American Culture

Detroit News' Nolan Finley: [Black] murder's not news

I was originally going to respond to a thoughtful piece by Jane Briggs-Bunting here at Scholars & Rogues, “Is the media simply racist? Detroit News columnist hits the mark on Bashara murder coverage,” but the more I thought about the matter, the more I disagreed with her conclusion that columnist (actually editorial page editor) Nolan Finley’s piece “Finley: If life’s cheap, murder’s not news” is either poignant or accurate.

Somehow, I missed the sensational headlines about the Bashara murder since it happened, but then again, I don’t generally keep up with national news of local murders for pretty much that very reason…the sensational aspect. Had I noticed, I probably would have been among the readers grousing. “Yup. Sure enough. Wealthy white woman gets offed, it’s a national issue. Let it be a black person, a Latino, or even a poor white waitress with a bad smile somewhere and, unless there’s something to make it legitimately national news, it would be so far buried in the local papers the locals might not even know of it.”

As I see it, race is certainly a factor, but it’s not the sole factor. Gender may be a factor as well. I haven’t done the research (something tells me it would take one helluva grant), but it would be interesting to discover how often national coverage of local murders features murdered men versus murdered women compared to a national gender breakdown of murder victims. Does one gender’s demise generate more sensational headlines than the other? Mix in a dose of gender-bending. Were it to be a factor, would it make it more sensational, or a case to not be touched with a ten-foot pole? Perhaps religion or politics could be factors, but my gut says only in the case of either hate crimes, political motivation, or some degree of celebrity status.

Then there’s wealth. Get a wealthy white female victim and you’ve got a trifecta. Stop the presses! Extra points if there’s a blend of religion, politics and gender identity. Wealthy White Evangelical Councilmember/Abortion Critic Dead, New Evidence Suggests Was Secretly Drag King. We’d never hear the end of it. Even then, my gut says that but for money there would be no political angle, no celebrity angle. Maybe salacious details of the “other” would grab the headlines briefly, but I have my doubts absent an obvious hate angle.

My money’s on wealth.

In his piece, Finley says:

“Why is life so cheap in Detroit? Is it poverty? Drugs? Ignorance? Illegitimacy? Hopelessness?

All of the above?

Until we can answer that question , we’re not going to stop the bloodbath.”

I’m guessing “lack of education” didn’t fit the listing style so “ignorance” had to do, but barring that, I think he nailed it. If ignorance were a factor in violent crime, I’d expect far more of it from the radical right. Oh, wait. I see what I did there. Just to digress briefly into a partisan issue, one of the critical differences I see between the two ends of our Right/Left political spectrum is the direction of causality where poverty and drugs, ignorance, illegitimacy and hopelessness are concerned. The Right would have us believe that drugs cause poverty, that ignorance causes poverty, that illegitimacy causes poverty, that despair causes poverty. So it’s the individual’s fault and fuck ’em. The Left would generally have us believe that poverty causes the various blights associated with poverty, so it’s a social ill inflicted on society by society and that, were it sufficiently addressed by society, it would decrease the prevalence of a broad spectrum of social ills.

Either way, with poverty and the associated ills being so prevalent in the Detroit area, why is that not the news, all the time? Is it poverty fatigue? Or does it just make for depressing press and drive away advertising dollars? How would that logic apply to something like Fukushima? It’s a local problem with an ever-growing reach, and the problem grows worse every day as does poverty. But we still hear about it. No Fukushima fatigue. At least with the endless stream of other local disasters, we get disaster fatigue because the initial disaster was a momentary thing. Imagine the horror if the headlines read, “Day 95: Tsunami STILL Crashing Ashore”! We’d still be hearing about it. Fukushima still “crashes ashore”. We still hear about it.

Poverty still crashes ashore. Crickets. Poor-on-poor murder. Crickets. Poor person on drugs. Crickets. Poor person uneducated. Crickets. Poor person has child out of wedlock. Crickets. Poor person despairs. Crickets.

But Finley doesn’t go there. Rather, he adroitly side-steps what might be seen as his editorial responsibility to keep “Day Bajillion: Poverty STILL Crashing Ashore, Toll Mounts” his paper’s ongoing crusade. Instead, without quite saying, “poor-on-poor murder, blah, blah, blah” he may as well have. Instead, he plays the race card embedded in the logical fallacy of sweeping generalization.

“Go ahead and accuse the media of not valuing black life as much as it does white life. That could even be true. But Detroiters obviously don’t value black life, either. If they did, they wouldn’t be taking so many.”

But who are these “Detroiters”? For convenience, I defaulted to Wikipedia as a quick source. At least the demographics are footnoted. According to Wikipedia:

In 2010, the population of Detroit (not the metro area, just Detroit) was 713,777 (from 2009 figures!). By race: 82.7% black. By income: “For the 2010 American Community Survey, median household income in the city was $25,787, and the median income for a family was $31,011. The per capita income for the city was $14,118. 32.3% of families had income at or below the federally defined poverty level. Out of the total population, 53.6% of those under the age of 18 and 19.8% of those 65 and older had income at or below the federally defined poverty line.” Unfortunately, the breakdown didn’t mention which percentage of the poor are also black, but I hope you’ll forgive me for thinking it wouldn’t take a genius to make that particular connection.

So, in 17 little words, Finley (white, presumably not poor) indicts 713,777 Detroiters for callous disregard of black human life. Or did he really just mean to implicate only 590,000 Detroiters, the 82.7% that chose to be black and poor? “But Detroiters obviously don’t value black life, either. If they did, they wouldn’t be taking so many.”

Those 37 dead Detroiters must have been of some pretty tough stock if it took 590,000 people to kill them.

With a metro-area population approaching 5 million, only 713,000 of whom live in “Detroit,” and with the Detroit Free Press’ circulation of ~234k, maybe, just maybe, most of those papers are sold right in the heart of Detroit, and maybe the readership is apathetic enough to not pressure the editor to report on issues that strike really close to home, like poverty and murder. Or maybe being #23 on AP’s list of top 25 papers by circulation (see previous link), being Detroit’s largest paper and Gannett’s largest city paper, and, according to their advertising sale pitch, having a reach (in conjunction with Detroit News and web/mobile apps) of 1.8 million, maybe their audience isn’t found in the creamy blue center of the following demographic map, but mostly in the crunchy pink clusters in the outlying suburbs.

Something tells me Finley would have been far more honest to say that, “white, suburban ‘Detroiters’ don’t value black life, either. If they did, we wouldn’t have so much space for puff pieces in our mostly don’t give a shit non-coverage of poverty in our immensely successful paper.”

Stop the presses, Finley. Day Bajillion: Poverty STILL Crashing Ashore, Toll Mounts

1 reply »

  1. Something to consider – Who watches the news and who pays for advertising on it?

    News agencies have a target audience as much as American Idol and CSI: Miami do.

    I work in the media and I haven’t seen head nor hide of the story.