An Audit Credit to The Weekly Standard for helping to fill one of the business press’s yawning reality gaps: the space between “Detroit,” the metaphor, and Detroit, Michigan.
In a recent cover story titled “Down & Out in Detroit,” The Weekly Standard brilliantly, painstakingly, sometimes hilariously explores the city’s crumbling infrastructure, neighborhoods and institutions, and introduces us to some of its angry, struggling, stoic and resilient residents. This sprawling piece leaves no doubt about the reality of life in Detroit and leaves readers better off for having stumbled upon it.
Moving against the media traffic, the Standard reminds us that Detroit is a city first and a metaphor for the U.S. auto industry second. For the mainstream business press, Detroit is a metaphor first and last. Business coverage is all about “Detroit,” almost never about the city, which is what a hollowed-out economy like ours looks like in extremis.
For a graphic demonstration on the differing perspectives on “Detroit,” note how the Standard cover contrasts with two related cover stories from about the same time.
First, The Weekly Standard:
Fortune and Time took the standard approach. And if you search the past several months of news coverage for the word “Detroit,” once you exclude the Tigers, Lions and Red Wings, you will primarily find articles on the car industry and its tribulations.
That “Detroit” has become a metaphor is neither surprising nor inherently problematic. But that said, there is a problem here: that the national press has allowed the metaphor not just to enlarge reality—which is the point of metaphors—but to substitute for it. Detroit the city becomes a shadow, an afterthought, a non-thought, really, creating a key instance of that “reality gap” we mentioned above.
And this gap is a shame, because if the press told us in detail how “Detroit” and Detroit are interconnected—the ways in which American industrial and economic policy shape and reshape our cities—we would know a lot more than we do about our current predicament.
After all, the financial crisis comes after a long and painful period of globalization, deindustrialization, and financialization, one result of which has been a poisonous wage stagnation for the middle class, even as it has relentlessly increased its productivity.
Once a cradle of the middle class and a bastion of industrial productivity, Detroit is now a primary example of the unraveling of both, a nexus of failed economic policy. It is, alas, a gift to journalists trying to understand how we got here from there. It is, for all of its neglect—and even, to some extent, because of that neglect—an important place.
Thus a cheer for the Standard’s Matt Labash for getting on an airplane, for wandering around Detroit, for telling us with clear eyes and at great length what he saw. So simple and yet so rare!
The piece owes much of its impact, energy and even humor to the author’s skillful channeling of Detroit-area native and former New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff. Labash’s introduction to LeDuff is so good, we’ll give it to you whole cloth:
For many, Detroit is identified with cars or soul music, with the novels of Elmore Leonard or the architecture of Albert Kahn. If they really hate Detroit, they might recall that its suburbs coughed up Madonna. But for me, Detroit has become synonymous with one man: Charlie LeDuff.
Currently a metro reporter at the Detroit News, Charlie crossed my path in 2003 when he was a hotshot national correspondent for the New York Times. Stuck on a press bus trailing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the last days before the recall election, I spied a madman a few rows ahead banging on the window as a jubilant crowd in Bakersfield mistook ours for the candidate’s bus. Pounding away, Charlie fed back their mistaken adulation. ‘I’M THE MEDIA! YOU LOVE THE MEDIA!’ he bellowed.
I errantly asked someone what motorcycle magazine he worked for, thinking him an out-of-work biker/pirate since he looked like the bastard spawn of Sonny Barger and Jean Lafitte—I described him at the time as ‘a leathered scribe with bandito facial hair.’ Part Cajun, part Native-American (he says his Indian name is ‘White Boy’), Charlie was as much performer as reporter, walking around in sleeveless New York Post baseball jerseys, once breaking a wine glass on his head to keep campaign staffers off balance. ‘It’s a trick,’ he told me quietly, ‘the glass is thin up at the top.’
But Charlie was also writing some of the best newspaper feature stories in the country. His beat involved covering what he calls ‘the hole,’ forgotten people in forgotten places.