From the outset, the Metro Times signaled its intent to be more than just an arts-and-entertainment rag. Founding editor and co-publisher Ron Williams ensured this would be an alternative newspaper with emphasis on the word news. Ass-kicking, take-no-prisoners stories that strove to be both credible and explosive quickly became an MT trademark. Even in the beginning, with the paper sometimes numbering a pitifully thin 24 pages, MT featured stories of heft and significance, beginning with:
“Push comes to shove”
Look how far we’ve come. Now, instead of ending up in costly court actions trying to obtain land for manufacturing plants, the city is engaged in a costly court action to obtain property for riverfront gambling casinos.
“The immaculate lawn syndrome”
A commitment to environmental issues and concerns about chemical contamination continued over the next two decades. From brownfield sites to Detroit River pollution to the nuclear power industry to chemical contamination of meat, the MT has raised a consistently green voice for 20 years.
“The Secret Belle Isle Casino Gambling Plan”
“The Metro Times has learned of the existence of a confidential document which details a proposal to transform the city-owned island park of Belle Isle into an international resort and conference center which would feature casino hotel gambling.”
The paper held off interviewing the project’s developers until just before going to press. Once the money guys realized the amount of shit that was about to hit the fan, they gave a call to the business-friendly Detroit News and handed them the story that we’d dug up, hoping to generate a more positive spin.
Television newsman Bill Bonds, for one, saw through the ploy.
“He sent TV cameras over to our offices,” recalls Williams. “And he asked the question, ‘How could a little paper like this scoop everyone else in town on a story this big?’”
“The politics of giving”
The Metro times went international with this story about the philanthropic World Medical Relief Inc., a Detroit-based nonprofit that provided the sick and poor of the world much-needed supplies. What contributors to the group didn’t know about — until writer Russ Bellant helped blow the cover — were the group’s long-standing ties to the CIA. Medical supplies were indeed being collected and flown abroad, but not all of them were going to help sick and poor people. Bellant, one of the premier investigators of the American right, meticulously documented ties between the group and CIA-led counterinsurgency measures as far back as the late 1950s, when Indochina was beginning to heat up for the United States.
By the mid-1980s, well into the Reagan era and his administration’s clandestine shenanigans in Central America, WMR planes were regularly whooshing their way from Motown to Honduras.
Williams recalls that Bellant’s story elicited an obscenity-laden call from Gen. John Singlaub, a retired Army officer who provided private technical and military expertise to the contras.
“I got this call from Singlaub, and he was swearing at me, calling me un-American,” says Williams, chuckling at the memory. “It was really a great compliment, having someone of that stature so upset with us.”
Bellant, who literally wrote the book on the Coors family and how their beer fortune helped support a wide variety of far-right causes, has high regard for the role MT played during the trying times of the ‘80s. Constant coverage of the far right made this paper a crucial local voice, contends Bellant.
“The paper was definitely having an impact,” recalls Bellant. “It’s impossible to measure how much, but it was bringing a high level of awareness on these issues to other members of the local news community and the informed political community.”
“Detroit’s apartheid connection”
Of all the high-impact stories produced by Rosanne Less, none stirred up more of a hornet’s nest than her scoop exposing ties between the financiers of a $500 million waste-to-energy incinerator and South Africa.
The incinerator, slated for a site just north of Eastern Market, was controversial anyway. People on both sides of the Detroit River were raising hell over what critics said were inadequate emissions equipment and cost-cutting measures that cut out the latest in clean technologies.
Then the Metro Times reported the South Africa connection, and how San Francisco had scuttled a similar contract because of its anti-apartheid policies. Less also got city officials to admit they knew of the ties but did not disclose the information — even though the city had a divestment ordinance.
“This absolutely changes the context and setting of the Detroit debate on the burner and the atmosphere in which any further debate takes place. And there will now be additional debate,” said City Council member Mel Ravitz.
There was, but in the end a majority of the City Council voted to let the project move ahead.
