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Newsweek and Grand Rapids: Who get’s asked the question?

January 26, 2011

First, I want to say that I am not a fan of Newsweek Magazine. Newsweek is fundamentally an elite publication that acts as an apologist for the US government and for the economic elites in this country.

Their story about the Top 10 Dying Cities in the US is not an exercise in journalism, rather it is a statistical play on words. Using census figures to make determinations about the quality of a city can be useful, but it is most certainly incomplete.

Having said that I find it interesting how people have responded to the Newsweek story and what evidence they use to refute the idea that Grand Rapids is a dying city.

Grand Rapids Press Business reporter Julia Bauer responded on January 21st to the claims of Newsweek by listing “evidence” at the bottom of her article showing that Grand Rapids was alive and well. The list included – DeVos Children’s hospital, Laughfest, ArtPrize, ticket sales at Van Andel arena, museum ticket sales and Meijer Gardens.

On Monday, the GR Press ran a follow up story where they sought responses from people in Grand Rapids who disagree with Newsweek’s assessment. The story cited GR Community Foundation President Diana Sieger, the creation of Facebook pages challenging the magazine’s claim and a video interview from WZZM with a local hotel manager.

The Monday Press story was accompanied by a photo gallery providing more evidence that Grand Rapids is thriving. The photos were all of downtown Grand Rapids except for a picture of the Meijer Gardens and the re-developed Kent County Airport.

Yesterday, the Press ran another story based on a letter that Mayor George Heartwell send to Newsweek, which was read at the Tuesday morning City Commission meeting. In his letter Heartwell cites as evidence that the city is alive and well items such as ArtPrize, the new JW Marriot hotel, the 92 downtown bars & restaurants, Van Andel arena events and all the LEED certified buildings in the area.

While all of this response certainly speaks to new development projects, entertainment opportunities, the “medical mile” and restaurant options it is interesting that virtually all of the responses deal with downtown Grand Rapids and not GR neighborhoods.

However, a more important point that I think is worth making here is who gets asked to respond to the claims made by Newsweek? The people who are cited in the Press articles are people who are privileged, both in terms of money and status. We hear from the Mayor, the JW Marriot manager and the President of the GR Community Foundation.

In contrast, what sort of reaction would one get if the Press had sought out the voices of people who live in the Black Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids or the Senior Citizens housing center on Division and Delaware? What would happen if working class families and individuals who work two jobs to make ends meet or people who are facing home foreclosure were asked what they thought about the Newsweek article? How about the people standing in line at the unemployment offices or those who use the services of the soup kitchen?

The question is not so much is Grand Rapids a dying or thriving city, rather who is thriving and who is being left behind?


13 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna Rose permalink
    January 26, 2011 6:23 pm

    So, why don’t you finish the article by examining the questions you pose? Why don’t you do what you are asking the reader to imagine doing? “What would happen if working class families and individuals who work two jobs to make ends meet or people who are facing home foreclosure were asked what they thought about the Newsweek article? How about the people standing in line at the unemployment offices or those who use the services of the soup kitchen?”

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 26, 2011 6:28 pm

    Anna, we are working on it. Unlike the Press all of the GRIID writers are volunteers, so we don’t have the capacity do do what journalistic agencies such as the Press should be doing.

  3. metropolis permalink
    January 27, 2011 7:19 pm

    Ain’t that a bite…

    Fact is, it’s way easier for GRIID to just ask these questions of the media without actually going out there and DOING the kind of journalism that they advocate. It’s kinda like how it’s easier for the Grand Rapids Press to just reprint press releases or for WOOD TV 8 to just run Video News Releases than it is to do actual reporting.

    I think it’s a cop out to say that you don’t have the resources to do real journalism. You can choose to do the hard work or you can do things the easy way (just like corporate journalists have that choice). That seems to be the problem with most “independent” or “alternative” media in the United States: it certainly is the case in Grand Rapids (look at MediaMouse, The Rapidian, GRIID, various blogs, etc). Much of the time is spent reacting or commenting on the agenda that is set by the dominant media rather than doing original work.

    I also think you need to decide if you want to the Press to do better (i.e. reform them/ask them to consult more sources) or if you want to do independent journalism: they are two different things. I tend to think the reform stuff comes at the expense of the journalism if you going to both. You might find your self with more resources and more clarity of purpose if you focused on one or the other.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 27, 2011 7:53 pm

    Wow. You don’t seem to read the site with much thought if you think this is a valid comment: “Much of the time is spent reacting or commenting on the agenda that is set by the dominant media rather than doing original work.”

    In the past two weeks, there have been the following original articles posted on the site: a Media Bite video about using children in ad campaigns; a report on a debate about the future of capitalism that took place at GVSU; an article about a grass-roots movement in Muskegon to secure rights for inmates at the Muskegon County Jail; a report on one of the January Series events at Calvin College; an analysis of a MiBiz announcement on weapons manufacture in Michigan; a report on Dr. Eric Dyson’s speech for MLK Day at GVSU; a report on bullying and suicide in the West Michigan area; a report on the Right to Work legislation initiated here in the State House; a report on Our Kitchen Table and a grant it received to exand its programs; an article about Baby Doc’s return to Haiti (plus a follow-up article on how the Press has recently editorialized about Haiti); a report on the speech given by film Judy Richardson and her follow-up discussion with attendees; an article about the death of John Ross; and two articles giving spot reviews of various new media in the Bloom Collective collection. I’d say that many of these articles fall into the category of “doing journalism.”

