The Worst-Reported Stories About Detroit
September 14, 2015
The Toronto Star made this video in December to accompany a story about longtime Detroiters helping to revitalize their city. News reports neglect such residents in favor of stories about white newcomers, panelists said Saturday at a Detroit conference organized by Unity: Journalists for Diversity.
A panel of practiced Detroit observers of color had no trouble responding to a charge from moderator Alicia Nails, director of Wayne State University's Journalism Institute for Media Diversity:
"We will begin with a one-minute opening statement from each of you about a specific example of reporting on the 'new Detroit/ers' that fails to take into account the contributions of old Detroit/ers and/or the human cost of the 'new,'" Nails said Saturday at the Regional Media Summit of Unity: Journalists for Diversity, held in Detroit.
Louis Aguilar, a business reporter for the Detroit News whose family has been in the city since 1929, nominated a Detroit News blog piece by Chad Rochkind. Rochkind is a white Detroiter who began his contribution, "Two weeks ago today, under the banner of the People First Project, I led a group of volunteers to reclaim the parking space in front of Astro Coffee on Michigan Avenue and transform it into a public space. The parklet was an immediate hit and instantly beloved by the community. . . ."
Say what? Who is "the community?" Aguilar asked. In the 2010 U.S. Census, Detroit was 82.7 percent black. The photo accompanying Rochkind's blog piece showed nearly everyone to be white.
Darrell Dawsey, who has worked at several Detroit media outlets and is now communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union-Michigan, held out a New York Times travel piece from 2014. "A Gleam of Renewal in Struggling Detroit," about the Corktown neighborhood, showed "no black people." It was another in which, Dawsey said, "white people were being cast as saviors of the city of Detroit."
At the time, protests over "A Gleam of Renewal" reached Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who contacted Monica Drake, who is African American and the Times travel editor.
"Ms. Drake told me that she never wants to force diversity into stories — 'I don’t believe in checking boxes' — but that she does acknowledge the problem with this article," Sullivan wrote.
The public editor continued, "She said that she would address it at a staff meeting, but that she planned to do so with a light touch. 'I don't see the need for a public flogging.'"
Dawsey also nominated a Detroit Free Press story about a white University of Michigan student who is growing shrimp in a vacant Detroit home.
"Great idea," Dawsey said, but in 2004, when Claud Anderson, a black economist who is also a fish farmer, proposed a black business district downtown to be called "African Town," the idea was denounced by the Free Press. Even some blacks called the idea racist.
The other panelists took their turns, and a theme was emerging: the "savior" narrative Dawsey had articulated.
The event was the second such "regional media summit" of a revamped Unity: Journalists for Diversity, which now comprises the Asian American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association.
After the pullouts of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the coalition scrapped the joint convention it held every four years in favor of smaller regional meetings in places that are having news "challenges," in the words of Unity President Russell Contreras.
The first such session was held in May at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and the next, "Empowering the Southern Narrative," is scheduled for Oct. 16 at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to discuss media literacy, social media, entrepreneurial journalism, poverty and coverage of the civil rights movement. Attendance in Detroit varied between 72 and a little more than 80 people.
Luther Keith, a former Detroit News editor who worked at the paper for 30 years, left 10 years ago to start Arise Detroit, which describes itself as a broad-based coalition of community groups.
Keith told Saturday's Wayne State audience, "We were in Detroit before Detroit was cool." The Arise website elaborates: "Our mission is to launch a new wave of volunteerism for the many [worthwhile] programs and activities that are struggling with the issues that trouble our community . . ."
However, Keith said, "Somehow the people in the neighborhoods don't get enough credit for the work they do." On Aug. 1, Arise Detroit staged its ninth annual Neighborhoods Day, with more than 250 community organizations pitching in to clean up the city. No other city has such an event, Keith said.
Nine days earlier, the Detroit Free Press wrote — inside the paper — about the record level of participation, but the Detroit News ran an Associated Press story in advance of the event, Keith said. "The only time we've been on the front pages is when outsiders are telling their story, but nothing about the black folks they were working with."
Kim Trent, a lifelong Michigan resident, former Detroit News city hall reporter and a member of the Wayne State University Board of Governors, nominated a 2010 NBC News "Dateline" piece that showed Detroiters reduced to eating coon meat, and chef Anthony Bourdain's season-finale of CNN's "Parts Unknown" in 2013.
The former prompted protests to NBC; Trent said she had never heard of the man depicted selling coon meat. Regarding the latter, Trent read the response she posted on Facebook.
"If I lived somewhere else in America and watched Anthony Bourdain's show about Detroit last night I would think folks are insane for living here. He literally did not show ONE neighborhood where blight doesn't rule the day. I get that stark visual images are sexy to national media outlets and I'm not delusional about the fact that many of the city's neighborhoods are in horrible shape.