In this two-part series, Metro Times’ contributing editor Herb Boyd vividly depicted Detroit’s Arab community and culture, as well as some of the same issues they face today: Anti-Arab sentiment, stereotyping, assimilation and racial tension between Arabs and blacks. Boyd’s story also focuses on reasons why Middle Eastern entrepreneurs dominate the black community. The answer is simple: Black store owners sold them their businesses and their liquor licenses, wrote Boyd. This series honors a growing community that has become a major force in metro Detroit.
“Exhibit focuses debate on endangered buildings”
When urban artists exhibited photos of abandoned and decaying downtown buildings entitled “Demolished by Neglect,” the Detroit Council of the Arts threatened to pull their $3,000 grant. The DCA claimed that the photographers defaced buildings when they stenciled the name of their photo exhibit on the deteriorating structures. Staff writer Greg Kaza not only covered this controversial issue, but later reported on the state of some buildings (such as the United Artists theatre) where bricks tumbled to the street. Kaza took city officials to task when he reported on their inability to address either that specific danger or the widespread deterioration of many other downtown buildings of a once magnificent city.
The issues of urban decay and redevelopment have been key ones for the Metro Times over the years. When the Hudson’s building closed, the paper followed the issue intensely, and when the city was about to tear it down, we broke the story that developers with a solid history and plans to save and restore the massive building were being shut out of the process. Other stories described how nonprofit groups such as the Greater Downtown Partnership were being used to keep what should be a public process out of the public eye.
Freelance writer Kristin Palm documented how the GDP has done little to bring about downtown loft development despite public demand. And staff writer Ann Mullen wrote about how big developers attempted to push out small businesses such as Simmons Jewelers and 1515 Broadway — which have remained in the city through thick and thin. Stay tuned, readers; with Detroit’s recent “rebirth,” more downtown development stories are in the works.
“Detroit’s People Mover: Made in South Africa?”
Rosanne Less did it again — she disclosed another Detroit-South Africa connection. With the help of Frank Provenzano, they produced a story revealing that “Made in South Africa” was engraved on some Detroit People Mover steel railings — a major embarrassment during the late ’80s in a city where the majority of residents are African-American. Their scoop forced the city to have the contractor responsible for the steel remove it — costing no less than $30,000. What Less and Provenzano were unable to find out — though the Metro Times filed a lawsuit against the Detroit Transportation Corporation for all documents related to the DPM construction — was whether other parts of the public transit train were also made from South African materials.
“The new JOA threat”
More than a decade ago, the Detroit Free Press’ parent company, Knight Ridder, threatened to close its doors if it was not allowed to jointly operate with the Gannett-owned Detroit News. Both papers cried that they could not make money competing against each other. Many suspected that the newspapers were deliberately losing money to bolster their claim, but no one on the outside knew for certain. In the end, the country’s two largest newspaper chains got their way. But what the papers — and the public — ultimately gained from the JOA is very little.
When the JOA debate was under way, the unions vehemently opposed it — particularly the Detroit Newspaper Guild Local 22 — fearing that editorial quality would diminish, that jobs would be reduced and a major union-busting campaign would be inevitable. We all know how this story turned out. The editorial content has suffered. Jobs were lost. And the JOA was followed by a major union-busting campaign. We all know how that turned out too. It’s been more than five years since the six newspaper unions went on strike and that battle is still being legally disputed with about 600 workers still locked out of their jobs. The papers operate in one building, yet pretend to be competing with each other. Circulation has dwindled by about 30 percent, with many readers saying they will never again subscribe to either paper. Well, at least Knight Ridder did not have to close its doors.
The turmoil at the dailies, as much as any other story, solidifies our belief of the value of an independent media voice. During the impending JOA, strike and ensuing lockout, we played a vital role in conveying information ignored or distorted by the dailies. And it is still going on. If you have any doubt that we’ve been a thorn in the side of the dailies, call Detroit News publisher Mark Silverman and ask him what he thinks of our News Hits column.
