Inside the Dateline Special on Detroit
By Luther Keith Executive Director, ARISE Detroit! I have thought long and hard about the Dateline NBC special on Detroit: America Now: City of Heartbreak and Hope, which aired April 18. Painfully, all of the heartbreak presented in the Dateline report is true and it is incumbent on the residents of Detroit to rectify the situation. As a former journalist, I understand we should not hide the facts. I have no problem with that.
However, what is also painfully clear is the piece was sorely lacking in balance while rehashing clichés and presenting Detroit essentially as a place filled exclusively with desperately poor struggling people, no middle class or professional residents, and as a city that is doing little to solve its problems other than waiting on Mayor Dave Bing and Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb. I can draw no other conclusion after spending nearly four hours with Chris Hansen and the Dateline crew showing them, as I was requested, “the good, the bad and the ugly,” of Detroit but seeing only the “bad” and the “ugly,” and none of the good, make it into the final cut..
Starting with the Palmer Woods, which the camera crew and producers all commented was “beautiful,” and going through parts of Sherwood Forest, West Outer Drive and , Rosedale Park, I showed Dateline a number of solid, strong neighborhoods with good, well cared for homes with strong community associations and block clubs. This was done to give them a balanced picture of the totality of Detroit – not just the well chronicled blight of the city that was given most of the camera face time. Dateline reporter Chris Hansen asked me who lived in these neighborhoods. I told him, doctors, lawyers, professionals and business owners among others. None of it was used.
In great detail, in response to Chris Hansen’s questions, I talked about why I and others choose to live in Detroit, I talked about what many community groups and foundations were doing to attack the problems and why I was hopeful about Detroit’s future in spite of the city’s challenges. None of my comments, reflecting optimism and hope, were seen fit to include in the Dateline report. I also took Dateline to troubled neighborhoods like the Brightmoor area and showed the devastating impact of urban decay, as well as new housing built by non-profit development groups. At one point, Chris Hansen got out of the car and asked me which way did I think Detroit would go in the future, with more urban decay or more new housing. I said I was still hopeful that the new housing was in our future and that Detroiters just needed more help to get more people involved. None of it was used.
When we visited my old neighborhood where I was raised on the west side of Detroit, we encountered Joe Davis, a wonderful man now 90 years of age, who took myself and other children in the neighborhood to play baseball and generally looked out for us. Our meeting was included as part of the Dateline special, but even that was edited in way that did not convey the true nature of our relationship. Mr. Davis was presented as an “old timer,” and only his comments about the sad state of the neighborhood in Detroit were included. But I also told Dateline Mr. Davis was an example of adults who cared for the neighborhood children, something we need more of now, and why we needed to bring the city back so senior citizens like Mr. Davis could live in safe neighborhoods.
Yes, the neighborhood has seen much betters days. I don’t have a problem showing it but I do have problem with the lack of context. Cordette Grantling, who was featured in the Dateline special, is a saint for her commitment to adopting and raising abandoned children. The outpouring of response to her plight as she struggles is well deserved. But her situation cannot be used to represent all Detroiters, or even most of them. The isolated examples of one person tutoring children and people picking food in urban gardens cannot obscure the fact the piece showed a shocking lack of community—it gave no sense of the efforts of hundreds of organizations and the thousands of people involved in mentoring, tutoring, literacy efforts, cleaning up neighborhoods, working in schools every day throughout Detroit.
ARISE Detroit! is a nonprofit coalition of more than 400 organizations working on these and other issues, a clear indication that Detroit is an extremely engaged community. Dateline deemed the isolated case of a man killing and selling raccoons, more important than the efforts of thousands of people who care for their children, go to church, go to work and try to do better each day. Dateline’s explanation for the way the special was edited, as a producer said to me, was they had an abundance of good video and much of the footage had to be edited out to fit the allotted time for the special...
Detroit has been stereotyped before. We are an easy target with lots of low hanging fruit. Yes, the media has a job to do. Journalists are not public relation arms for the City of Detroit, nor should they be. But we have a right to expect them to tell the truth. The whole truth.