60 Minutes may have done its worst hack job of the year last week with its story about the gloom and doom of Detroit. CBS correspondent, Bob Simon, who has the appearance of a cadaver propped up for one last broadcast, notes in his most dramatic tone that his story represents “what an American city looks like when it goes bankrupt.”
Once upon a time, this show was one of the few reasons for me to turn on the television. In spite of the left-wing propaganda spewed by its orthodox producers and correspondents, Ed Bradley (RIP) was a beacon of journalism in his early days, and even Mike Wallace (RIP) was a fascinating individual who often put forth some thought-provoking editorial attempts. Now, 60 Minutes is left with its old guard of cadaveric gatekeepers who can barely make an utterance without bringing forth images of the propped-up corpse in Weekend at Bernie’s.
In this latest journalistic attempt at shedding light on the media spectacle that Detroit has become, Bob Simon takes the injudicious view of the city as a collective whole. There is no distinction between public and private entities, and the role of each sector in the city’s sordid history. The “city” is implicitly defined as some vague organism having shot its wad after fifty years of “race riots, spending sprees, borrowing binges, and corruption.” And then, the government’s financial position of insolvency is somehow held up as the standard by which all things Detroit should be measured. And when Simon comes upon something other than a dilapidated building, a dead body in the weeds, or another rundown emergency vehicle – surprise, surprise, what’s going on here? Could it be progress on the part of private interests, of both the citizen and business variety? That stuff hardly sells to the booboisie on American television.
Early on, the 60 Minutes hit piece conveys the impression that there are no thriving businesses, no risk-taking entrepreneurs, and no grassroots movements of residents reclaiming the city on their own dime and own time. Detroit is a city that, Simon says, looks like Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. The core of Simon’s commentary is that the buses don’t run on time (Mussolini could surely fix that); the city looks like Dresden after the allied bombing (same old ruin porn); the streetlights don’t work; and there are the 80,000 abandoned buildings (a considerable stretch). I am surprised that Simon didn’t bring up the fantasy reports of 50,000 wild dogs that are said to be roaming the city in packs. Yawn. So where is the story?
The gist of Simon’s tale is that the city is helplessly downtrodden except for a small pocket of downtown that appears to thrive, thanks to one insatiable capitalist. On that note, Simon interviews Dan Gilbert, the Detroit billionaire and entrepreneur, from his office with a downtown panorama as the setting. The backdrop deliberately suggests a wealthy man in a pricey suit looking down at his development empire from his downtown tower, scanning the plebeian and bankrupt masses of the city. This is reminiscent of the scene from the 1956 movie, the The Ten Commandments, where Rameses II, pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire, looks down upon his slaves as they build the city by hand, brick by brick. This is shoddy, melodramatic journalism on the part of a gaggle of fourth-estate dilettantes.
Simon’s burning question to Gilbert is, “Are you doing what is good for Detroit or what is good for you?” That sets Simon’s tone for the entire commentary on Dan Gilbert and his role in revamping the city via the pursuit of private interests. Simon picked on Gilbert because he is the city’s second largest landowner after Government Motors. The reason for spotlighting Dan Gilbert was to be able to point out that a ‘destitute city’ is at the mercy of a wealthy, money-grubbing entrepreneur who is greedily buying up city land at bargain-basement prices.
There were only a few nebulous comments about Gilbert’s role in funding startups with seed money and walking his talk through action that brought many of his employees downtown. While Gilbert may not be the perfect free-market guy in all respects, he was taking risk and investing in Detroit when few other tycoons were willing to do the same.
Laughably, Bob Simon shows the prosperous downtown area and makes the comment that the visual he sees is something that “hardly what comes to mind when you think of bankruptcy.” Apparently, Bob doesn’t understand that it is the government that is bankrupt: not the businesses, not the entrepreneurs, not the spirit, not the future, and not the people. In fact, 300-plus years of splendid history doesn’t promptly dissolve because bureaucrats file court papers begging for financial mercy due to decades of unchecked government criminality.
The real story is that Detroit continues to move forward and thrive in spite of decades of government corruption, largesse, and barriers to success. Bob Simon, oddly enough, spent in inordinate amount of time focusing on a conversation with a firefighter about a fire truck with a perpetually leaking water tank, as if this problem is an ideal linchpin, or is somehow unique to Detroit.
Finally, the CBS crew did show selected shots of great, historic neighborhoods; the motor city blight busters, a community action group; and a few other positive angles. But the thesis had already been evoked with purposeful intent. The night the show aired, Dan Gilbert tweeted a comment about the fact that 60 Minutes had entirely missed the real story of what is transpiring in Detroit. So Dan Gilbert gets it, too.
Back in Detroit’s darker days, Mike Wallace came to Detroit to cover the “wave of corruption and mismanagement” that was Detroit in the 1970s. His story, “Hell Upon Detroit,” focused on how government and its criminal allies in the private sector served as a tool of destruction and corruption upon the city. The Wallace story is far from flawless, but at least government – and not savvy entrepreneurs – was the proper culprit.
At some point, just maybe, the national media will come to grasp the idea that the story of Detroit as a blighted canvas that consists only of ruin porn and government services that don’t serve is no longer remarkable news, nor is it demonstrating competence on the part of the jaded, old media organs.
See Karen DeCoster’s blog Detroit: from Rust to Riches for more on her Detroit perspective.