What do you do if you’re a government official and a journalist gives voice to ethical concerns over a process to award lucrative licenses? If you’re a standard-fare politician, you might say that’s just the way things are done around here. But if you work for an administration with a track record of undermining the media, you might bust out your digital megaphone, and say it sarcastically as hell.
This week, the The Detroit Free Press
reported that two demolition contractors sit on a Detroit board tasked with licensing other demolition contractors who can receive millions in taxpayer dollars, in what one expert called a “classic conflict of interest.” The ethical issue can potentially exist, the Free Press
reported, because a city ordinance enables the mayor to appoint all seven board members without any additional approval.
But for team Duggan, the way the journalist behind the story explained this was apparently insufficient. So someone in the administration — it’s unclear who — took it upon themselves to log on to the city of Detroit’s official Twitter account and sarcastically dismiss the report.
“Breaking News: City
of Detroit follows 40-year-old City ordinance!” the tweet said. “Monday’s Free Press
story regarding the city’s Board of Wrecking Examiners uses an ordinance approved by Detroit City Council 40 years ago that every mayoral administration since has been required to follow.”
Before we address the tone of the statement — let’s take a quick detour to examine why it might not make the most sense for the mayor's office to appear as if its simply writing off the report.
While every mayoral administration in the past 40 years may indeed have been required to follow the ordinance, the board has arguably never played as vital a role as it currently does under Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who’s presiding over the most ambitious demolition program in city history. Duggan is also the only mayor who has had his demolition program come under criminal investigation. Last year, it was revealed that a grand jury had been impaneled to look into the program
, following reports of spiraling costs and the awarding of “unit price” contracts to developers invited by the Duggan team to a pre-bid meeting. Documents released since then, from a separate state investigation, suggest the demolition officials engaged in bid-rigging and collusion
with contractors, the Free Press
reported in March.
Duggan appointed one of the two contractors who sit on the wrecking board, in May 2017, a month before news of the grand jury probe broke. Contractor Richard Adamo, of the Adamo Group, was tapped to replace his brother, who died unexpectedly. Though the Adamo Group has reportedly been awarded more than $40 million
in demolition contracts, the Duggan administration maintains that putting the head of that company in a position where he can vote to issue or revoke the licenses of competitors does not present a conflict because the board “plays no role in contracting.” In an email to Metro Times
, a spokesman for Duggan added that the board serves only in an advisory capacity, with all recommendations requiring approval from the head of the Detroit Building, Safety Engineering and
Environmental Department — another Duggan appointee. But Duggan spokesman John Roach said that the head of BSEED has, to his knowledge, never over-ridden a decision made by the board.
The Duggan administration’s impolite response to the Free Press
was just the latest salvo in its at-times contentious relationship with the media organizations tasked with holding it accountable. During last year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, as Duggan was running a re-election campaign marked by criticism over Detroit's unequal resurgence, he appeared to blame journalists for the perception that only the city's affluent areas had revitalized.
“By listening to the media, you’d think everything is happening in downtown and Midtown,” he said in his keynote address. “Neighborhood residents know that’s not true.”
simultaneously blasted out to tens of thousands of people via Duggan’s official Twitter account, prompted Detroit News
columnist Bankole Thompson to pen a piece titled, “Duggan shouldn’t copy Trump on media.”
“When the media gives voice to Detroiters who depart from the mayor’s narrative, Duggan should see it as fair and necessary,” Thompson wrote. “He should not be jumping to Twitter like Trump to dismiss contrary views and projecting the media as non-credible.”
But Duggan did not heed the advice. About two months after the column was published, Duggan told the Free Press
that the “two Detroits narrative” — shorthand for the disparity between the city’s affluent greater downtown and its struggling neighborhoods, a disparity supported by myriad statistics — was “a fiction coming from you.”
Shortly after that, his new “storytelling” department
published a hit piece on this very publication, questioning our financial stability and mocking our coverage of Detroit’s neighborhoods (in words we could not have said better ourselves, Metro Times
contributor and journalist Steve Neavling, on his website Motor City Muckraker, described the piece as raising “serious questions about whether a member of Duggan’s administration is engaged in propaganda to discredit a news organization
that has taken a serious look at the mayor’s spotty record on poverty, foreclosures
, affordable housing
, and vacancies
.”). This May, back at the Mackinac Policy Conference, Duggan undermined a Free Press
report that gave voice to concerns over gentrification
in a neighborhood not far from downtown.
