Basement banishment

Even during the most embattled days of the Coleman Young, Dennis Archer and Kwame Kilpatrick administrations, Detroit's City Hall reporters remained housed in offices just outside the mayor's quarters.

That era ends with Dave Bing.

The City Hall bureau that is still rented and shared by the dailies and a few radio stations is moving to the basement, under a plan that mayoral spokeswoman Karen Dumas says will make better use of space at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center.

No more 11th floor views. No more memorabilia that's been on the walls since previous eras of Detroit's leaders and their chroniclers.

And most importantly, no more close proximity to Bing's office.

"All I can say is that Coleman Young had a much more direct way of expressing his unhappiness with reporters: He'd curse them out," says Bruce Alpert; now with the Washington bureau of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, he covered City Hall in the 1980s for The Detroit News. (Young, for the record, once said that the worst thing about being mayor was "the shit I have to take off the media.")

The suite of well-worn offices used by reporters since at least the 1970s is situated between the elevators and the mayor's digs, giving reporters an easy glimpse at who is coming or going — if they don't use the private elevator inside the mayor's suite. They have quick access to news conferences and face-to-face meetings.

"There were times it worked out well for the mayor and times the coverage didn't help the mayor by having reporters so close," says Bill McGraw, who worked there in the '80s and '90s for the Detroit Free Press.

Dumas insists that the city is not moving the media to get them away from the mayor but is re-evaluating all of the building's space configurations. However, she says, the city has not determined who or what will move in next door to Bing's office.

"It's not the best use of space. That's the sole reason. It has nothing to do with them," she says. "We've got a great working relationship with the reporters there and will continue to do so. ... They're just an elevator ride away."

Granted, in Detroit's (and the world's) journalistic heyday, the dailies each might have stationed four or so reporters in their bureaus, and the echoes of animated radio voices would bounce off the walls. Now both the Freep and News City Hall bureaus each have just two or three reporters, and only one or two radio reporters occasionally use the space the administration is eyeing.

"The mayor has told us the city needs that office space close to his area for staffing reasons, but that the city folks would work with us on identifying another suitable space for us to lease," says Freep editor and publisher Paul Anger. "They did that as they said they would, we've looked at the space, and although it's not ideal, it's going to be OK for our needs."

But M.L. Elrick, one of the Freep's chief architects of the City Hall coverage that led to the Pulitzer Prize last year, disagrees and predicts coverage will suffer.

"From the 11th floor we could see Bernard Kilpatrick come to visit his son all the time. We could see city officials coming and going and we could intercept them for interviews. You could bump into the mayor in the elevator and ask him question," Elrick says. "We could see when the entire administration was being called in for a meeting. Those are the kinds of things they tend to not put out press releases about, but if you have your eyes open and your ears open you can get a real sense for the rhythm of government, particularly when it's missing a beat."

While Anger seems to dismiss any significance attached to the move, former Archer press secretary Greg Bowens does not. Now running his own public relations consulting business, Bowens says the move is "terrible" and could come back to haunt Bing.

"It's never good to make it seem as if you're trying to dodge the press or control the press in some form or fashion. Mark my words: When you curry that kind of ill will with the press you get that reputation very quickly, and it's usually the signal of the beginning of the end," Bowens says.

And while it might be a little dramatic to invoke the famed Damon Keith, who wrote "Democracies die behind closed doors," we do wonder what will happen to Detroit when what few keepers of democracy that remain are banished to the basement.

"That's where you send incontinent animals," Elrick says.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]