...Now for the news

Oct 4, 2000 at 12:00 am

Twenty years ago, two kids with little money and, most thought, less common sense founded this newspaper. Everyone in 1980 knew it was an impossible undertaking in a city with a dying economy and one too many daily newspapers.

Last week, the Metro Times, now grown up, a bit sleek and more than a little proud of itself, produced a real keeper of an issue, indulging along the way in a bit of an orgy of nostalgia and self-congratulation.

Not that it wasn’t justified. Ron Williams and Laura Markham did more for journalism in this town than anyone else in a long, long, time. This newspaper has told the truth and dug up news when the dailies were determined to ignore unpleasant realities, and sometimes when they weren’t even smart enough to realize they’d missed the story.

Yet it isn’t good enough. This newspaper doesn’t do as well as it should. Neither do I. And not only is the Metro Times not good enough, it just plain isn’t enough. Every year, we run a list of stories the alternative media claim were missed or “censored” by the “mainstream” (read corporate) media. Some are big deals, some not.

But we are, at best, mapping freckles on the face of the real story we seldom touch. The real story involves the true condition of metropolitan Detroit and, by extension, the entire nation. That is something few ever tackle.

Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, pointed this out in his brilliant essay, “The Idiot Culture,” in the New Republic eight years ago. “Today the most compelling story in the world is the condition of America,” he wrote. “Our political system is in deep crisis; we are witnessing a breakdown of the comity and community that has in the past allowed American democracy to build and progress.” Want to know where he put the lion’s share of the blame? The failure of the media to do what they were meant to do, to yell and scream and muckrake.

Unfortunately, “good journalism requires a degree of courage in today’s climate, a quality now in scarce supply in our mass media.” Does anyone think it is any better now, after eight more years of mergers, acquisitions and Mr. Bill? Want to know exactly how vile the things that call themselves Detroit’s daily newspapers are? For starters, drive from where I live, in a pleasant neighborhood near the zoo, right down Woodward to the river. Look at what you see, and think about it.

Really look at it and think about it. That’s the beginners’ tour. Next, take I-94 to Chene, and head south. I did the other day, and wondered why the residents weren’t storming City Hall. Then I remembered; revolutions aren’t made by those who have no hope at all.

Do you ever see this world reflected in those newspapers? (There are worse streets too, by the way.) Do you ever see them asking why this is permitted in such an age of boundless prosperity? Do you ever see any discussion of how we can tolerate this when we have taxpayer money to throw at gleaming new ballparks?

Have you seen anyone — this newspaper included — even suggesting solutions? How often do you see Detroit’s dailies really addressing the real condition of this city? They are less-honest versions of the casinos; instruments of social blight which exist to ship local money back to out-of-state owners.

They don’t even perform the traditional functions of mainstream newspapers.

You could read them for years without getting any sense of what, say, Detroit City Council does, or who really owns the council members.

Yes, they write glowingly about downtown (aka Ilitch) development. Occasionally, one of their more ideological, or merely stupider, columnists writes something muddy on the order of “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Beth DunCombe, oops, Dennis Archer sometimes says such things too, or did before he became bored with his job. But the empowerment zone is pretty clearly a bust, and not even a moron believes new stadiums are going to do it.

What this city, afflicted with the corpses of newspapers, needs is lots more journalism, good journalism, kicking ass, taking names and mainly screaming why. Screaming why, and demanding that somebody try to fix it.

The Metro Times several years ago offered various suggestions to get us off the ground, one of which was a truly nurturing business incubator. I don’t know if that would have hatched our next great success. I do know that the odds are good that we can, that someone can, invent something that will get us to a new Detroit that works. That is, if we really want it enough. Don’t tell me we can’t do better than a half-educated mechanic who jerry-built a system to make cars faster and cheaper. That was less than a century ago, when we were an aging small town. We can reinvent the wheel again, and ourselves.

Caught in a Lie: Here’s a minor example of the lying arrogance with which the Detroit Free Press treats readers. Every day it promises to correct “all errors of fact. If you know of an error, please call John X. Miller anytime.” I decided to test this. On Sept. 9, it published a short story on Kentucky politics with two factual errors. I called old “John X. Miller anytime” and got bounced back to the switchboard, twice. So I e-mailed Miller. It took Bright Eyes a week to e-mail me back.

“We’re still trying to get this confirmed and when we do, if we do, we’ll correct it.” I suggested a minute with the World Almanac. He then told me the writer was not a Freep scab at all, but toiled at their Kentucky satellite instead. Naturally, no correction ever appeared.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]