"But do you really think 700,000 people would live in a city where the only neighborhood choices are: 1. Blighted urban prairies or 2.Hipster strongholds? . . ."
Trent told the audience, "What's new and exciting is what's always been there. The blight is shocking to me, too, but that's not the whole Detroit experience."
Louis Aguilar, a Detroit News reporter, is flanked by journalists Darrell Dawsey and Vickie Thomas at Saturday's panel discussion.
It isn't all about race, but a large amount of it is.
At a luncheon at the Wayne State University Student Center, Walter Middlebrook, an assistant managing editor at the Detroit News and a black journalist, asked a question of Bankole Thompson, a longtime Detroit watcher who was recently named a Detroit News columnist and was the day's keynote speaker.
"Is Detroit ever going to deal with its racial issue?"
"No," Thompson responded. It makes people too uncomfortable.
While the panelists discussing "Reporting Beyond the Narrative: Covering the New Detroit/ers as if it's all New and all Good" could fill in a narrative of whites as the only ones who are "saving" Detroit, they could also name pieces that got it right.
These included an August NPR story, "Who Fixes Detroit? Young Black Detroiters Want To Resurrect A Lost Neighborhood" by Kinsey Clarke; "Surprising — no, astonishing — Detroit revival taking root" from January by David Olive in the Toronto Star; "An Insider's Guide to Detroit" by Tracie McMillan in the Wall Street Journal in June; and columns by Nolan Finley, the white, conservative editorial page editor of the Detroit News, who asserted in March, to the surprise of some, "Black input lacking in Detroit's revival." He followed up on this theme in other columns.
Steve Neavling, a white journalist who writes for Motor City Muckraker, was also praised. "He's in the community. He's embedded," Darrell Dawsey said.
However, Kim Trent declared, "People have a case of race fatigue. We don't want to talk about racism fatigue." In reporting on racial issues, "Let's have the context. Let's talk about Jim Crow, economic disparities, efforts to eliminate black entrepreneurship."
Vickie Thomas, City Beat reporter for WWJ-AM Newsradio and a board member of the National Association of Black Journalists, said she started her journalism career covering Mayor Coleman A. Young, who in 1974 became the city's first African American mayor. He "wanted to make sure that African Americans had a piece of the pie."
Now, she said, after the near-collapse of the auto industry, a disgraced mayor sentenced to more than two decades in prison and a slide of the city into a since-resolved bankruptcy, the city operates under a narrative that says "the black mayors have failed you. It's time for a white leader."
Edward "Mike" Duggan, a white lawyer who took office as mayor last year, has appointed white press aides to frame the stories for the news media. No one is calling him on that, Trent said. "People might want to ask that question."
The need for more race consciousness extends to the newsroom, the panelists said.
"We know instinctively that people hire folks like themselves,"Luther Keith said. In newsrooms, "Put some black folks in charge. They're going to find some black folks."
In the latest newsroom diversity census from the American Society of News Editors, the Detroit Free Press reported 24 percent journalists of color, including its Pulitzer Prize winning editorial page editor, Stephen Henderson. The Detroit News did not report its figures for 2015, but recorded 27.1 percent journalists of color in 2014, its black journalists including two assistant managing editors, Middlebrook for Metro and Felecia Henderson for features.
Ten years ago, the Free Press reported 29.2 percent journalists of color and the Detroit News, 26.2. Panelists cited the "glory days" at the News when the late Chauncey Bailey was a staff writer and columnist (1979-92), Angelo Henderson was a business writer and columnist (1989-95), Elizabeth Atkins covered race relations (1991-95) and Keith created On Detroit, a weekly grass-roots mini-newspaper that ran from 1993 to 2003.
Dawsey added that the role of black journalists is key. "I am not an ambassador from the media to the community," he said. It's the other way around. In conversations about the degree of community sensitivity to black crime, for example, "I can show you the names on the T-shirts" of black youths who have died. "I can show you the funeral directors who drive caravans up and down the street to show black people this is your future" if the violence continues.
"The biggest problem I have is the Detroit media has no institutional memory," continued Dawsey, whose family arrived in Detroit in the 1930s.
Thomas recalled that when City Councilwoman Brenda Scott died in 2002, a producer at her station suggested, "Let's call Coleman Young," who had died in 1997.
Technology now makes it possible for longtime community residents to tell the stories of their own neighborhoods, and Dawsey recommended training them in how to do that.
