Susan J. Demas: It’s a new day in Michigan, boys. Try and keep up.

February 16, 2019 3:03 pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at her first State of the State address | Casey Hull

Just after Christmas 2011, I was sitting in a tent in Arizona’s Arrastra Mountains, enjoying the 20-degree chill and a much-needed break from covering politics 14 hours a day.

Out of habit, I was scrolling through news on my Blackberry (yes, that’s what I had at the time) and stumbled on a quote from then-state Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) calling the founder of the biggest bipartisan public relations firm in Michigan a “hooker.”

Here’s what happened. Kelly Rossman-McKinney had been asked by a Lansing outlet to name the biggest political losers of the year and she listed Jones, which, of course, is not a personal assessment. Jones was so incensed that he emailed comments that were highly personal, including, “Unfortunately Kelly, like a ‘hooker’, works for whichever client hires her — policy be damned.”

Rossman-McKinney — who founded her own firm in the 1980s as a single mom and built up what became Truscott Rossman — can certainly hold her own, but she wasn’t even asked to respond to the incendiary and completely inaccurate statement.

Kelly Rossman-McKinney

Unfortunately, a lot of men in journalism — many of whom run and manage outlets — didn’t see that as a problem when I raised it. It turned out that my assessment of the situation was correct, however, as it exploded into a weeklong firestorm covered by most of Michigan’s media.

John Truscott, a Republican who was Rossman-McKinney’s partner, was livid. The head of Jones’ caucus, then-Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe), apologized for his comments.

And Truscott clearly hasn’t forgotten the insult seven years later.

Michigan has been gripped by a new controversy over a FOX-2 story quoting random commentators creepily assessing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s dress and body parts this week. (I wrote a column torching the story, which apparently made many on FOX-2’s staff very sad, if their whiny tweets are any indication).

John Truscott

FOX-2 was called out on Twitter by both the governor and the GOP speaker of the House, Lee Chatfield. But the station decided to double down on the story. On Thursday night, News Director Kevin Roseborough issued a rambling, defensive statement that concluded with the ultimate chutzpah move of trying to get Whitmer to agree to an interview.

On Friday, Truscott joined a bipartisan chorus in condemning FOX-2’s management for running the piece.

He drew parallels between the station’s reaction and Jones, who later challenged Rossman-McKinney to participate in the Special Olympics charity event known as the “Polar Plunge” in a swimsuit. And Truscott complimented Whitmer’s handling of the situation.

Truscott only runs a highly successful PR firm specializing in crisis management that’s just opened up a Washington, D.C., office. So, really, what would he know about how to handle such matters?

But FOX-2 management seems content to ignore its myriad critics, which include the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, who wrote a devastating critique of the station’s “putridly sexist story.”

Gretchen Whitmer at the MDP Convention, Feb. 2, 2019 | Ken Coleman

After dismissing journalists and public figures like former House Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) on Twitter, the reporter who did the story, Erika Erickson, said she wouldn’t be commenting further.

Erickson also ironically complained about comments people had made about her looks — in a fit of complete self-unawareness — and then sniffed that Whitmer hadn’t agreed to an interview with her. A FOX-2 sports reporter, Ryan Ermanni, also felt the need to harangue the governor for not talking to the station.

It’s always deeply sad to see an outlet that diminishes the profession of journalism like FOX-2 does, especially in an era in which the president routinely degrades us as “enemies of the people” and “fake news.” And FOX-2 clearly has a culture problem. You can probably expect that we’ll hear more about that in the future as staff leave for brighter opportunities.

Dana Nessel, Oct. 16, 2013 | Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

As for Whitmer, she comes out of this sorry episode looking like a strong leader who won’t take any crap. That’s how Rossman-McKinney looked after her flap with a GOP legislator who’s slipped into anonymity after crashing into term limits.

She’s now communications director for Attorney General Dana Nessel, who’s also not exactly known as a shrinking violet. Nessel recently said of the bar set by her GOP predecessor, Bill Schuette: “Every day I don’t set a kitten on fire, I’m a hero now.”

Times have changed.

Like most women, I’ve gotten my share of harassment over the years. But now when dudes make leering comments about my “rack” or inform me that my long hair isn’t professional, I no longer hold my tongue.

Bridget McCormack, 2018 | Facebook

I don’t have to fight with newsroom management about why sexism is a story. At the Michigan Advance, we’re not afraid to call it out, loudly and proudly.

And in case you hadn’t noticed, Michigan is run by women now. That’s not an exaggeration. Our governor, our attorney general, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget McCormack are all female — not to mention all the women who run powerful state boards and departments and have critical positions in the Legislature and Congress.

It’s a new day, boys. Try and keep up.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.