find it more interesting than the work she is actually doing as attorney general.
You may be wondering: how do journalists even decide which stories make the news? Looking at ABC News specifically, the process first begins with the Chief of Staff, who sends out reporters to determine whether an event has “the potential to reveal information of interest.” From there, it is up to the editor to lead an editorial meeting where, as a newsroom, they will decide what stories to cover for the day. But among the multiple factors that go into making this decision, public engagement is one element that definitely stands out. In the words of Chief of Staff Michael Donaldson himself, “something needs to be compelling viewing and compelling information either for a local audience or a national audience to make it into our bulletin.”
As the target of such media, it comes down to us to start changing their narrative. A woman drinking in her free time shouldn’t be what attracts our attention. And that it has merited more coverage than a male politician assaulting a woman or the victims of the historic Flint Water Crisis finally getting the justice they deserve is unacceptable. Though there is some fault on the part of the media in what they choose to report, we as consumers also need to do better. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy; just engaging less with articles like “Michigan AG admits to drinking to the point of being sick during a college football tailgate” that are less news-focused and more centered around gossip is a good place to start. Because it is only when we stop feeding into such stories that we will start to see some change.
Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.