Looking at the fishbowl effect from the media. Who's been spot-on and who deserves an ass-kicking?
Published: July 31, 2013
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.”
> Email Bryan Gottlieb