Media narratives lie in the eye of the beholder. And Detroit—poster child of urban decline, home to America’s largest municipal bankruptcy, and now the site of a tenuous downtown turnaround—makes for particularly fertile ground.
The most recent occasion for out-of-town journalists swooping in to tell a Great American Story came this week, the 50th anniversary of a police crackdown-turned-citywide rebellion that left dozens dead and much of Detroit in flames. It capped off a summer of such clashes across the country. Reporters recently returned to probe the roots of the violence and explore whether Detroit has healed.
Their efforts have left much to be desired, highlighting the mainstream media’s deeper inability to cover communities of color in fast-changing cities like Detroit. America’s urban crisis is far different than it was in 1967—as is the media. But the latter’s failures today eerily mimic of those a half-century ago.
Detroit is indeed witnessing improvement. “There are signs of rebirth in Detroit,” the Associated Press wrote in its anniversary story, which portrayed a city at an historic inflection point. “Detroit is on its way back,” concluded MarketWatch, owned by the parent company of The Wall Street Journal. “A city revives,” added the BBC.
But such set pieces too often gloss over what’s hiding in plain sight, and they’re merely the latest entrants to a well-established canon of storytelling about Detroit that fails to capture the racial inequality embedded in its supposed resurgence. Take The Washington Post’s 2016 description of the city struggling from a lack of grocery stores as “a food mecca.” Or a Wall Street Journal feature on how a city with tens of thousands of abandoned houses “offers an urban lifestyle with affordable luxury homes.” Even some more considered stories—on the city’s population loss or attempts at education reform, for example—fail to honestly grapple with issues of race, or the city’s long history of them.
The spoils of Detroit’s renaissance have gone largely to corporate suits or craft-beer loving creatives in its increasingly white downtown core, while the familiar signs of urban decline continue in many of the city’s primarily black neighborhoods. The failure to say as much explicitly obscures Detroit’s story, and it echoes the media’s mistakes leading up to 1967.
Look no further for evidence of that inertia than the Kerner Report, the federal autopsy of the rebellion which was commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago today. Nicknamed for its chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., its task was to study how to “realize the promise of a single society—one nation indivisible—which yet remains unfulfilled.” Notwithstanding the reports’ own limitations, such as its use of “Negro” and framing of black communities as somehow separate from their home cities, its conclusions about the media could be copied verbatim into a critique today.
Researchers evaluated thousands of newspaper articles, TV reports, and radio shows for a chapter on the press’ role in the unrest. They found that news outlets had relied too much on official sources like police and presented the rebellion as a black-on-white “race riot.”
Those criticisms about reporting techniques still stand—take recent protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. In both cases, news cameras gravitated toward scenes of violence or destruction. Mainstream outlets, particularly cable news channels, often gave the resulting imagery prime placement relative to that of peaceful protests, while providing little context about why violence was happening or any historical perspective about the communities they were covering. Such choices set the media narrative and, in turn, the discussions around civil unrest.
The Kerner Report’s more fundamental point, however, was that journalists had long failed to cover black communities and the inequalities they faced with any amount of depth or nuance:
The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed. Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls “the white press”—a press that repeatedly, if subconsciously, reflects the biases, the indifference, the paternalism of white America.
That disconnect, with a habitual reliance on stereotype, or focus solely on the negative, had kindled a deep distrust of the media. Little has changed in that regard. Any headway, the Kerner Report suggested, would have to come from within the press itself. Its chief recommendations for doing so: integrate newsrooms and—more radical still—treat black people like human beings.
Far too often, the press acts and talks about Negroes as if Negroes do not read the newspapers or watch television, give birth, marry, die, and go to PTA meetings.
The critique came in an era when media companies, lording over geographic monopolies, were essentially printing money. They had more cash on hand to invest in new and diverse talent, and they largely whiffed on the opportunity. Despite all the professed attention toward systemic racism in the press since then, not all that much has changed. Coverage of Detroit, which in many ways embodies the contradictions of urban growth in America today, provides a snapshot.
The fault of misunderstanding the competing storylines of decay and revival isn’t only with out-of-town reporters who’ve tried to earnestly commemorate the anniversary of the rebellion. But their go-to clichés—about a metropolis “rising from the ashes” or showing “signs of rebirth”—are all too familiar in a city that has long served as a canvas for stories about American decline and renewal. The former, which hews closer to struggling black neighborhoods in Detroit, is a more complex one to tell. Daily struggles with jobs, housing, transportation, and any number of quality of life issues don’t satisfy the media’s appetite for surprising narratives. And the structure of the business today may only make the task of correcting that imbalance more difficult.
Satellite bureaus monitoring day-to-day life have long been replaced by paratroopers gravitating toward ruin porn or safaris in search of the next Brooklyn. New investment is often focused on concentrated storylines, like national politics, cheap commentary, or still-cheaper clickbait. Tech platforms, where publishers feel increasingly compelled to put their work to chase advertising revenue, want more digital video—not on-the-ground reporting. And they’re basically getting it. Local outlets like the Detroit Free Press, which boast both the knowledge and mandate to understand a city’s neighborhoods, are being reduced to nothing by 21st century media economics.
Those same dynamics also reinforce systemic racism in the industry. Most brands thirst for young-ish white dudes with purchasing power, so media companies seek the greatest possible scale to reach them online. Black people—and in turn black people’s issues and black-owned media that address those issues—are not typically, despite evidence to the contrary, seen as money-makers in this bloodless corporatized environment. Up and down the mainstream media, meanwhile, competition for the shrinking pool of journalism jobs requires fancy degrees and leads to low-paying labor. While newsroom demographic data is incomplete, the number of working journalists of color appears to have generally plateaued relative to population shifts. Media diversity, which is so crucial to expanding the types of stories that news outlets cover and the types of people they reach, stands less of a chance in a country with massive wealth gaps across racial lines.
We don’t have to look far to see what can happen when the media prioritizes inclusive coverage. Police brutality was pushed to the forefront of the national media conversation in recent years because people of color finally had the power to share their own stories. The professional press has since followed with some sterling work, though on balance there’s far more to be done. A more inclusive and representative media would address an array of similar issues more proactively, providing the public good that journalists too often ascribe to their profession.
President Donald Trump’s racist, anti-urban form of governance should spur our collective urgency to address this disconnect. The national media has spent the better part of the past year wringing its hands about how it “misunderstood” the white working class en route to a surprise election outcome. The lack of introspection in the other direction would seem to confirm the conclusion of the Kerner Report’s media critique:
The press has too long basked in a white world, looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and a white perspective. That is no longer good enough.
It wasn’t then and, a half-century later, it isn’t now.