    In addition, it is part of GRIID’s mission statement to “act as a media watchdog of the news in West Michigan and have published numerous reports that demonstrate that the corporate media fails the public miserably on critical issues.” So the commentaries on local media and their failure to include all voices or a range of perspectives (such as this article) fall into the realm of that work. If you don’t care for this type of article, you don’t have to read these analyses, but I find, as a consumer of media in this area, they help me to question and explore exactly what is in area coverage and what’s been left out.

    In addition, GRIID publishes announcements of events such as the upcoming film series sponsored by Healing Children of Crisis. These types of events are also not covered in the mainstream media.

    For a small volunteer staff, that is a lot of work, and I’d submit that many of the articles covered topics and events that were not reported on elsewhere in this area.

  5. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 27, 2011 8:26 pm

    Jeff, when I read the article on Newsweek, I also thought specifically about the widening gap between the wealthy and the workers in this area. Steelcase, a company that used the be the largest employer in the area, is shipping jobs to Mexico…the poverty rate in this once-comfortable area is up to a quarter of the residents…and many people who lost their jobs in the past decade have yet to find another, or another job that actually supports themselves and their family.

    But those with the reserves to take advantage of the record number of foreclosures, the desperate workforce who will accept lower and lower wages (I have a friend who was recently hired back to his long-time job, for which he had been laid off, for *half* of his original pay) and the obscene tax cuts for the wealthy are doing just fine.

    These people are creating and sponsoring events, such as Art Prize, that fill their coffers even more handsomely, and they are swapping land and created new developments, such as on Wealthy Street, to guarantee future profits. And they have their shills in place, such as Rapid Growth Grand Rapids, owned by Issue Media Group (mission statement: “to focus on growth, investment and remarkable people leading communities into the new economy”), to sing the economic potential of the area and lure new business here.

    In his brilliant speech “Welcome to the Plutocracy,” Bill Moyers described a company called the Blackstone Group, an acquirer of assets that have grown shaky during the recession. The picture Moyers created will not feel foreign to the workers of Grand Rapids:

    The company “swooped down on a travel reservation company in Colorado, bought it, laid off 841 employees, and recouped its entire investment in just seven months, one of the quickest returns on capital ever for such a deal. Blackstone made a killing while those workers were left to sift through the debris. They sold their homes, took part-time jobs making sandwiches and coffee, and lost their health insurance.

    “That fall, Blackstone’s chief executive, Stephen Schwarzman, reportedly worth over $5 billion, rented a luxurious resort in Jamaica to celebrate the marriage of his son. According to the Guardian News, the Montego Bay facility alone cost $50,000, plus thousands more to sleep 130 guests. There were drinks on the beach, dancers and a steel band, marshmallows around the fire, and then, the following day, an opulent wedding banquet with champagne and a jazz band and fireworks display that alone cost $12,500. Earlier in the year Schwarzman had rented out the Park Avenue Armory in New York (near his 35-room apartment) to celebrate his 60th birthday at a cost of $3 million. So? It’s his money, isn’t it? Yes, but consider this: The stratospheric income of private-equity partners is taxed at only 15 percent – less than the rate paid, say, by a middle class family.”

    Think about Amway’s “private fireworks display” that no one else in Grand Rapids was supposed to watch, and the DeVos family building a 22,000-square-foot summer “cottage” in Holland as if it were the second Newport and this was the Gilded Age all over again. Think about the howl of indignation that went up from business owners over the very possibility that the Wealthy and Cherry corridors were becoming gentrified instead of “revitalized,” and how these same power brokers are attempting to ridiculously rename it the “uptown” area to add even a little more upscale sparkle. Think about Jim Hackett, CEO of Steelcase, calling local employees “heroes” last year for all of the extra work they’d taken on, and how he’s now booting more than 400 of those heroes into unemployment because there’s “excess capacity” here in Michigan now that there are plants ready to go in Mexico. Meanwhile, Hackett pocketed 2.2 million in salary, stock options, and “additional compensation” for 2010 alone.

    Grand Rapids is dying, all right, but the vultures are eating very well.

  6. Roger Becan permalink
    January 28, 2011 1:58 am

    Oh good lord!

    Why dont you then go and start your own business and employee people at 55 dollars an hour with full benefits, 6 weeks paid vacation, guaranteed raises every year and full health with zero co-pay if you can do better?

    When it goes under in 2 hours, then maybe you will see how much it takes to actually run one of those.

    Hint: It isn’t based on greed or some progressive nonsense theory of them stealing it from the hapless “working class”.

    And while you are harping on local CEOs for enjoying the wealth that they earned through their own efforts, where are the articles ripping all of the celebrities like Michael Moore, or Rosie O’Donnell for the lavish things they do with their cash?