“A place to call home”
Shedding light on social injustice has always been — and will continue to be — a part of the Metro Times’ mission. A fine example of this commitment is found in former staff writer Frank Provenzano’s well-researched story about Detroit’s failure to house the poor and homeless. If nothing else, looking back over the 11 years since Provenzano’s piece was first published serves sad notice that writing about problems doesn’t always lead to change. In fact, much of what Provenzano reported in 1989 still applies: “The increasing vacancy rate in city-owned public housing also comes at a time when homeless shelters are filled to capacity and were forced to turn people away this winter.” The difference between then and now is that there are now more homeless people in Detroit and fewer public housing units.
So, do we give up shining a spotlight on injustice? Hell, no. Kris Kristofferson once penned what could well be our motto when it comes to truth telling: “I can’t believe that no one wants to know.”
“The profits of misery”
Former investigative reporter Monte Paulsen displayed a knack for exposing ugly truths some people definitely did not want the world to know. In this story, he reported that some polluters suspected of contributing to breast cancer were also profiting from the epidemic. For instance, one of the largest chemical companies, Imperial Chemical Industries — which, as described by Paulsen, also had an abysmal environmental record — owned a pharmaceutical company that pulled in $400 million annually for a breast-cancer treatment drug. Ironically, the chemical giant helped co-found Breast Cancer Awareness Month. But, as Paulsen pointed out, ICI made sure that nowhere in the event’s literature was it mentioned that its chemicals may cause breast cancer. Paulsen also linked the sparse funding for breast cancer research with the fact that the heads of major chemical companies were serving on the boards and set policy for two major research centers: the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society. Perhaps this is in part why this epidemic has claimed more lives than the Korean, Vietnam and two world wars combined.
Monte Paulsen produced another investigative gem with a report that unraveled how private companies — legally — make a killing by collecting overdue property taxes for the county and charging land owners up to 50 percent interest for the service. The other “land sharks” in this story are the financial institutions that grant homeowners high-interest loans to pay off private tax collectors. Most susceptible to these predatory practices, reported Paulsen, are elderly and minority homeowners, who sometimes pay about 10 times more for high-interest loans than the delinquent taxes. For instance, an Ypsilanti Township man paid $10,000 on a loan that covered a $1,189 tax bill.
On Oct. 12, 1994, the Metro Times published “Patriot Games,” investigative reporter Beth Hawkins’ disturbing account of the Michigan Citizens Militia.
In her groundbreaking article, which expanded on a story that originally appeared in Traverse City’s alternative paper, Northern Express, Hawkins quoted militia expert Chip Berlet saying, “I personally do not sleep well with groups of armed paranoids who believe the government is behind a totalitarian conspiracy.
“Eventually, they will have a confrontation. It’s inevitable.”
Six months later, media from across the country were scrambling to get a copy of the story when suspects in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City were linked to the Michigan Militia.
In a special edition the staff published in a marathon effort following that tragedy, editor Desiree Cooper wrote: “America now ponders aloud how we failed to see it coming, despite several warning shots from alternative publications such as the Metro Times and Traverse City’s Northern Express.”
“The Big Mac attack”
A series of four articles by investigative reporter Curt Guyette exposed the machinations behind the John Engler juggernaut. The articles attempted to provide a blueprint of how Engler operated and the devastating consequences of his “business-friendly” approach to government.
And then, to make sure the national press had a place to turn in case Big John was selected the Republican vice presidential candidate, we created the Web site www.johnengler.com and posted the entire series on the Web for the world to see.
Among other things, the articles provided a comprehensive look at how Michigan’s school voucher movement was largely being funded by a small group of extremely wealthy Christian fundamentalists — including the DeVos family of Amway fame — and a network of supposedly unrelated nonprofit groups. Although Engler has since backed away from the voucher issue, plans to target Detroit’s African-American community to gain support for a statewide ballot measure first reported on four years ago are just now coming to fruition. The series won a first-place award for political reporting from the Association of Alternative Newspapers.
“Little Caesar’s big bite”
In 1990, when most Detroit media were chasing rumors about where a new baseball stadium for the Tigers would be located, reporter David Finkel was following the exploits of the Tiger Stadium Fan Club and its efforts to save the old ballpark on Michigan Avenue. The issue remained high on the paper’s radar screen, and when a deal was finally inked to locate the new field across Woodward from a conclave of property held by team owner and Little Caesar’s pizza baron Mike Ilitch, the Metro Times dug into the documents.
