Motor City Madness: Networks Tell Upbeat Story as Detroit Goes Bankrupt

ABC, CBS, NBC focus on city’s recovery 6-1 over fiscal problems.

A year ago, President Barack Obama derided Mitt Romney for admitting he would let Detroit car companies go bankrupt. He told supporters he wouldn’t do that. “I refuse to turn my back on communities like this. I was betting on the American worker,” Obama said during a July campaign speech in Ohio. In reality, the president helped two auto firms file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in exchange for $80 billion from taxpayers.

That didn’t help the Motor City. One year later, Detroit is batting in court to become the largest American city to file for bankruptcy. The last major city to go through a bankruptcy scare was New York City – nearly 40 years ago.

Despite this, ABC, CBS and NBC have been painting a rosy picture of the dismal city for the past year – covering positive economic news 6 times more than negative for the beleaguered city (12 stories to 2). Propagandizing about the “booming” auto industry and delivering cheery stories of individuals doing good things for Detroit, while only mentioning twice the fact that the city is about to declare bankruptcy. The state even had to bring in its own “emergency manager” to financially manage the city that’s $20 billion in debt, since it seems its own corrupt politicians were only adding to the problem.

Only when the city finally made its push for bankruptcy protection did the broadcast networks admit how bad things were. They just ignored high taxes and 50 years of Democratic rule.

On March 1, 2013, CBS and NBC bemoaned the possibility of the city’s finances being taken over by a government-appointed state controller. NBC even brought race into the equation. On NBC “Nightly News,” Brian Williams lamented the “sad update out of Detroit tonight.” The anchor went on to say the possibility of bringing in an emergency manager was ”controversial because, if it happens, it will mean almost half of the African-American population in Michigan will then live under places where local funding is controlled by the state government.” The segment directly following was on the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” that NBC called the “most important civil rights law of the modern era.” 

On CBS “Evening News with Scott Pelley,” Pelley praised GM, Chrysler, and Ford’s increases in sales in three different reports, hyping that Detroit was “in high gear” last September.

In one year, NBC “Nightly News” highlighted Detroit three times as a city that was “Making a Difference.” NBC also hyped Detroit’s “Big Three” auto manufacturers as their sales rose this year on two news reports like CBS, while also conveniently ignoring the months where sales were down.

The city may be going bankrupt, but ABC’s Jan. 4, 2013, “World News with Diane Sawyer” declared Detroit was a “hot spot” for the economy and job growth. ABC even picked the city as its first choice of where to search out of all the cities in America, if you were looking for a job. The current Detroit unemployment rate is 16.3 percent, more than double the national average.

That was a typical exclusion since the networks have skipped the very real problems Detroit is facing. The city has had a laundry list of problems for years, from a lack of ambulances (10 out of 38 are functional), close to an hour for police to respond to emergency calls, 80-year-old fire stations, a dwindling number of parks, and close to 80,000 abandoned houses, in which 80 percent of the city’s arsons occur. And that’s just the infrastructure, not to mention the city having a five-times-higher crime rate than the national average and nearly half of its residents being functionally illiterate.

Those facts wouldn’t fit into the narrative of a city that a widely played Super Bowl commercial glorified and Fodor Travel Magazine hailed recently as a prime tourist destination.

While the networks clung to the once-great city’s glory days, they ignored the harsh realities of the past 40 years. So while the networks propose that all the failing city needs is more government money, the record shows otherwise.

The Business and Media Institute analyzed all of the mentions of “Detroit” on the evening news shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC based on a Nexis search from July 1, 2012-July 9, 2013.