One Cheer for the Free Press

May 25, 2005 at 12:00 am

Thanks in large part to excellent reporting by the Detroit Free Press, it’s clear that it might be necessary to support Kwame Kilpatrick for re-election.

That is, we may have to support him if one of the other candidates turns out to be Adolf Hitler in disguise, and if ol’ Adolf, who would now be a robust 116 years old, ends up pitted against Kwame in the general election.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to imagine any circumstances under which anyone who is paying attention and isn’t a masochistic psychopath could vote for this childishly self-indulgent and, worse, incompetent professional officeholder.

His appointees are in the same mold. Joe Harris, the city’s auditor general, says he doesn’t believe Kilpatrick’s people even understand the numbers enough to calculate the true state of the city’s dismal finances.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less about the mayor’s alleged “partying” lifestyle, as long as he pays his own bills. Unfortunately, we now know he doesn’t.

This is a man who, while at the helm of a dying city that can’t provide essential services or educate its children, spends thousands of dollars to keep limousines — oops, “chauffeured sedans” — waiting in the street while he parties through the night. Oops, make that “negotiates to bring new business to Detroit.”

New business that, somehow, seldom comes.

Thanks to a lot of dogged reporting, primarily by Mike Elrick and Jim Schaefer, we know a lot about what the mayor has done. Readers of this column know that I often am highly critical of both Detroit newspapers, especially of the Detroit Free Press, in part because The News, sadly, no longer matters as much.

Yet the Free Press has done a fine job here, fighting for two years to get something the public should have instant access to — records of what the mayor charged to the taxpayers on the city’s credit card.

Reporting these facts took a certain amount of moral courage. That’s because the editors had to expect that when they had the goods on Kwame and put them on proper public display, the mayor and his minions were likely to holler that they were the victims of unfair attacks by a racist white media.

That hasn’t happened in a big way — yet — though I still expect it will. The mayor showed a version of that last week, when WDIV-TV reported that the city has spent $130,000 on bottled water for city employees. That is especially curious, since the mayor likes to say Detroit has the best tap water in the world.

Kwame Kilpatrick’s response to the bottled water exposé would have shamed a snake. “Slavery is over. It is. We don’t need for massa to tell us to get some water,” he said.

Evidently he also didn’t need massa to tell him it was all right to spend poor black taxpayers’ money on luxury hotel suites and visits to chic Washington, D.C., nightclubs, where he behaved so badly the district cops are no longer willing to provide security for Detroit’s high-rolling mayor.

Where the Free Press fell short, and back into its usual timidity, was in its latest editorial on the thoroughly contemptible behavior of this caricature of a public servant. After noting that he was “living high off the taxpayers of a city that’s broke,” and was “attempting to cover up the evidence of his extravagance,” the paper turned wishy-washy.

“The mayor launched his campaign Tuesday for a second term. He has work to do to show that he deserves it,” an observation that insults the newspaper’s own reporting, which has compellingly shown that there’s no way one can justify re-electing Kwame Kilpatrick to anything.

Incidentally, watch for a major theme of the mayor’s re-election campaign to be something on the theme of “don’t let outsiders tell Detroit what to do.”

Ironically, re-electing Kwame Kilpatrick might be the fastest way for Detroit to totally lose control of its own affairs.

What do I mean? Simply this. If Detroit at some point fails to be able to pay its bills, the state may be forced to step in, declare the city in receivership and appoint an emergency manager to run the city. That’s what happened in Hamtramck. That’s how Highland Park is being run now, and will continue to be.

Nobody wants to see that for Detroit, other than those who have contempt for the city and the people of color who run it, which unfortunately may amount to a majority of the Legislature. Gov. Jennifer Granholm, never all that popular in Detroit, will do contortions to avoid agreeing to disenfranchise the city’s voters, at least until she’s been safely re-elected in November 2006.

Nevertheless, she may wind up not having much choice in the matter. If a new mayor is elected this November, odds are that she or he will get some short period of honeymoon in which to grapple with the mess.

Kwame Kilpatrick’s re-election would be interpreted by some in Lansing as a sign that there’s no hope for rational behavior on the part of Detroiters, and they’ll then draw their own conclusions about what must be done.

What nobody — not even me — wants to talk about is what the mood on the street might be if the Legislature says that Detroiters are no longer going to be allowed to run their own city’s affairs. Or what might happen in the hoods.

But there’s clearly reason for worry.


So, is anyone paying attention?: What must give the mayor some hope is that, as damning as the newspaper coverage of his shenanigans has been, increasingly, fewer and fewer people read either daily newspaper.

In fact, the vast majority of households in Detroit and in the metro area take neither newspaper. Prior to the agreement that allowed The News and the Free Press to partially merge in the late 1980s, The Detroit News sold around 670,000 copies every day. The Detroit Free Press sold around 630,000.

Since then, the numbers have been in free fall. Here are the circulation numbers as of the end of April, supplied to me by an internal source: Detroit Free Press: 350,378; The Detroit News, 217,277. That means nearly half the Free Press’ readers and two-thirds of The News’ have vanished.

That’s pretty amazing. You really have to work very hard to do that badly. And the numbers continue to fall. The Free Press has lost 5,330 subscribers since last April; The News has lost 5,919. The weekend circulation trends are much worse; they’re selling 35,144 fewer Sunday papers this year than last.

What about the city of Detroit? Well, The Free Press now sells 51,378 copies every day in a city of 895,000 people. That means more than four out of every five households don’t take it. That should make Kwame Kilpatrick breathe a little easier. Back when the New York newspapers were beating up on Boss Tweed, the corrupt 19th century political boss, he professed not to care.

He worried only about political cartoons. “My voters can’t read,” he’s supposed to have said. Our mayor is hoping there isn’t a lot of difference between “can’t” and “don’t.” And if it comes to arguing the point … I won’t.

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