Detroit Reporters Criticize Right-Wing Media's Anti-Obama Bankruptcy Coverage

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

Detroit news reporters who've covered the city's fiscal problems for years say claims from conservative commentators that the recent bankruptcy is due to liberal agendas, federal policies, or even President Obama are wildly inaccurate.

Journalists, some with decades in the Motor City, contend such national coverage has missed the true cause of the financial debacle, which includes decades of population decline, mismanagement of city debt, and recent individual corruption.

By contrast, right-wing commentator and Detroit native Ted Nugent recently claimed that "Liberal democrats took hold of the greatest, most productive city on earth and turned it into a bloodsucker excuse-making hell," adding, "If allowed to continue, our President will do the same to the whole country. Heartbreaking and tragic."

Similar coverage from Fox News -- which misleadingly claimed other cities could fall into Detroit's bankruptcy path - and National Review's Rich Lowry, who tried to blame it on "a toxic combination of Great Society big spenders, race hustlers, crooks, public-sector unions, and ineffectual reformers," is misleading, local reporters say. 

They contend that Detroit's problems are unique and driven by demography and decades-long trends, not ideology.

"I don't agree with that thesis," Jim Kiertzner, a reporter at ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV who has covered Detroit news since 1983, said about some of the conservative claims. "This was a city, like the auto industry, [where] in the heyday the money rolled in. When the decline started, nobody kept ahead of it and made the cuts necessary."

He added that the decline has "been in the making for decades. Detroit has been on a long steady decline."

Kiertzner and other reporters pointed to the population drop that began decades ago when wealthier families moved to the suburbs, reducing the population from 1.8 million in 1950 to 1.2 million in 1980 to only 701,000 in 2012.

Detroit-based journalists contend that drop reduced both job opportunities and city revenue, but with a rising maintenance cost because the city still had to pay for police, fire and other services. And with a 138-square mile area, one of the largest in the nation, the cost is vast.

"You have one of the largest areas that the police need to cover, the fire department, street lights, and keeping roads maintained and roads plowed," said Brett Snavely, a Detroit Free Press reporter covering the bankruptcy. "The cost of keeping this city maintained is fundamentally higher than in many cities."

With such rising costs and reduced revenue, the city of Detroit kept borrowing money and raising its debt, the reporters say. It also failed to pay into its pension fund properly, leading to the current situation in which city worker pensions are $3.5 billion in the red.

"The city didn't meet its obligations paying along the way, they gave the pensions IOU's, they are also looking at possible bad investments where they lost millions of dollars," says Kiertzner. "It wasn't just the employees, it is not a fair assessment to blame the unions."

Kathleen Gray, another Detroit Free Press reporter, added, "Its mismanagement, it's the downturn in the economy, it is not a single thing. We get a lot of [reader] feedback here that it is the liberal management of Detroit, but I don't agree with that assessment."

Charlie Langton, a reporter at WWJ News Radio and a 10-year Detroit journalist, said trying to link Detroit's situation to some outside influence is misleading.

"There is a combination of a couple of things, certainly mismanagement of the city's assets play a major role," he said. "For many years Detroit borrowed money to pay down its debt and Detroit lost a significant population."

Berman of the Detroit News said some of the problems were the result of the same sub-prime mortgage lending that hurt other cities, and even Wall Street banks continuing to lend Detroit money as its debt bloomed.

"The biggest mistake here is that no one tried to solve problems as they arose. They tried to paper over them, there was no problem solving, everything got pushed back," Berman said. "There was continued borrowing and there was no payback. They would shop the debt to Wall Street. You could blame Wall Street for not questioning that they were enablers, they gave them that credit. Why did Moody's write Detroit bonds?"

For Curt Guyette, news editor of the alternative weekly Metro Times, trying to blame liberal policies or some progressive approach is too narrow.

"The conservative press has reported it as the failure of 50 years or 60 years of Democratic control of the city. I think it is way more complicated than that, way more," he said. "It wasn't Democratic control of the city that created federal highway and housing policies that abetted the moving of people from the city, especially white people, to the suburbs and that's really created the downward spiral."

Several conservative commentators and columnists have even tried to link the bankruptcy, indirectly in some cases, to Obama's policies.

But most of the Detroit journalists we spoke with said there is no fair assessment that would blame the Obama Administration or federal policies with regard to funding or aid, noting Detroit's problems are very much of its own making.

"I really don't think so, I don't think Obama politics, I think mismanagement," said Kiertzner. "Our mayor was corrupt. I don't blame it on Obama, we have actually had more federal dollars to help tear down abandoned buildings. It is just local mismanagement and local borrowing when they should have been cutting."

He added that the Obama-supported auto industry bailout of 2009 "probably helped Detroit, it kept jobs in Detroit. It at least preserved some of the jobs that we do have in the auto industry. It stopped a little bleeding, we still have a lot of jobs from auto supply."

Berman of the Detroit News added"I find the anti-Obama part very specious. He has been careful to carefully target aid to the city, but in ways that the city had to perform. There was no free money thrown at the city, a lot of federal money the city couldn't meet the terms to get."

Snavely of the Free Press agreed, stating, "I don't know of any specific policy that was adopted by the Obama Administration that has specifically harmed Detroit."

Fox News Channel, Detroit News
Rich Lowry, Ted Nugent
Detroit Free Press
Barack Obama
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