Dateline Detroit

Looking at the fishbowl effect from the media. Who's been spot-on and who deserves an ass-kicking?

Jul 31, 2013 at 12:00 am


DETROIT The city has been exposed bare. Sure, the spotlight’s flash has shone upon us before and we’ve been the butt of jokes for at least a generation or two. We’ve hosted high profile events, and just came off a notoriety-laden federal trial where our limelight-loving former mayor was convicted on multiple felonies.

But this story seems different. The level of scrutiny following Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy filing has put all the city’s warts on prominent display. We are now fodder extraordinaire for any reporter or analyst who needs a soft target.

Given the scale of the story, it seems logical for Detroit to be in the headlines, but how are the events surrounding Motown’s slide into arrearage being portrayed? Like many things involving Detroit, it’s not a simple answer.

A recent Nexis search conducted one week after the city’s bankruptcy filing produced more than 358 hits with “Detroit” and “bankruptcy” in the headline; from a reporter’s perspective, this is a pretty juicy story. Take the scale of default and couple it with a historical legacy. Add such elements as racial tension and political graft, overlay everything with ideological invective — and you’ve got one hell of a hot mess to write about.

Thankfully, Detroit’s press corps has, thus far, done its job reasonably well in reporting events — especially given the complexities and nuance involved. There are also examples of well-executed editorials proffered by many of the nation’s oldest newspapers, in addition to various policy magazines and think tanks. An editorial by The Kansas City Star reminds readers “Why Detroit Matters Here.” The editorial board at The Washington Post warns readers tempted to dismiss the story that, “As goes Detroit.”

In a July 23 piece by National Journal Editor Ron Fournier titled, “My Hometown: What Detroit’s Demise Says About America,” the Michigan native writes, “Wrenching economic change … income inequality … political corruption … ineffective government … — these are the things that bankrupted Detroit … and they’re an exaggerated reflection of the nation’s challenges.”

Fournier recalls the racial component of Detroit’s struggles in an earnest and reflective way, reminiscing about a childhood in Detroit where he was told to “lock [his] car door in black neighborhoods.”

He also writes of efforts by mendacious real estate agents in the 1970s who drummed up business by hiring black women “to push baby strollers through white neighborhoods, then knocking on the doors urging residents to sell ‘before it was too late.’”

In an email, Fournier agreed that attempts by some in the press to use Detroit’s bankruptcy as subtext for assigning blame or exaggerating is more dog-and-pony show than responsible reporting.

“Detroit’s decline is too complex to squeeze into a tweet or through an ideological prism,” Fournier said. “In a way, the response is a sign of our times. These days, every tragedy is immediately converted into a partisan talking point. And that’s what seems to have happened after the bankruptcy, when the whole world seemed to be dancing on Detroit’s grave.”

The Sunday Star-Times in Auckland, New Zealand, tangoed all over Detroit with an article titled, “How Motown was brought to its knees.” The writer began this way: “In black letters possibly three meters high, a graffiti legend greets drivers heading out of downtown Detroit with the bleak single word: ‘Zombieland.’”

An additional 1,000 words detail blight, population decline and a litany of other generalities. Of course, political theater in the form of Snyder-Republican, Detroit-Democrat plays out too. There’s nothing new, and, apart from titillation, not much that is substantive.

The Irish Times in Dublin, on the other hand, tells the same story with virtually no provocative adjectives. A headline from July 20 reads, “Detroit bankruptcy filing comes after long financial decline.” The 802-word piece is written matter-of-factly, without skirting reality and refrains from conjecture on root causes.

Some think tanks have used the story to highlight significant challenges that felled Detroit and could affect other big cities too — especially underfunded pension and health care liabilities.

Robert Pozen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, published an opinion piece highlighting the degree to which many American cities face exposure to funding shortfalls like Detroit’s.

“Last January, the Pew Charitable Trust did a study of both pension and [other post-employment benefits] shortfalls in the 30 largest cities in the United States,” Pozen wrote on July 23. “The underfunded pension deficits for these cities amounted to $99 billion, while unfunded retiree healthcare benefits totaled $118 billion.”

