Jack Lessenberry

Essay/Analysis: Political Commentator

A Detroit native, Jack originally intended to become a historian, but recognized that he wanted to become a journalist during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.  Since then, he has accumulated nearly forty years of journalism experience in every medium from newspapers to the internet. Jack has worked as a foreign correspondent and executive national editor of The Detroit News, and he has written for many national and regional publications, including Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Currently, in addition to his work at Michigan Radio, he is head of journalism at Wayne State University and a contributing editor and columnist for The Metro Times, Dome Magazine, The Traverse-City Record Eagle, and The Toledo Blade, where he also serves as ombudsman, and hosts the weekly public affairs program "Deadline Now"  on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

Among his favorite memories are of interviewing Gerald Ford about Watergate in 1995 and winning a national Emmy for a documentary about Jack Kevorkian in 1994.

On a personal note, Jack mostly stopped watching TV -- except for documentaries -- when Mr. Ed was canceled, though he admits to a fondness for the crusty old butler on Downton Abbey.

Every year the governor of Michigan gives an annual State of the State address, modeled after the State of the Union given by the President of the United States.

Usually these are much ballyhooed, televised, and instantly forgotten. Do you remember what either President Obama or Governor Snyder said last year?

Late Friday afternoon I talked at length with Flint Congressman Dan Kildee, who had been urging the governor for months to seek federal aid for the water crisis.

Governor Rick Snyder finally asked the president to declare a federal emergency, which he swiftly did. Kildee, who first urged him to seek Washington’s help back in September, could have been crowing “I told you so.” But he wasn’t. Instead, he told me this was a direct result of a culture which puts balance sheets ahead of human needs.

For years, there has been a huge contrast in this state between election outcomes on the state as opposed to the federal level. Republicans haven’t carried Michigan for a presidential nominee since before the Berlin Wall came down.

They have won only a single U.S. Senate race in the last 44 years. But they dominate every branch of state government.

If this were the nineteenth century, people would compare life in Flint to the troubles of Job, the Old Testament hero who God allows to be tortured by the devil to test his faith.

We don’t use Biblical allusions as much as we used to, but there’s no question that for Flint, the agony just keeps increasing. Actually, it’s more correct to say that we keep discovering more about what’s been happening.

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry talks about the Flint water crisis: how Flint is getting help at the federal level, when Governor Snyder first knew about the water problem and how this crisis has hurt him politically. Lessenberry also talks about why teachers at the Detroit Public Schools are protesting many issues by staging "sickouts."


Well, the governor is finally paying attention to the water scandal in Flint, and there seems to be general recognition that the state really screwed up. Even Rick Snyder said as much yesterday, though in convoluted language.

Children were poisoned because of actions taken by state government, and finally, belatedly, there’s an effort to do something about it.

But children are being irreversibly harmed in Detroit, too, and we’re not willing to do anything about it. I’m talking about the more than forty thousand kids who are still enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools. This time, this is not the governor’s fault.

 

If you read either of the Detroit papers, you’ll find them filled all week with coverage of what is officially called the North American International Auto Show.

Some old-time Detroiters still call it what it used to be: The Detroit Auto Show. It’s been going on every year for more than a century, with one long timeout during and after the Second World War.  Back in the early days it was held in a city park at a place named Beller’s Beer Garden, which seems charming and appropriate.

This has been an intense first week of the year in Michigan politics, with Governor Snyder signing deeply controversial bills, the Flint water crisis, and renewed concern over the impending financial collapse of the Detroit Public Schools.

There were a lot of people – some of them Republicans -- who were shocked yesterday afternoon when Governor Rick Snyder signed a bitterly controversial campaign finance bill.

Many insiders expected he would veto it. In fact, The Detroit News, whose editorial page is sort of a house organ for the Republican Party, urged a veto.

Yesterday was not a good day for Governor Rick Snyder.

First, he signed the bill outlawing straight-ticket voting. There was never any real doubt he would do this.

Those in politics were surprised he didn’t sign it between Christmas and the new year, when most people are paying little attention. 

Jack Lessenberry
Michigan Radio

This Week in Michigan Politics, Jack Lessenberry explains the straight-ticket voting law that Governor Rick Snyder has signed into law, another proposed bill that would block school districts and municipalities from informing the public about ballot measures within 60 days of an election, and Lessenberry explains what Governor Snyder's state of emergency declaration means for Flint. 


President Obama yesterday announced a series of executive orders aimed at enforcing existing laws and lowering the death rate. You might think that was common sense policy.


Well, Happy New Year. I like to catch up on movies during the holidays, and the first one I saw this season was Spotlight, the film about how The Boston Globe exposed the Roman Catholic Church’s sex scandal 14 years ago.

Dozens of journalists I know raved about the movie, and they weren’t exaggerating. Spotlight is clearly the most important film about journalism since All The President’s Men 40 years ago. Like that film, it is largely a documentary with Hollywood stars reenacting the roles played by actual, less photogenic journalists.

The Way it Was

Dec 23, 2015

Well, the holidays are upon us, and my guess is that you may need some last minute present and that you also might be guilty of reading books, even when you don’t have to.

So I want to tell you about the best book I’ve read this year, one you can easily find at any bookstore: David Maraniss’s Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, published by Simon and Schuster. Maraniss is a Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post writer.

Ten years ago, George Clooney starred in and directed the most socially significant film he’s ever done. Good Night and Good Luck was about the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow and his confrontation with Senator Joe McCarthy, the demagogue who ruined lives and careers by recklessly accusing people of being Communists.


