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Detroit's bankruptcy exit a "good news story" for now

Nov 10, 2014

Whenever surveys are taken as to which professions are the most trusted and admired, journalists are pretty near the bottom. We used to beat out used car salesmen, but I think that thanks to regulation, they are in better standing these days.

Today, journalists and lawyers usually take turns at being the least admired. I don’t propose to talk about why lawyers are so unpopular; after all, I don’t want to be sued. But I do know why reporters are held in such low repute.

Part of it is our own fault.

As in, when a TV reporter sticks a microphone in the face of somebody whose child has been murdered and asks, “how do you feel?”

But even when we do our jobs well, we make people dread us. We tell you that the system doesn’t work, and the politicians are corrupt, and the water is tainted, and the priest is embezzling from the parish - things like that.

That’s what we are supposed to do.

We seldom show up just to tell you good news. Maybe the best thing we can say about our society is that decent behavior still isn’t news.

Except - in some contexts.

Over the weekend, Michigan’s media celebrated the triumphant end to Detroit’s bankruptcy. This is ending faster than most people thought, with Detroit in better shape and with more assets left than expected.

There were a lot of heroes in this, most of all, U.S. bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who masterfully guided everyone through this process and brought all concerned to the softest landing possible.

I didn’t think I’d ever see a better managed bankruptcy than the one General Motors had.

Well, this one seems to have topped that.

Now in most cases, this would be where I would say, “however, this and that went wrong or wasn’t done right, et cetera.’

But not this time.

Except, well, there are a couple things to keep in mind. First of all, this isn’t quite over. There are a few loose ends to tie up, and we still don’t know the exact date the city will exit bankruptcy protection.

That’s a minor thing.

Far more important is that the reborn Detroit is still a very weak patient. The city’s plans for staying solvent, improving services and continuing to grow are based on a lot of assumptions, including no major economic downturn.

The city’s recovery is also dependent on having leaders of the class of Mike Duggan.

Lost in the celebration was Judge Rhodes’ worry that Detroit’s mayor and city council president have two of the seven seats on the Financial Review Commission that has long-term oversight over the way the city handles its fiscal affairs.

That’s probably not a problem now. But get another Charles Pugh as council president, or a weaker mayor, and it could be a major problem. Detroit has other major problems, from blight to illiteracy to crime.

We have every right to be more hopeful about the Motor City than we have in decades. But there are going to be problems and, probably, false steps ahead.

How Detroit and Michigan handle those may be just as important as the bankruptcy itself. We need to remember that this fascinating story is anything but over.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at Michigan Radio-dot-org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.