Politics & Prejudices
On our local journos' feeding frenzy over Karen Dumas
Published: July 6, 2011
Last month, the local media turned on Karen Dumas, a top aide to Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, with the sort of savagery starving sharks normally reserve for a freshly bleeding swimmer.
Suddenly, the press discovered that the mayor's communications director was an evil sorceress who was bewitching the mayor! Driving good people out of the administration!
For eight days they pounded energetically at her. The excuse was a bizarre lawsuit by Rochelle Collins, another Bing aide the mayor had attempted to quietly ease out of her job.
Non-news flash: People who get fired often file angry and absurd lawsuits. Collins, who has been described to me as "way over her head" in the job she lost, brought forth a doozy: She is demanding $750,000, reinstatement as an "executive assistant" to the mayor, with a salary nearly twice what she was making, and a private meeting and "personal apology," from Dave Bing.
And while she forgot to ask for a pony, she did ask for $100,000 for her husband's "emotional distress and loss of consortium."
Well, we all need a little consortium from time to time, and I hope the poor man gets some. But I don't know why the taxpayers ought to have to pay a hundred grand for it.
Naturally, Collins's suit also savaged her direct boss, Karen Dumas. She said Dumas drove down morale in the office! (Why, whoever heard of any boss doing that?) Horror of horror, Collins also charged that Cruella DeVil canceled a meeting with our sainted senior senator, Carl Levin, because she wanted to shop at Burberry.
Karen Dumas said that was absurd. (Actually, what she should have done was taken Carl to Burberry; the man is a bit rumpled, and could use a makeover before the next election.)
Bizarrely, the media acted as if these accusations were proven facts, and used them as a springboard to destroy Dumas. They incorrectly called this a "whistleblower lawsuit," when it was anything but. Whistleblowers are people in government who courageously come forth with damning information, at great risk to themselves.
Once you've been fired, you aren't a whistleblower. But this was way too fine a distinction for the News and Free Press, and the radio and TV reporters who follow, rewrite and ape them.
The word was out that it was time to destroy Dumas, and stories filled with anonymous sources followed, day after day, coupled with large pictures that made her look like a stressed-out speed addict.
What was baffling is that the same reporters who were out to do in Dumas paid scant attention — at least after the first day — to Rochelle Collins' far more serious charges against the mayor.
The lawsuit says that Dave Bing was plotting a complete takeover of not only the city, but the schools, and that he secretly wrote legislation that his stooge, one Gov. Rick Snyder, could sign.
"I know for a fact that [Bing] was involved in the writing of that legislation and making sure than everything was in place so that the mayor could take control of the city of Detroit and DPS."
Did she have a smoking gun, or at least a smoking document? Well, no, because "he didn't talk to all his staff about it because he didn't want it to get out." Perhaps Buzz Lightyear flew in and told Collins. In any event, those charges would seem to be far more significant than that — waahhh! — Dumas was mean to people.
But the media had its agenda, and may have correctly figured that there was no way they could oust the mayor. Eventually, as I said in this column last week, they began writing things to the effect of: "Well, nobody has alleged Dave Bing has been sleeping with Karen Dumas, but she is a pretty woman and he is a powerful man, and Kwame Kilpatrick screwed his top aide, so who needs facts?"
After a week of this, the mayor eventually admitted that the controversy had produced too much of a "distraction," and so he fired Dumas, who, in addition to her communications duties, wore multiple other hats, including supervising the city's community action centers, philanthropic affairs and cable communications.
Firing her leaves a number of giant and not-easy-to-fill holes. However, if Bing felt this would keep the wolves from his door, he was sorely mistaken. Throwing raw meat to wolves tends only to whet their appetites. Within days, it became evident how much the mayor needed his fired aide's skills. When City Council rejected his offer for a compromise over the budget, he appeared to have a temper tantrum.
The mayor proclaimed he was done negotiating, and would instead cut everything to the bone; close parks, lay off cops, so there.
Karen Dumas, whatever her managerial faults may or may not have been, would never have allowed the mayor to make such a petulant statement. Naturally, he was back negotiating the next day.
Last weekend, I caught up with Dumas over lunch, and was surprised by how philosophical she seemed. Though she left a $141,000 job without severance or benefits, she didn't appear bitter.
I told her I thought it sent a bad signal when she hired Sharon McPhail to defend her against Collins' lawsuit. "I never hired her," Dumas told me. "She offered advice, but I didn't hire her."
That stunned me; I had read it in the Detroit News; seen it on TV. Dumas smiled. "Don't you think it is pretty clear the media care more about being first than being correct?"
Well, duh. That's what I've been criticizing them about for years. I am not especially worried about Dumas, who is plenty resilient and talented enough to reinvent herself.
However, I am more worried about the mayor's administration, not to mention the city. There's a scene in Oliver Stone's monumental movie Nixon, in which Tricky Dick fires some aide in an effort to get the heat off himself. H.R. (Bob) Haldeman turns to counsel John Ehrlichman.
> Email Jack Lessenberry