I have a little bit of good news to start the week. The United States managed, barely, to avoid crippling sanctions that would have cost Michigan farmers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years.

Several years ago, Congress passed a law that required “country of origin labeling,” known as COOL, for all meat products, no matter where they were from.

Well, we are ending the last full week before Christmas with two pieces of good news: The biggest is that Washington approved a waiver that will enable six hundred thousand relatively poor people in Michigan to continue to get medical coverage under the Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion program.

We barely managed to qualify for this program two years ago after the legislature was dragged kicking and screaming to approve it, even though virtually all the costs are borne by the federal government.

Once upon a time, newspapers and even TV stations in this state devoted intensive resources to covering Lansing. That wasn’t because nobody had heard of the Kardashians; it was because news organizations back then realized that when it comes to affecting our lives, state government really is the most important.

Federal money is passed down through the states, and the states make rules for what local governments can do. Back in the 1980s, at least one Detroit TV station had a full-time Lansing bureau, and for a time the Detroit News had thirteen reporters in Lansing.

You expect politicians to do things to give their side partisan advantage, up to a point. Democrats would certainly draw congressional and legislative district boundaries to help them win more seats, if they had a chance. That’s how the game is played.

But this year, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and his disciple, Senate Elections Chair Dave Robertson, have been shockingly open in not only their drive to make it harder to vote, but in showing utter contempt for the will of the people.

People have been living with cats and dogs probably as long as modern man has existed. Unfortunately, we  abuse our own species all too often, which, come to think of it, is what much of the news is usually about -- and we aren’t always good to the animals either.

Cruelty and neglect are often tied to poverty, and it’s not surprising that some of our biggest animal problems are on the mean streets of Detroit. There, for more than a century, the Michigan Humane Society has been doing what it can to save and re-home animals.

This week, the Michigan House of Representatives is expected to take up a bill already passed by the Senate (SB 638) which has often been referred to as an attempt to enshrine the U.S. Supreme Court decision usually known as Citizens United into state law.

That’s a reference, of course, to the famous and controversial U.S. Supreme Court case, Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission.

Several of the many Republican candidates for President have been in Michigan lately, including Marco Rubio and John Kasich. They drew small but polite crowds.

True, their visits are as much about fundraising as winning votes at this point, but all indications are that the vast majority of the population would have great difficulty recognizing them or articulating where they stand on any issue.

Detroit’s Public Schools are slowly dying. Those who run them would not use those words, but that’s what is happening. The schools have lost sixty-five percent of their students in the last ten years, and have closed more than three-fifths of their buildings.

There’s some evidence of better management in the last year. Enrollment may have temporarily stabilized. The schools have shed some of the top-heavy central office bureaucracy that for years drained resources and messed with education.

Thanks in part to Donald Trump, terrorism and pit bulls, here’s a story you may not have heard about, but which could have a major negative impact on our economy.

Two days ago, the World Trade Organization, or WTO, ruled that Canada was fully justified in going ahead and imposing $780 million dollars in retaliatory tariffs on American goods, primarily meat, because of unfair trade practices by the U.S. government.

The reason that clichés exist is simple: They often express basic truths, as in, common sense is an extremely uncommon thing.

So is the ability to do the right thing even when there’s extreme pressure not to.

It doesn’t require much courage these days to bash Muslims.

But if there is a more reviled group than suspected terrorists, it would be sex offenders, especially when children are involved. I’ve never heard of any judge being criticized for being too tough in such a case.

Down on the Dogs

Dec 7, 2015

For years, we’ve had intense debates about two things that can be extremely deadly, are feared and loathed by many people and intensely, even fanatically, loved by others.

Both can easily kill, and both are much in the news right now. What I am talking about are guns, and pit bulls. The world knows about the two latest mass firearm murders in France and California. But last week Michigan was horrified by two pit bull attacks.

A four year old boy in Detroit walking with his mother was dragged under a fence and torn apart. The next day, a 22-year-old Port Huron woman was attacked and killed while crossing someone’s back yard.

Well, the last of the leftover turkey has been eaten or frozen, and the gift-buying and giving season is here.

Hanukkah starts Sunday. Christmas is just three weeks away, and I can’t wait for the first fist-fight in a Michigan shopping mall.

During lunch yesterday, I listened to two young women at the next table agonize that they didn’t know what they wanted their boyfriends to buy them.

Well, I wanted to tell them I knew another woman about their age who knows exactly what she wants.

When it comes to senseless violence, the last few weeks have been, simply, horrible. Yesterday’s mass killing in San Bernadino, the Paris attacks, the shooting at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs six days ago.

When I first heard a bulletin about the Planned Parenthood shootings, I mistakenly thought that it had happened in Michigan. And I have to confess that I was irrationally relieved that it didn’t happen here, though lives lost in Colorado are no less important.

Last night I moderated perhaps the most significant Issues and Ale panel Michigan Radio has ever done.

It was on Flint’s water crisis, and took place in an excellent restaurant called the Redwood Steakhouse and Brewery. 

I thought I knew about the water crisis before last night, and intellectually I largely did.

But I found myself powerfully affected by the enormity of what has been done to the people of Flint, mostly by the State of Michigan.

Late last week, I heard something disturbing from multiple sources.

They told me that Kary Moss, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan, and some corporate leaders, had met with Governor Rick Snyder and asked him not to support a ballot drive to win constitutional civil protections for gay and transgender people.

When I asked her, Moss denied this. She said they had instead met with him to discuss, “the role that the business community can play in continuing to support his public commitment to this issue as well as keeping this issue in front of legislators, educating them in particular about the trans(gender) issue.”


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