“There’s an article in the Free Press
where people are complaining that property values are going up in Southwest Detroit,” Duggan said in an interview with WDET
. “We got the only city in the country where the newspaper writes a negative story.”
More recently, the Duggan administration took issue with an anonymously sourced report by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff, which described the mayor as a “person of serious interest”
in the demolition investigation. Spokesman Roach responded to the story with a statement that read, in part, “I know his professional career has deteriorated badly, but at this point LeDuff has become a complete embarrassment to himself.”
LeDuff and his flamboyant style of reporting have drawn the ire of the Duggan administration on numerous occasions. Ultimately, however, he was the first to report on possible bid-rigging in the Detroit demolition process, bringing to light the key private meeting in which the city negotiated prices with a set group of contractors before issuing a formal bid.
(The city has said it did this because there were only a few contractors who could handle the amount of work that needed to be done in a short period of time, and that other companies were free to bid. None did, and the window in which they could do so was open for only two days
“What’s happening here is they’re
desperate little men, they’re cornered,” says LeDuff. “If everything is hunky-dory, what would get you so nonplussed about the demo board?”
While Duggan and his team may draw comparisons to the Trump administration for undermining and discrediting reporters — at times without even a hint of civility — a media ethics expert says such tactics predate the president and aren't all that uncommon.
“The old saying in law in criminal court is if your client is innocent then attack the evidence,
if your client is guilty then attack the law,” says Al Tompkins, senior faculty at the non-profit Poynter Institute for Media Studies. “If the story is true and accurate but not very complimentary, then they can't argue the facts and they'll just argue the reporter. There's nothing new about attacking the messenger if you can't attack the message, and sometimes they attack both.”
It’s worth noting that in the recent case of the sarcastic tweet about the wrecking board story, the Free Press'
Katrease Stafford said the Duggan administration had not reached out directly with an issue about her reporting. It’s common practice for the communications' staff of public officials to, after a story is published, email or call a reporter about possible inaccuracies or omissions.
But in the age of social media, Tompkins says it’s typical for public officials to bypass the media and take their message directly to citizens.
“It’s petty,” he said of the city government’s tweet, specifically. “But to do it from an official government account on Twitter is just not that unusual. I can think of half a dozen instances when police departments and others responded on social media.”
“Why do they do that? Because they don't have to answer to anybody.”
In an email to Metro Times
, the mayor’s chief of staff, Alexis Wiley, who is also a former reporter for WJBK-TV, said, “We chose to share these facts directly with the public via social media because we have first amendment rights, too.”
Asked whether she felt that in attempting to tarnish the media’s credibility, the administration risked dulling a tool to that helps the city thrive, she responded:
"Our city is filled with talented hardworking journalists who by and large produce fair and balanced coverage every day. But when there is a story that is inaccurate or misrepresents the facts, especially when the information was provided to the reporter prior to publication, we have a responsibility to the public to correct the record and that's what we do."
By and large, however, that does not appear to be what’s going on here. Claiming Detroit is not plagued by inequality, saying skyrocketing real estate costs do not merit critical coverage when the grown children of long-time residents can no longer afford to live near their families — those are not quibbles over fact. That is political spin.
Earlier this year, as Duggan prepared to begin his second term, he again rejected the notion of “two Detroits
,” calling it “90 percent media.” That prompted Thompson to again opine, “Duggan points at media, ignores Detroit’s ills,”
in a piece highlighting a series of grim statistics
gleaned from government data. According to a report issued last year by Detroit Future City, 33 percent of jobs in the city's business district were held by black people, while 61 percent were held by white people (the city is about 80 percent black); more than half of Detroiters lived in areas of concentrated poverty; and 57 percent of the city's children lived in poverty.
In 2017, Thompson advised Duggan to appreciate the role that critical journalism, rather than cheerleading, could play in the city’s comeback. This year, he proclaimed Duggan to simply be “a man who does not want to face reality, and — like President Donald Trump — wants to blame the media for the issues unraveling under his administration.”
Where Duggan and his team of storytellers will go from here is unknown. The publication they have most frequently derided, however, says it plans to dig in.
“The responses from the city and mayor speak to the power, accuracy, and impact of our reporting. There will be more of that reporting coming,” says Free Press
editor Peter Bhatia. “One of the primary functions of a daily newspaper is to hold major institutions accountable. A snide comment here and there isn’t going to deter us.”
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