united states project

Detroit’s Dan Gilbert and the ‘savior complex’

How do you cover a dominating figure in a struggling city without losing your skepticism?
August 18, 2014

gilbertbig.jpgQuicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert speaks at a news conference in Detroit in 2007. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

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.

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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.

And, of course, media reports note every time Gilbert scoops up more real estate. There is a positive vibe to most of this coverage, which Shea of Crain’s said is appropriate: Many buildings that Gilbert has bought, including downtown skyscrapers, were neglected and deteriorating before he took them on. He didn’t exactly have much competition on most of his offers.

But what Felton calls the “He’s at it again!” narrative—and that very phrase does appear in coverage, by the way—can sometimes get ahead of the actual news. A WDIV/ClickOnDetroit.com segment from last fall was billed, “Gilbert snaps up failed Wayne County jail site.” Actually, he hadn’t. Gilbert submitted sketches as part of a proposal to buy and redevelop a troubled public project, but it remains unpurchased to this day, and there’s continued debate over whether a sale to Gilbert is in the county’s best interests.

There’s also boosterism that creeps into stories that have very little to do with Detroit, focusing on the Gilbert glow. In one head-scratching moment, a recent Free Press business column was devoted to a solicitous interview with Gilbert on his thoughts about Cleveland being chosen as host city for the 2016 Republican National Convention. This “news” for a Detroit audience dominated the home page of Freep.com as the lead story for an afternoon. (Of course, the columnist wasn’t responsible for the placement.)

‘Detroit has had a savior complex for a long time’

Then there are the stories that remain undone. Both Shea and Felton brought up an obvious one: Detroit’s experience of the housing crisis was among the worst in the nation and is, painfully, still playing out. Quicken Loans is a major player in the mortgage industry. What role, if any, did the company have in the lead-up to the meltdown, especially locally?

“It’s sort of remarkable that story has flown by uncontested, no?” Felton said.

To be clear, it’s not obvious there’s a scandal here. Gilbert has long touted Quicken’s lending practices as being of greater integrity than the rest of the industry. And as journalists here have reported, industry analysts largely agree—with the fact that Quicken is still in business and growing as part of the proof.

Still, it’s surprising that there has not been an independent journalistic accounting of Quicken’s lending history in Detroit—particularly given Gilbert’s growing influence on neighborhood development, via the Blight Task Force. That “might be a story worth pursuing, since if there is nothing discovered similar to the practices of the other lenders, that would be a major story in itself,” said Jon Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University and a frequent source for national and local Detroit coverage.

There have been a few tiptoes into this area. In 2008—before Gilbert launched his Detroit ventures—Crain’s Detroit Business ran an article about a dispute over Quicken-financed mortgages in the area; the company was the plaintiff in a lawsuit, but the Crain’s reporters saw the lender as part of a culture of “easy money, rushed deals.” (Gilbert wrote a long letter to the editor that called the piece “a hack job.”) That same year, a Free Press column didn’t focus on Quicken’s Detroit-area lending, but offered some rare numbers showing how the company was working through the crisis. In 2011, Jeff Wattrick, then a columnist at MLive.com, attempted to reconcile his mixed feelings about Gilbert’s Detroit investments and Quicken’s prominent position in the mortgage industry.

But when a 2011 story by the Center for Public Integrity juxtaposed claims of high-pressure sales and fraud with the company’s “straight-shooting image,” and was picked up by CBS News, Deadspin, and other outlets, “I don’t know of or remember anyone in Detroit really digging into that story and doing much with it,” said Mike Hudson, who wrote the piece.

A few weeks later, a federal judge in West Virginia ordered the company to pay $2.7 million in damages for misleading a borrower. That case did draw some discussion in a 2013 Free Press article, which focused largely on praise for the company. The article makes a good case that Quicken’s standards are in fact seen by industry analysts as better than its leading rivals, but it was another example of how coverage hasn’t focused on the Detroit angle. The single homeowner quoted in the Freep story lives in Bartlesville, OK.

Why is that the case? Partly because this isn’t easy information to get. Quicken is a private company that doesn’t release financial information readily, Shea noted. Digging up loan-level records is difficult to do. And Felton said—without wanting to give specifics, because of a story he’s working on—that Michigan’s open records law has exceptions that discourage certain avenues of reporting. The enterprising angle on the Quicken mortgage story “would probably take months for a news outlet to report,” Felton said. If you’re not sure there’s something juicy at the end, it can be hard to commit that amount of resources.

Another possible reason the story is unwritten: The company moved its headquarters downtown in 2010. The economy was still terrible, but the very worst of the housing collapse had passed. “Personally, I think if the company moved downtown prior to the foreclosure crisis we may have seen a different approach to how things have been covered,” Felton said.

Three years later, Wattrick—now a managing editor at Click on Detroit—has generally made peace with his earlier cynicism. But at the same time, he said, there’s pressure from readers and viewers to stay positive.

“There is some egregious cheerleading in this town, on the part of people saying we can’t cover downtown development or developers in a critical way—I mean that in the sense of critical thinking—without upsetting the apple cart,” he said. He added: “Detroit has had, I think, a savior complex for a long time.”

Assumptions of civic leadership upended

Another angle that local media should pursue: what it means that Gilbert, and some others, are increasingly influential as providers of public services, not just private capital. A recent cover story for The New York Times Magazine about “the post-post-apocalyptic Detroit” mentioned that a Gilbert-employed security force patrols downtown 24 hours a day and monitors 300 security cameras. “That sort of happened under the radar, and hasn’t been discussed, really, at all,” Felton said.

The police presence is not an outlier. From Wayne State University to Midtown, Inc., Gilbert’s companies are among several private institutions that are taking on responsibilities traditionally handled by government—from street lighting to trash pick-up—while confidence in City Hall diminishes. (I’ve written about this here.) City officials sometimes seem as eager as anybody to see someone new step in and help carry the burden.

Given how poorly public leaders have often served the city, that’s understandable. But this is a significant development, and its consequences—good, bad, and not-yet-determined—deserve serious attention. Basic assumptions about civic leadership are being upended in Detroit, and classic reporters’ skepticism has never been more important. This is also an opportunity to further explore an interesting point tucked into that Freep story about Gilbert and Ilitch: Despite their outsized presence, today’s development moguls don’t directly support major civic institutions like libraries and universities the way earlier industrial titans like Carnegie and Mellon did. Pushing the point a little further might clarify the ways in which Gilbert’s Detroit strategy will—or won’t—sustain the city’s public realm.

Of course, wherever a reporter is coming from on a Gilbert story, it’s important not to make him—or any individual investor—out to be more powerful than he is. Mogk offers this advice: “Don’t attribute more to Gilbert than what he has said he can and will do. I have not heard him say that he plans to turn the entire city around. Ask him how much he feels he personally can do in reversing the city’s overall decline spreading across 138.9 square miles.”

It’s important that journalists here put the right questions to Gilbert, and report on his activity fairly, accurately, and—when called for—skeptically. The daily papers may be the ones paying rent, but in many ways we’re all in the same boat: Our stake in Gilbert’s big moves is personal.

* Correction: This sentence originally misstated Gilbert’s title. CJR regrets the error.

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.