Since Detroit filed for bankruptcy last month, it's been the subject of intense national coverage. Detroit's also been held up as a metaphor for everything that ails the country financially. Bob talks to historian Kevin Boyle, who has written extensively about the city, about how Detroit is and isn't a good synecdoche for the rest of industrial America.
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BOB GARFIELD: The City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago and since then it has been the focus of national attention. The filing itself wasn’t especially surprising. There was a long run-up to Detroit’s insolvency. But the spectacle of a once great American city unable to pay for basic services is ominous. What's worse, pundits and pontificators have seized on the moment to lay blame on their favorite targets and reductively declare that what ails Detroit is a microcosm of what ails America.
On Fox News, Rush Limbaugh told Greta Van Susteren that it was all the Democrats’ fault.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: That town has been a, a petri dish of everything the Democrat Party stands for: massive unions, massive pensions…
BOB GARFIELD: For Fox Business, John Stossel blamed a corrupt mayor, protected by political correctness.
JOHN STOSSEL: When people criticized him and his fellow politicians, he called the critics racist. That generally shuts people up.
BOB GARFIELD: And, on NBC, Melissa Harris-Perry said Detroit exemplified the perils of small government.
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: It seems to me that Detroit, as always, is standing in for all kinds of things about America.
MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: This is what it looks like when government is small enough to drown in your bathtub. And it is not a pretty picture.
BOB GARFIELD: We asked Detroit historian Kevin Boyle whether he thinks Detroit is a perfect metaphor for America's industrial decline.
KEVIN BOYLE: So it's not a perfect metaphor for all of industrial America, but it does capture a piece of industrial America, maybe the most dramatic piece of industrial America's rise and fall. The way to think about Detroit in the early 20th century is as one of the great boom towns of the world, the center of the world's most innovative industry. It was Silicon Valley, in the 1910s, 1920s. And because its growth was so concentrated and so focused on a single industry, its fall has been very similar in its speed and its depth.
BOB GARFIELD: And what is the story about? Is it about corruption? Is it about mismanagement? Is it about loss of tax base?
KEVIN BOYLE: It's about de-industrialization on a really unprecedented scale. It's about the complexities of race and racial tensions. It's about white flight, on a massive scale. It's about economic flight, the loss of a middle-class black and white. And it’s all of those things interacting with each other to create, in some ways, a sort of perfect storm for the city. What then happens is that people in the media put on that story particular spins that shift the analysis away from those long-term structural problems, and it becomes a vehicle for talking about somethin’ else.
BOB GARFIELD: I detected, particularly on Fox, a certain element of schadenfreude: Just as we always told you, these black people cannot be trusted to handle their own affairs. Look what comes of your liberalism. Was I imagining that?
KEVIN BOYLE: I certainly saw a lot of the latter, that this disaster is somehow the consequence of liberal social policy, but simply on Fox but in the more conservative print media, as well. I’ve been surprised, and pleasantly surprised, that race has not been a central issue. But the degree to which the crisis in the city has been blamed on the welfare state, on municipal unions, in particular, is really, really striking.
BOB GARFIELD: Journalism is pretty terrible at covering ongoing conditions. It tends to be very good covering the acute. Poverty and de-industrialization, they’re just hard to cover because they require constantly paying attention to things that are changing only very incrementally, right?
KEVIN BOYLE: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: So an episode like the bankruptcy should actually be good news for those who do wish to, to shine some light on these ongoing intractable problems. Do you think the press took advantage of the opportunity?
KEVIN BOYLE: Yeah, I think some portions of the press did exactly that. I think if you’re gonna find a silver lining in the Detroit story, and that's a pretty hard thing to do right now, that that's one of them, that the mainstream media in America has a very hard time dealing with questions, particularly of intense poverty. The Detroit crisis is a way of getting at that reality, which is a reality for a substantial subset of the American population, in a way that makes it immediate.
BOB GARFIELD: How did the press do in adding some context and perspective?
KEVIN BOYLE: There's been some really terrific reporting. And to me, at least, the really most compelling reporting talks about the consequences of those problems down on the streets of Detroit. What does it mean to live in a place where 911 responses take almost an hour to get police presence? What does it mean to live in a place where the streetlights don't come on?
Everyone talks about Detroit being hollowed out, but Detroit still has 700,000 people. Half the children in the City of Detroit live below the poverty level. A third of the people in the City of Detroit live below the poverty level. And because Detroit's now gotten this focus - and the story has legs, it really has; it’s been a couple of weeks of news reporting now – the best reporting does use Detroit as a way of addressing those issues in a way that’s really hard to do on an ongoing basis.
BOB GARFIELD: How do news organizations from this point forward continue to cover the story in the absence of some other big, you know, nominally cataclysmic event?
KEVIN BOYLE: Trace out the choices that are made in how you move through the bankruptcy process and try to create something else on the other side of that process that can speak to the needs of the people of the City of Detroit and the values that we as Americans have for ourselves and for our fellow Americans. How do you rebuild a city that has reached this point of crisis? I think that’s a really, really compelling story, and I think it’s gonna be really revealing of where we stand as a society in 2013, 2014, to see the answers that come out of that process.
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BOB GARFIELD: Kevin, thank you very much.
KEVIN BOYLE: Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about this.
BOB GARFIELD: Kevin Boyle teaches history at Northwestern University.