News story on DDA was more smear campaign than actual news
The editors of the Detroit News have refused to provide their readers with any clarification or documentation regarding a recently published investigative story on the members of the Downtown Development Authority. The story highlighted various criminal and financial histories of certain members in an attempt to raise concerns that some events in their past puts into question their present ability to make good financial decisions. The story, while framed as an investigative journalism piece, was unbalanced and only featured African American DDA members and, at times, made dangerous inferences between race and trustworthiness. The so-called analysis highlighted events that were over 30 years old and tried to turn a home foreclosure during one of the greatest recessions in American history into a nefarious act and a condemnation of character. Nor did the Detroit News follow standard journalistic protocol for any respectable outlet by providing specific details as to how its analysis was covered, such as how many years of tax filings were reviewed and stating if the same investigation methodology was applied unilaterally to all members of the DDA. While the Detroit News may not have had this intention, the message that went out to the black business, political and ecumenical communities was heard loud and clear: black board members cannot be trusted and should not be making decisions of such importance. In addition, the City needs help with who it nominates and in the future only white nominees need apply.
While I support responsible journalism that brings to light and questions improper practices, poor decision-making on the part of City officials or fiscal improprieties, I take offense when a story only highlights the embarrassing criminal and financial past of the black volunteer board members – which is the case here – with no other value added. When you conduct an investigation on a board that is not accused of making poor decisions, does not have a history of fiscal improprieties, and has done nothing to give a citizen pause ethically, criminally or financially, I look upon that report’s results and purpose with a jaundiced eye. This story is not chasing smoke from an existing fire. The smoke the story is chasing is of the author’s own creation and, in some cases, required going back more than 32 years to find negative material from which to work.
I took my concerns directly to the reporter and editors at the Detroit News, asking Mr. Gary Miles, the managing editor, for an Editor’s Note to be added to the online version of the story that explicitly states the investigation rubric and confirms that the same measure, i.e., searching back 30 years, was applied to all DDA members. It would seem that a simple sentence stating that a thorough investigation was done on all members, the scope and nature of that process, and the years included for all members, would be a basic requirement for a solid news article. I also requested that my email be shared in the Letters to the Editor section. In several emails with Mr. Miles and with Jonathan Wolman, the Editor and Publisher, I informed them that these concerns were not solely mine, but were being expressed by the black business, political and ecumenical communities in the Detroit region and City proper. I shared how the optic created by the story and accompanying pictures and video is one of racial bias and stereotyping. In the emails, I reminded them of their ethical responsibility as journalists not to foster negative stereotypes and questioned the editorializing and leading sentences in the piece. I even shared an example from another newspaper of record, The New York Times, showing the level of detail they provide with any investigation. At one point, Mr. Miles acknowledged the story was missing information, but later his comments turned dismissive and ultimately the editors were unwilling to publicly confirm the story was unbiased and provide the public with the details they admit were missing. The following is an excerpt from an email from Mr. Miles:
“If the scope wasn’t entirely clear — and I hear from you that it wasn’t — then shame on us for not explaining in more detail. In reporting what we found, we may have given short-shrift to what we did not find. In this case, we discovered no irregularities with those board members we did not mention. I can assure it was not because of a failure to review their backgrounds.
Oversight of the various levels of our democracy, especially those charged with making decisions with tax revenues and without complete transparency, are often a focal point of public interest news coverage. I expect that will continue to be the case, whether institutions are staffed with volunteers, appointees or representatives elected by popular vote.
I hope this helps explain the background of our report. I apologize that it wasn’t clearer. We’ll strive to do better.”
While I appreciate Mr. Miles’ assurances to me, an official Editor’s Note would assure all readers of The Detroit News’ intent and commitment to fairness, transparency and not perpetuating stereotypes. While the Editor claims there was no bias against the black members of the DDA and the background investigation was the same for all members, this is not clearly stated in the article, which allows readers to draw their own negative conclusions. In later exchanges, the comments turned dismissive. For example, Mr. Miles wrote:
“Is there anyone who sincerely believes that we, or any other reputable news organization, would review the qualifications only of a segment of the board — and, at that, a subset derived by race, but which doesn’t include all the members of that racial group?
Despite the apparent earnestness of your request, the suggestion that someone would believe we would choose only a racially derived subset seems preposterous. And, as I’ve already explained, it is not the case. We reviewed the backgrounds of all DDA board members in the manner we described and reported the results for all to see and to evaluate for relevance.”
What is preposterous is the lack of concern for transparency and the staunch refusal to provide a common explanatory addendum. I suggested the editor not be dismissive of legitimate concerns from readers and consider they may have a blind spot and begin the practice of routinely engaging others on their editorial team to assist in the proper vetting of stories to uncover these issues prior to them being published. These comments were also ignored.
The press has a right and the duty to inform, but it should not be used as a tool to harass and embarrass volunteer public servants. It should strive to achieve a high standard, which means that the rigors of responsible journalism need to be upheld and not overlooked due to the shiny glare of sensationalism or the heavy lift of time- consuming research, fact checking and thoroughness.
As an elected official in Detroit I expect and welcome a certain level of scrutiny, but when that scrutiny is recklessly leveled against unelected volunteers with the mere purpose to embarrass and harass I take issue and encourage all members of our community to speak up when they see these types of situations. I implore the Detroit News and its cohorts to consider the ethical responsibility of their role as the “fourth estate” and to strive to present facts without promoting bias or racial stereotypes, and for community members to recognize their right and responsibility to hold our media outlets accountable when they do not meet this standard. This is one of those times. Please write the Detroit News Editorial Page Editor, Nolan Finely, and the Editor and Publisher, Jonathan Wolman, at The Detroit News, 160 W. Fort Street, Detroit, MI 48226, or email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, express your concerns about their biased coverage and demand that they begin the practice of routinely engaging a diverse editorial team to assist in the proper vetting of stories to uncover these issues prior to publication.
Councilman Scott Benson represents Detroit’s 3rd District on the Detroit City Council and is Chairman of City Council’s Public Health and Safety Standing Committee and has over 20 years of community development experience on Detroit‘s eastside.