Commentary
2:45 pm
Thu January 26, 2012

Michigan's Benton Harbor in the national media spotlight

Benton Harbor isn’t very big.  It’s a city of about 11,000 residents in Michigan’s southwest corner.  But it has story lines that drive national media to pay attention.

One is the emergency manager law which has been in effect in Benton Harbor for about 2 years.

It transferred power from elected officials to a state appointee, Joseph Harris.

Rachel Maddow from MSNBC ran two long segments on the issue last summer and blasted the law.

Stephen Colbert brought his parody of conservatism, noting that before the state takeover, Benton Harbor was several million dollars in debt.

And just last month, The New York Times jumped in with a 9-page cover story in its Sunday magazine.

What gives?

For one, it might have something to do with Michigan itself.  We’ve been a poster child for the Nation’s struggling economy, so any story about the failure of cities resonates beyond our borders.  Secondly, Benton Harbor’s size, and racial divide, are a lure.  Benton Harbor is about 85 percent African American.  Its so-called twin city, neighboring St. Joseph, is about 85 percent white. Benton Harbor’s story may seem like one that can be encapsulated, broken down into a clear narrative with a wider message.  But that’s where big media can make big mistakes.  

Generally, Rachel Maddow is an effective voice on the left.  But here, she chose ideology over facts.

In condemning the E.M. Law, she framed the issue as part of a larger attempt by Republicans to seize power and break up unions.  She didn’t mention that Benton Harbor’s E.M. was appointed by a Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, or that in a survey last year, a slight majority of Benton Harbor residents approved of actions by the emergency manager.  

In contrast, the New York Times go to the subtleties.  On one side, the story portrayed those who believe the state should step in and try to fix an impoverished city.  On the other, there are those who see it as a power grab and profoundly undemocratic.  

To be clear, with reservations, I support the E.M. Law, but that isn’t my main point.  Rather, it’s that I think viewers and readers should be wary of national media who try to paint the emergency manager law as a battle between good and evil.  

It’s not. 

It’s really a choice between bad and worse.  Should Michigan cities be allowed to go bankrupt?  If not, how can we defend the practice of appointing state managers to run cities and school systems, and at least temporarily, disempower elected officials?

What convinced me is that, in Benton Harbor, the city’s troubled finances are stabilizing.  However, national media also played a role in my thinking.  At first, the Maddow Show just got me annoyed and didn’t open my mind to the conundrum of the E.M. Law.  But the New York Times, in telling the story straight, forced me to really consider the balance between state and local power, between financial stability and Democracy. 

I’m convinced the E.M. story will continue to get national coverage especially because Detroit faces the possibility of a state takeover and protesters are out in force.  I’ll be sympathetic to folks who disagree with me.  But I won’t be sympathetic to national media who portray this as a story with clear rights and wrongs.

It is anything but.