Desperation In Detroit

Searching for!ways to help Detroit shed its violent and impoverished image, a local advertising firm recently proposed converting, the city's jagged-edge reputation into a selling point. WE GOT AN ATTITUDE. WANNA MAKE SOMETHING OF IT? says one sample headline. If this idea seems desperate, it's because Detroit is reeling--both from its problems and press attention that civic leaders charge is distorted and even racist. Sparking the resentment is a new book by Israeli journalist and Detroit native Ze'ev Chafets ("Devil's Night: And Other True Tales of Detroit") examining the city's tragic descent from industrial powerhouse to urban casualty. Earlier this month ABC's " Prime Time Live" highlighted Detroit's plight--staggering murder rates, drug use. Joblessness and a pervasive racism. The piece outraged many Detroiters: last week 60 community representatives flew to New York to tell ABC executives that the city S virtues were ignored in pursuit of alurid, easily reported story.

Has Detroit unfairly become a synonym for urban ruin :' Washington, D.C., usurped Detroit as the nation's murder capital in 1988. Seattle and Boston have higher rates of black infant mortality. It lazy reporting," says Paul Hubbard, president of New Detroit, Inc., an economic developrment agency. "It's harder to go to other cities where you may have to uncover things."

In fact, Washington's crack trade. New York's racial tension and Los Ange]es's gang wars have been heavily covered As Chafets points out in his not-unsy mpathetic book, unique economic and geographic factors have left Detroit in especially bleak condition. Competition from foreign automakers has torn the spine from the local economy. While other cities retained downtown commerce, plentiful land beyond Detroit's boundaries hastened white flight and the rise of suburban economic centers like Southfield. The result is a modern Potemkin village--splashy riverfront development backed by a shell that was once downtown Detroit.

Tea time: The "Prime Time" piece widened a longstanding local] debate over coverage of Detroit's troubles. Mayor Coleman Young, who cut off his ABC interview with obscenities after correspondent Judd Rose raised allegations of corruption in his administration, argues that Detroit is a press target because it is governed by blacks. The 16-minute 'Prime Time" segment depicted the symbols of Detroit's pain--Devil's Night arson fires, a mother grieving for a son lost to gunfire, a white suburbanite inveighing against "the coloreds," a young black male with his gun collection, gutted buildings. The program was not overtly racist. But it only nodded to the city's black middle class and stable residential neighborhoods. It also lapsed into gratuitous stigmatizing shorthand. To matize the racial divide, producers juxtaposed blacks dancing to M.C. Hammer with suburban whites sipping tea. "So now when it's Hammer time in the city, it's tea time in the suburbs. ' Rose said.

Several Detroiters in the piece claimed they were misled by ABC The bereaved mother said she thought the story was about SOSAD (Save Our Sons and Daughters), a group trying to curb violence. Others said producer Ti-Hua Chang promised a balanced portrait; critics point out that Chang, while working at a Detroit station in 1986, was suspended for paying a person to smoke crack on camera. ABC stands by Chang and the story 'The truth hurts," Chang says. lt wasn't the whole truth. But no matter how inartful, the piece sent a message impossible to ignore: that Detroit's agony is a national shame.