DETROIT, MI — “A man for his time and place. Love him or hate him.” That’s how Bill Shea, who covers the business of sports for Crain’s Detroit Business, describes Dan Gilbert.
While he’s still probably best-known nationally as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Gilbert has a fast-rising media profile as something of a mogul in Detroit, his hometown. He is the founder and chairman* of Quicken Loans, one of the country’s largest mortgage lenders, which employs thousands of workers here. Through his umbrella of companies, he also owns a large chunk of the Motor City: 60 major downtown buildings totaling an estimated nine million square feet, all bought in less than four years. That includes the building the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News recently sold him, and the one the dailies are slated to move into this fall. An active owner, Gilbert is a force in re-designing a once-neglected downtown. But he’s not just a billionaire businessman: As chair of the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force, which intends to map and remove vacant structures throughout the neighborhoods, he’s playing an increasingly large role in civic life.
A resume like that will always leave a large media footprint. In Detroit—where Gilbert’s energy, buoyant vision, and money arrived around the same time that the city was navigating emergency management and the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy—it can lead to portrayals as a sort of investor-savior. “A Missionary’s Quest to Remake the Motor City,” The New York Times headlined its lengthy 2013 profile. A recent USA Today headline called him “Detroit’s Savior,” and National Journal asked, “Is Dan Gilbert Detroit’s new superhero?” Local headlines tend to be less hyperbolic, but coverage is keenly attentive and regularly upbeat: Typical stories detail Gilbert’s “vision for [a] livelier downtown Detroit,” or how he used his “networking skills to fight graffiti in Detroit.” Hour Detroit, a metropolitan lifestyle magazine, chose him as its 2011 “Detroiter of the Year.” WXYZ, the local ABC station, named him the 2013 “Newsmaker of the Year,” and declared, “he is providing hope for Detroit’s future.”
That’s the love. As for the hate… well, there are definitely people here who are suspicious or even hostile toward Gilbert’s approach, but the opposition is a minor thread in local coverage. Given Gilbert’s high profile and far-reaching interests, “it’s hard to believe there hasn’t been more critical coverage from local media,” said Ryan Felton, an investigative reporter for the alt-weekly Metro Times and one of several Detroit journalists I spoke with for this story. (I made numerous inquiries to reporters and editors with The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press—the latter of which I occasionally contribute to—about Gilbert coverage. I did not find anyone willing to talk about it on the record. The paper’s publishers did field questions about having Gilbert as their landlord, and said the arrangement is no different than any other contracted relationship. “We have a fleet of cars made by one of the Big Three here, and it doesn’t compromise how we cover them,” said Free Press publisher Paul Anger.)
Like many Detroit-based journalists, I’ve covered Gilbert’s influence myself, writing articles for mostly national outlets that focus on “Gilbertville” (as downtown is sometimes called). Also like many journalists here, I’m unapologetically rooting for a sustainable, safe, equitable, and vibrant future for Detroit—one that I know demands more investment, and more employment, in the city limits.
So I’m no stranger to the challenge that confronts other reporters here: how to cover a dominating “local savior” in a struggling city without losing your skepticism and critical judgment. And while I don’t find it surprising that the coverage is often sunny, I share Felton’s sense that it can sometimes come unmoored. A look at the ongoing local coverage of Gilbert reveals some solidly informative reporting, some glaring gaps, and the occasional cringe-worthy moment.
The ‘He’s at it again!’ narrative
Day-to-day news coverage of Gilbert’s influence is often fair-minded and steady, noting shifts in business strategy, making useful connections between Gilbert’s vision and other urban planning efforts, and asking good questions about what’s next. A recent Free Press Sunday feature compared Gilbert’s Detroit ascendance and impact on downtown to that of another local baron, the Little Caesar’s founder and pro sports owner Mike Ilitch; the informative article came with a striking map that pinpointed the extent of control these men have over downtown property.