Karen Dumas is the former chief of communications for the City of Detroit and Mayor Dave Bing.
Not long ago, Detroit was the city that everyone loved to hate. Publications and airwaves were filled with criticisms and reports of all that was wrong with the city and its government. If you believed the media, the city of Detroit was Hell and run by demons.
Drive-by reports by the national media and local coverage were negative, superficial, and incomplete. They would fly in – or over – for an aerial view of the city and its residents, leaving those of us on the ground, trying to hold the city together – sometimes by a very thin thread – perplexed as to why media that could tell the whole story only focused on what was wrong.
As the former chief of communications under former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, I know things have been tough and sometimes almost impossible for Detroit. But I used to wonder if the media knew or cared about the role they played in shaping perceptions of a city whose story was far more complicated than one limited to struggle, controversy and a premature obituary.
A few years later, things have changed – drastically – in how Detroit is reported. While we were once hard-pressed to find anything good being said about the city, we now hear or read anything but.
The transition out of municipal bankruptcy in 2014 seemed to be some magical era where everything was erased or attempted to be expunged. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s election the year before seemed to usher in a new set of rose-colored glasses through which all things are now viewed.
I first noticed a change when his new staff was announced. Before, all staff members were listed along with their name, past role, new position and salary for such, age, and city of residence. New staff members were named with no mention of most of those items, especially salary and city of residence.
It’s been uphill from there. According to the media, everything is good, great, moving along, solved or in the process of being resolved, unlike previous administrations when little positive was reported.
To read most accounts now, you would be hard-pressed to know there are federal investigations of towing and demolition contracts, questions about how federal money was spent for a demolition blitz, and concerns about the validity of crime statistics. If this would be any other mayoral administration, those facts would be mentioned in virtually every story.
Nor would readers or viewers know the city is still struggling. Difficult decisions are delayed so budget can appear balanced, the same financial can-kicking that led to bankruptcy. Few revenues are generated. The population is still declining. New developments, such as Little Caesars Arena, are padded with public dollars and tax breaks that don’t do much for the city’s bottom line.
And, oh yeah, some $200 million in pension obligations are quickly coming due. The public deserves answers.
Instead, it is fed a narrative, that of Detroit rising from the ashes like a phoenix. Yes, certain parts of the city like Midtown are doing well and growing – but they were already stable before bankruptcy, and they overshadow neighborhoods that are struggling and ignored.
Duggan was given the luxury of a new palette. The city was stabilized by structural changes implemented by Bing’s administration, including changes to the lighting system, more federal money for new buses, and new police and administration vehicles.
In spite of what is said, this did not just happen in the last three years. And Detroiters throughout its 139 square miles have long worked hard and collectively, championing a city that many called and treated like trash.
I also know there are many things that would warrant at least questions and demand thorough answers from the administration, but it seems that no one is asking.
Instead, the media throw softball questions at the mayor’s administration, and whatever is returned as an answer is considered an unquestionable fact. I don’t know what motivates the change – fear, a desire to be in the inner-circle politically or fear of being a naysayer to “progress” – but something is different.
Yes, perceptions matter. But so do facts. And the media should be consistent about holding public officials accountable at all levels.