When Guyette uncovered a plan to use the taxpayer-funded Detroit/Wayne County Stadium Authority to acquire property with the intent of turning it over to Ilitch, there was a significant public outcry. Local talk radio picked up the story and ran like crazy with it. Property owners railed at the idea the city would try to use eminent domain to acquire their parking lots only to be turned over to Ilitch so that he could use the land — as parking lots! The pizza king is still trying to acquire the land, according to sources, but he’s no longer using the stadium authority to get it.
Sometimes we approach a story feeling that, although other media have covered it extensively, there is still something significant we can add. Such was the case when 11-year-old Nathaniel Abraham made national headlines after being charged with first-degree murder for shooting 18-year old Ronnie Green. Abraham’s case not only captured the country’s attention because of his age, but because he faced a possible life sentence — a penalty normally reserved for adults. Former Metro Times’ editor Desiree Cooper — who is currently writing a book on the case — spent countless hours with Abraham’s mother, poring over school and police records, as well as attending hearings and eventually the trial in which an Oakland County jury found Abraham guilty of second-degree murder.
In the aftermath, Court TV and other media have called on Cooper to help add context and depth to the commentary.
Abraham became the poster child for juvenile justice advocates who criticize the increasingly draconian laws dealing with young offenders.
People around the country watched in horror last year as Geraldo Rivera of NBC aired a special report on the mistreatment of women prisoners in the United States, with most of the program devoted to conditions here in Michigan. Readers in metro Detroit were already well aware of the problem, since Rivera’s show covered much of the same ground that appeared months earlier in a story by MT reporter Jennifer Bagwell.
Pulling threads from court records, the U.S. Justice Department, human rights groups, attorneys and even corrections officers, Bagwell wove together a compelling piece detailing the extent to which women prisoners in this state were suffering abuse at the hands of their jailers. Follow-up articles detailed attempts by corrections officials to keep cameras out of prisons, as well as attempts by U.S. Rep. John Conyers to protect prisoners’ civil rights.
“All fall down”
This story is another example of Detroit’s two major dailies falling down on the job. Ann Mullen scooped both papers when she reported how the bankruptcy of a multimillion-dollar mortgage company may devastate Detroit’s tax base, housing market and even the census count. MCA Financial Corp., which specialized in providing mortgage loans to people with poor credit, owned about 3,600 rental properties in the city’s poorest neighborhoods; many were in disrepair. Mullen also exposed ties between MCA and a nonprofit that was being used to increase the company’s profits.
About a month after Mullen’s report, a task force of city and county officials and neighborhood leaders formed to determine how to manage the properties. About half of the homes are now with the city, which is bringing them up to code so as to sell them and increase the city’s tax base. A private company has control of the other homes, but is working with the city to bring them up to code to rent or sell them.
“Let him die”
Between 1992 and 1997 at least 17 people died while in the Detroit Police Department’s custody — most while behind bars at precinct lockups. We say “at least” because the Police Department failed to keep track of the number of people dying while in custody.
MT writer Ann Mullen reported on how some of these deaths occurred — as well as the large legal settlements the city was forced to shell out because of them.
As a direct result of Mullen’s story, the department announced a number of reforms. Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon said the department would begin tracking these deaths and create policies that will help prevent others from dying while in police custody.
“When cops shoot”
Barely a day has gone by recently without the News and Free Press reminding readers that the city began paying serious attention to the issue of police shootings after they wrote about the problem. They never point out that it was the Metro Times and Michigan Citizen that first produced major exposés revealing problems in the way police were investigating their own when a citizen was gunned down. Nearly five weeks before either major daily wrote word one about the high number of citizens fatally shot by Detroit police officers, staff writer Ann Mullen broke this story.
Last week, Mayor Dennis Archer held a press conference to announce he’s asking the U.S. Justice Department to come in and investigate.
We consider that strong evidence Mullen’s report was right on target.
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