11/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Getting The Detroit Story Right

My recent interview with Dale Maharidge provided the occasion to bring up one of my favorite recent pieces of downturn-era media criticism, Vice Magazine's "Something Something Something Detroit", in which Thomas Morton described how the recession had sparked a "gold rush mentality" among journalists, looking to document some desolation on the cheap. Morton's piece was chockablock with examples of how you, too, could carefully crop a snapshot of the city that excised the good news and left you with a searing image of ruin -- notwithstanding the fact that it would likely be the same searing image of ruin everyone else happened to be using.

Morton recently appeared on NPR's On The Media to talk about his article with Bob Garfield, and he highlighted a chief offender:


BOB GARFIELD: You singled out one publication for [LAUGHS] particular disdain, and that was Time Magazine.

THOMAS MORTON: Our photographer told us he'd been called up by this reporter from Time, and realized when he went to pick him up he was - he had been dropped off in the city, basically, and he was only there - he had to be back in, like, eight hours. And they expected him to, you know, be able to get the feel of the city in that little [LAUGHS] eight-hour span. Within the course of two months they ran a pair of photo essays about Detroit's desolation, the first of which was called The Remains of Detroit, and it featured, I think, 10 or 11 pictures that were all from just three or four sites, and they were the big ones, the ones you always see. There was the Packard Auto Plant.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, wait, wait, that's a good one because it's an abandoned automotive plant, so that should be a perfectly legitimate symbol for the destruction of a city in progress, right?

THOMAS MORTON: The only problem is it was shut down in 1957 and it hasn't been open since.

BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Okay, so they're a little bit late on the Packard closing.


BOB GARFIELD: What are the other usual venues for these documents of despair?

THOMAS MORTON: The three big ones, as featured prominently in this Time photo essay, they're the Packard Plant, there's the Fisher Body Plant, which has been shut down a while, I don't think as long as the Packard Plant, and then there's the train station, which has been shut down since the '80s.

But what was interesting about it was what they did with the Packard Plant and the Fisher Plant. There would be one picture that was an interior, and it would say Packard Auto Plant; you know, the caption would explain what the photo was. And then there would be another one that was taken right outside the Packard Auto Plant, but instead of referencing the plant, it would say "Bellevue Avenue," which is where the Packard Auto Plant is located. And then they repeated that at the Fisher Body Plant, went outside, and it was still - it's still a shot of the plant but it says "Hasting Avenue."

BOB GARFIELD: Creating the illusion that there is at least twice as much urban devastation.

THOMAS MORTON: And creating the illusion that their photographer went to twice as many sites as [LAUGHS] he actually did.

The good news, of course, is that Time Magazine is going to take another shot at getting the Detroit story right and the resources they've committed to the story go well beyond the eight-hour photographic spelunking from earlier this year. As a part of "ASSIGNMENT: Detroit", the magazine has purchased a 5-bedroom house for the purposes of pursuing a year-long embed in the city. Introducing the project, Time EIC John Huey says: "As a story, Detroit has been misunderstood, underreported, stereotyped, avoided and exploited for decades. To get it right, we decided to become stakeholders." Hard to escape the impression that there's a little bit of self-confession there.

Among the products being offered is "The Detroit Blog", which ranges far beyond the typical story-lines garnered from the Motor City. And many of the features on the "ASSIGNMENT: Detroit" landing page explore the city in more dimensions than the "ruin porn" angle. That photo essay Morton describes is still on offer, however, boasting of elucidating the "elegiac sign of America's fading industrial might" that it really doesn't deliver. Nevertheless, the attention that Morton helped to bring to the way Detroit's been traditionally covered has had an impact, and in a city that's having significant media struggles of its own, Time's new commitment to the area may yet prove to be vital.

Ruin Porn [On The Media]
Something, Something, Something, Detroit [VICE Magazine]

Detroit Overrun With Lazy Journalists Looking For Trite Depictions Of Poverty
Dale Maharidge Interview: Covering The Economic Pain Of Real Americans

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