Conversely, there are those who have written about the bankruptcy story to seemingly up their own city’s self-esteem at Detroit’s expense — middle school on a municipal level.

A piece from the July 23 St. LouisPost-Dispatch titled, “St. Louis: We have our problems, but we’re no Detroit,” by reporter David Nicklaus did little to put Detroit’s insolvency in any context beyond how his hometown is much better off.

Nicklaus writes: “St. Louis, for all its problems, hasn’t suffered economic collapse on the same scale as Detroit. While a too-high 21 percent of city families here have incomes below the poverty line, the figure in Detroit is 31 percent. A city agency here holds about 11,000 abandoned properties, but Detroit may have 10 times as many.”

He continues: “St. Louis’ latest annual report shows $2.2 billion of formal debt. Unfunded pension liabilities add about $640 million — so Detroit, with just over twice the population of St. Louis, has six times as much debt.”

He then poorly couches his schadenfreude when, in the next sentence, he writes: “Comptroller Darlene Green sounded pleased when I read her that calculation.”

Glad Detroit could be there for you, St. Louis.

“We have a lot of issues in common,” Nicklaus said in a phone interview, “including history of racial division and I was … kind of drawing a comparison and contrast.” He then indignantly adds, “My conclusions are what they are.”

The Lake County Star, a weekly in Michigan’s own Baldwin — population 1,200, — ran a piece in its July 24 edition headlined, “Decades of denial, that’s Detroit,” by Jack Spencer, a capital affairs specialist for Capitol Confidential, an online newsletter associated with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

“To the surprise of no one, the City of Detroit has declared bankruptcy. Now, at last, it will be forced to put its house in order,” reads the lead sentence, and continues, “Now, at last, a sense of reality will prevail.”

Spencer then writes, “Well, maybe, but don’t hold your breath.” The 1,000-word article takes turns mocking, excoriating and condescending to Detroit’s citizens and lays his blame for the calamity at the doorstep of voters.

In the age of cable news, it’s virtually impossible to monitor every news show, quasi and otherwise, to know the tenor of reporting. However, cable “news” networks have well-established brands that make it pretty easy to imagine how reports are likely being presented. The country’s network broadcasters, held to be the impartial elder statesmen to their cable cousins, have been accused of being too deferential to Detroit. In a July 22 article titled “Motor City Madness: Networks Tell Upbeat Story as Detroit Goes Bankrupt,” by Kristine Marsh of the Media Research Center, a journalism watchdog group, the author states: “... ABC, CBS and NBC have been painting a rosy picture of the dismal city for the past year — covering positive economic news six times more than negative for the beleaguered city (12 stories to 2).

“Propagandizing about the ‘booming’ auto industry and delivering cheery stories of individuals doing good things for Detroit, while only mentioning twice the fact that the city is about to declare bankruptcy,” Marsh says in her article.

While Marsh’s analysis may be accurate, the fact that the networks chose to air more so-called positive than negative stories is not incriminating by itself. This is where context, which is typically more available in print versus broadcast news, becomes critical.

However, like The National Journal’s Ron Fournier stated after the news out of Detroit broke, “… the whole world seemed to be dancing on Detroit’s grave.”

So, in the end, the media’s continuing coverage of Detroit’s painful metamorphosis is as it always has been, a mixed bag. It reduces down to two axioms: Opinions, as the saying goes, are like assholes — everybody’s got one; and haters gonna hate.

We leave you with pearls of wisdom from the Mackinac Policy Center’s Jack Spencer:

“Detroit, like any other place on Earth. Reflects the character of those who inhabit it. In the final analysis, they get the government they deserve. If their government is habitually rife with corruption … unionism, single-party partisanship and populated by self-serving, distracted officials; that’s ultimately a reflection on the attitude of the voters.”

And, take that, Detroit! 

Bryan Gottlieb is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]