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Why we do it

MT photo: Cybelle Codish
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Published 10/19/2005

To afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.

If anyone asks why we at Metro Times do what we do, why the alternative press does what it does, that’s as good, accurate and concise an answer as we can give.

Oddly, it’s a tad old-fashioned. But the good stuff, the noble stuff, holds up, especially in a time and place when progressives find themselves increasingly alone in promoting long-established social values. The alternative view today, among other things, is what’s not cynically cloaked in the self-serving “morality” of 21st century American politics.

The high-minded quote is attributed to a journalist named Finley Peter Dunne who, at the turn of the last century, wrote a syndicated column in the persona of “Mr. Dooley,” a bartender who pontificated in the voice of the Irish common man. It’s worth adding that in defining what newspapers do, the affliction-and-comfort line is immediately followed with Dooley saying that we also “buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.” It’s a tough calling.

There are many reasons why the mainstream media strayed from this concept, most of them commercial. But journalists themselves also played a part. When Watergate came along and made celebrities of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the floodgates opened and out poured a generation of journalism trainees whose fervor lay as much in a desire for similar celebrity as in bringing down political corruption.

Alts continued on, after their nascency in the bomb-throwing, politically radical and/or anarchic, profane and often hysterically funny “underground press” of the Vietnam Era. It was already clear that culture in its many forms should be a part of the mix — at first, the bulk of it. But before long, news became an equal partner.

Liars and crooks were unmasked. The disenfranchised were given voice. Institutions were demystified and called to account. Light was shone on the true face of war and violence. Guiding it all was the constitutional obligation to confront and vigorously challenge the status quo.

When Detroit Metro Times first published 25 years ago, the lead story began on the cover and jumped inside. It was headlined “Last Hired First Fired,” and examined continuing resistance by the Detroit Police Department, and its largest union, to affirmative action put in place by first-term mayor Coleman A. Young six years before.

In his first editorial, co-founder Ron Williams led with the paper’s arts content — “We take our arts seriously. But no more seriously than we take our news.” — yet let news lead the paper. He also directly pitched for financial help from potential advertisers. One thing the alternative press has always shared with big media is the desire and goal of making money.

Twenty years later, Williams reviewed what had taken place in Metro Times since that first edition:

“From the very first issue we fought the divisive concepts of black and white, city and suburb, us and them,” he wrote. “We published to our own mythological construct: the Detroit metropolitan community. ... We told the suburbs that it was the most absurd of illusions to believe they could prosper while the city perished.”

And he pointed out one of the most significant steps taken by Metro Times since its founding — the 1997 launch of metrotimes.com, designed as Detroit’s first online city guide. It quickly became much more, and is now an award-winning news, culture, arts and entertainment Web site used daily by people around the world.

Not long before, after recognizing that growth and success had blurred focus on the core product, Metro Times hammered out a formal mission statement. The core values hadn’t changed; they were now just back in sharp relief.

We work to “invigorate public discourse” by telling stories “that other media aren’t telling” and from “perspectives that other media choose not to see.” The work should be relevant “to the full lives of a politically, culturally and aesthetically progressive readership.” Our focus is local, but with an awareness of the global context. And in telling our stories, we encourage our readers to engage in the forum that we offer, while, in turn, we involve ourselves in the community.

In that spirit, we will soon begin a sustained examination and discussion of mass transit in the belief that it’s one of the two most vital problem areas in bridging the social and physical moat between Detroit and the metro area that it anchors. The other, of course, is race. Relations have certainly not improved since the founding of Metro Times. And while we have less assurance than ever that we can facilitate change, we’ll continue our original promise to confront race without timidity. As one of our current senior staffers puts it, “You can’t give people a brain transplant – at least not all at once.”

We’re looking to the future as far as we can see. Everyone at Metro Times is very actively planning additions to our Web site to give readers the tools they need to cope with an increasingly chaotic and demanding world, and to make discussions, discourse and debate with us and their neighbors easier and immediate.

We continue in seeking out and presenting the best, or just most interesting, musicians, artists, free thinkers and other cultural and social activists until they’re recognized, and sometimes absorbed, by the mainstream.

We investigate power, not only because we should, but because so much of the media now shines its shoes. We promote a progressive agenda, in politics and the arts, because the status quo — righty, lefty or indie — just isn’t good enough.

We’ll throw the occasional bomb, we’ll be thoughtful and profane, and we’ll give both forum and voice to the unseen and unheard.

Some will be comforted, some will be afflicted. It’s getting easier by the day to decide which gets which.

Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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