Eric Ortiz, a former editor at ESPN.com who held a 2013-14 John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University and emerged as CEO of a Storify-like company called Evrybit, told Journal-isms afterward that he wanted to work with Detroit community leaders to do just that.
"We will work with Detroit community leaders/journalists to organize workshops with community members around Detroit and students at local universities like Wayne State," Ortiz, who participated in the conference, wrote Monday by email.
"The workshops will teach community members and students how to use Evrybit to tell multimedia stories on smartphones and teach the fundamentals of storytelling and journalism (ethics, accuracy, reporting tools, etc.). We also will show community members how to distribute stories on their own websites and social channels and look to establish partnerships with traditional and nontraditional media organizations to amplify distribution and awareness. . . .
"Our mission is to make everyone's voice heard and create a new profit model for media. I think Detroit is an ideal place to continue the work. Reinventing the city while providing a new model for local news and media would be a great story. . . ."
For journalists of color, Dawsey said, most important is the need to maintain their integrity. "You can be bought off if you're not careful."
Skin color isn't the only criterion for winning her approval, Trent said. She cited CNN anchor Don Lemon as the kind of black journalist she could not support. "It's clear that he's there as a representative of black respectability politics," she said, a term defined by black writer Aurin Squire as "African-Americans' self-policing morality and propriety in order to better reflect themselves to the white mainstream."
Ideological differences aside, one thing is supremely important for journalists, according to Keith: "Be damned good at your craft."
- Eric Ortiz, getevrybit.com: UNITY Media Summit in Detroit Brings Together Journalists to Discuss Diversity Issues
From left: Dawud Walid of the Council on American Islamic Relations, Russell Contreras of Unity, cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, Osama A. Siblani of the Arab American News, Joe Grimm of Michigan State University, Margaret Holt of Unity, Fatina Abdrabboh of the American Anti-Discrimination Committee and Isra M. El-beshir of the Arab American National Museum. (Credit: Twitter)
"Things aren't getting any better,"Fatina Abdrabboh, director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of Michigan said on Friday, the 14th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "They seem to be getting worse."
Abdrabboh was speaking at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., at the regional media conference of Unity: Journalists for Diversity.
She talked about a third-grader who was called an ISIS terrorist every day for nine months. Those who complained were told "kids will be kids," she said.
Abdrabboh was speaking a day after the City Planning Commission of Sterling Heights, a Detroit suburb, rejected plans for a proposed multimillion-dollar mosque "as hundreds of residents packed inside and outside of City Hall in opposition to the center," as Samer Hijazi reported for the Arab American News.
Hijazi also wrote, "Outside of City Hall, tensions flared between Chaldean residents and local Muslims, some of whom showed up to counter-protest the opposition." The Chaldeans are Iraqi Christians who fled their country after the U.S. invasion meant they lost the protection of Saddam Hussein. The issue is "pitting people of color against people of color," Abdrabboh said.
Moreover, last month the Detroit News reported, "An airplane linked to an FBI surveillance program that tracks alleged terrorists, spies and criminals has flown at least seven times over Metro Detroit, including two lengthy flights over the Dearborn area last weekend, according to public records."
The report hit a nerve, as Osama A. Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News, told the group. "We are targeted daily in the media. Terrorists sell. We are terrorists. We are killers." The mention of Dearborn, with its concentration of Arab Americans, confirmed for many that Arab Americans are secret terrorists, it was feared.
Siblani and other Arab American leaders met Aug. 5 with federal officials and then, on Aug. 11, with Detroit News Publisher Jonathan Wolman and the paper's managing editor, Gary Miles.
By then, the News had reported, "The head of the FBI in Detroit, following the report in The News, said the agency is not investigating terror threats nor targeting communities. "
Miles characterized the meeting as a "refamiliarity session." He acknowledged to Journal-isms by telephone on Monday that "the Arab American community was quite upset about the implications" of the FBI plane circling over Dearborn but said the News stood by its reporting. Miles said that if the FBI had responded with more specificity before the piece appeared, the News would have included those comments.
Siblani and others also complained about the pro-Israeli bias of the American news media, saying journalists have been fired for pro-Palestinian statements but rewarded for pro-Israeli ones.
The problem is compounded by the low numbers of Arab American journalists.
Miles told Journal-isms that the News had at least two Arab Americans. "It's fair to say we would all be better served by diverse viewpoints," the more the better, he said.
- Andrew Kirell, Mediaite: Detroit TV Anchor Angers Local Muslim Community with ISIS Comments (May 8)
Eric Ortiz, getevrybit.com: UNITY Town Hall on Arab Americans Highlights Ways Empathy Could Provide Better News Coverage
- Gyasi Ross, Indian Country Today Media Network: The Day White Innocence Died: An Indigenous Take on #September11