The newspapers and the city

Four years ago next month, most of Detroit’s newspaper unions destroyed themselves by smashing their bodies against the fortified walls of the management of the corporate newspaper combine.

Thousands of jobs were lost, lives ruined, and hundreds of thousands of readers abandoned the "morning" product called the Free Press and the essentially identical "afternoon" version called the News.

The corporations took some short-term losses too; a few tens of millions of dollars, some short-term goodwill. Many of the best journalists left forever, something that troubled the corporate types as much as missing a sunset would trouble a man blind from birth.

The unions surrendered back in early 1997, even as they continued their struggle in the courts. The papers, flush with scabs old and new, sneered. They sniffed they would take strikers back if and when needed, except for those fired because the bosses didn’t like the way they fought for their livelihood.

Today, the strike is essentially forgotten. Occasionally the unions indulge in a little quaint guerrilla activity, sporadically picketing an event. But when young journalists at places such as the Oakland Press leave for Detroit, no one raises an eyebrow.

So what are these papers like now?

This reporter sent Igor from our lab out to buy last weekend’s product. What most struck me was how boring it was. There was no energy, creativity or daring. The headlines reflected this; my fave was the main business head, "Ships Dock In Detroit." Also the mandatory "Dads Tackle Parenthood Solo."

Yes, it was indeed Father’s Day, one of those highly newsworthy greeting-card holidays, and nearly every section was chock-full of clichéd, worn-out Father’s Day stories. My daddy was a dentist, one columnist wrote, and fixed my teeth too, and he is retiring, just imagine. A mediocre ballplayer reflected on his dead dad. Business types, somewhat less smoothly, told about sound advice their daddies had given them.

What I didn’t learn was much relevant to Detroit today. The main Metro story was that Wayne County Prosecutor John O’Hair wasn’t running for re-election, something even I had known for a year or so.

All this helped explain a letter I got last week. A reader sent me a photocopy of a column from the Free Press. "Dear Mr. Lessenberry," he wrote on it. "This is the reason I and so many Black Detroiters are dissatisfied with Mayor Archer."

The June 7 column, thoughtfully labeled "Local Comment," was a confusing, semicoherent fabric of contradictions and errors of fact. " … [T]here are those who want to kick the mayor out of office and those who support the policies of his administration. I am afraid that if this divisiveness continues, the rebirth of this city will stall," argued the writer, Adolph Mongo, who then proceeded to try to stir further divisiveness. From what he wrote, in fact, anyone not familiar with Detroit might easily conclude Archer and his appointees were blond Norwegians ruling a black population.

"African-Americans at all levels are being left out," he said, arguing that black contractors and construction workers couldn’t get a piece of the

This is patently not true. Last summer I spent a lot of time interviewing
workers from minority-owned construction companies and the owners of those firms, such as James Jenkins.

They told me exactly the opposite. Most had tons of work, and were having trouble finding enough black journeymen to do the jobs. Yes, there had been discrimination in the past, especially in construction unions. Some, indeed, feared that when the boom ended, blacks would once again be the first fired.

But good will or no, there is a local law specifying that on any city construction project involving government dollars (which means nearly all of them), a quarter of all work must be done by minorities.

Why did my reader, then, uncritically accept Mongo’s horse exhaust?

Most likely, his main daily source of information on the city is one or both "Detroit" papers, which seldom cover Detroit in any systematic way. That doesn’t mean they haven’t had some story about construction workers. The trouble is figuring out their constantly changing definition of what significant news is, and knowing where to find it.

For the most part, they have given up the franchise. Used to be, when a councilmember proposed an ordinance or the legislature took up a bill, the paper wrote about it. That gave people who cared a chance to cheer, or holler, and maybe affect the process. Today, too often, a story appears only after the bill is passed.

Exceptions exist, as in the debate on the takeover of the Detroit public schools. But even here, the exception proves the rule. Stories are now being written about the appalling physical condition of the schools. Was this a secret to anyone, except perhaps the reporters and editors who "cover" education?

What was going on for the last four years, while the creatures on the elected board sat on $1.5 billion voted to fix up these schools? What, by the way, have these kids been taught about math, civil rights, Vietnam, their city and state’s

Sorry I am such a bitter old man, but my daddy wasn’t a dentist.

Next week, though, I’ll tell you how he and I dropped dynamite into Lake St. Clair Sunday to celebrate the National Rifle Association’s victory over the people. Promise.

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