    Oh yeah, they are hard-core leftists, so they are free to blow wads of cash on private jets, multiple homes in several nations, and million-dollar weddings that are then gushed over in equally left-wing entertainment rags and TV shows.

    The Amway families worked there way from a basement out by the airport to being one of the most generous families in the country, and have, along with the Meijers, VanAndels, and others, made Grand Rapids far better than any of the constant progressive whiners have ever bother doing.

    Do you even know what Grand Rapids looked like in the late 70’s to the mid 90s? That city we enjoy today that is far from “dead”, WAS DEAD back then.

    Thank those families, even if it hurts you. God knows they didnt have to do squat.

  7. Kate Wheeler permalink
    January 28, 2011 3:40 am

    If I were to start a business, it would be a workers’ cooperative. They generate money for the people who actually do the work, not for outside investors who demand higher and higher profits every year. One example is the highly successful Norwegian software firm, Kantega, which has been named one of the top 100 places to work in the European community. Mondragon Corporation in Spain is another cooperative that employes over 85,000 workers. Israel’s largest bank is worker-owned and operated. These cooperatives run solely for the benefit of the workers, with each person having an equal vote and all workers agreeing on wages. There are no multi-million-dollar top executive pay ranges, no curtailing of benefits to add to investor profits, no secrets about production and work schedules.

    It is possible to do good work and do good for the people who do the work. But it’s not possible, in my opinion, to do so under the capitalist system as it exists today.

  8. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 28, 2011 1:53 pm

    Hey Metropolis, first this piece was listed as a news analysis piece, thus asking the questions is the whole point. Secondly, as Kate has already pointed out we do go out and do the kind of journalism that we demand of the Press and the other commercial media outlets in this area. We do it because we believe it is important to have independent voices and perspectives. We do it because we have documented over the past 12 years in this community an utter failure by the commercial media to practice the basic values of journalism, which is not only to inform of us issues that directly impact our lives, but to challenge centers of power, an aspect of journalism that is rarely practiced in this community.

    Also, I do know what working class people think about. I know what people who have 2 jobs just to make ends meet think. I do know what recent immigrants and people who live in the Black Hills neighborhood would say if they were asked by the local news if they thought Grand Rapids was a dying city. I know this because these are my friends. These are the people I choose to spend time with. These are the people I break bread with and these are the people I have written about on this blog, and on other independent media sites and publications.

    So when I say we don’t have the resources to send people out to do every story about every issue we raise in our clog, that is not a cop out, that is just reality. None of us get paid to do this. However, as I said I already know what the people I mentioned in the dissection piece already think.

    When you say we we don’t do original work, you apparently don’t read most of what we post, which is “original.” We do have clarity and focus and we can both be a media watchdog and do independent media.

    A question I would have for you is, do you work for commercial news media? and if you don’t they why are you an apologist for them?

  9. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 28, 2011 2:01 pm

    Roger, my family started a business in the late 1950s, a home delivery milk business. We all worked hard, 50 – 70 hours a week. It was an honest living and we provided people with a quality product. The business went under in 1979, for several reasons, but mostly because all the other small milk delivery businesses were bought up by another company that we could no longer compete with, since they had a virtual monopoly in the area.

    So please, do tell me what I should do or that people make it by working hard. My family worked their asses off and that didn’t matter in the end since the economic system in this country doesn’t reward hard work, it rewards power.

    To say that DeVos and Van Andel got where they are because they worked hard is laughable. They made their wealth off of other people’s labor in a pyramid scheme.

    If you want to be an apologist for the local robber barons that is fine, that is your right, but if you are going to arguing on a blog that is clearly critical of capitalism and pro-working class then you ought to have some evidence to support your claims. If not, don’t waste our time.

  10. metropolis permalink
    January 28, 2011 9:23 pm

    For god’s sake, just because someone asks difficult questions that doesn’t make them a) an employee of the corporate media or b) an apologist for them. Nor does it make them a right-winger. My comments were offered to encourage discussion and critical thinking by building on something raised by another reader on your website.

    My main point in writing was to say that if:

    “we have documented over the past 12 years in this community an utter failure by the commercial media to practice the basic values of journalism, which is not only to inform of us issues that directly impact our lives, but to challenge centers of power, an aspect of journalism that is rarely practiced in this community.”

    …then you should just forget about them and make the media that you want to see. Maybe you are doing that sometimes, maybe you aren’t. There will probably be a difference of opinion on that. I just don’t get why you dwell on their failures. The commercial media sucks and we should just move on and stop being caught in that rut.

    I stand by my assertion that the majority of leftist “alternative” and “independent media” is reacting to the agenda set by the dominant media. So much time is spent criticizing them that could be spent doing journalism that answers the questions they don’t ask or writes about the issues they ignore. It’s a fundamental problem facing leftist media and it’s a question of strategy. Maybe I overstated it a bit re: GRIID (apparently so given the smackdown I received from GRIID), but it’s true of much alternative media. Even here, I think a significant amount of time is spent discussing their obvious failings.

    Also, I thought the criticism of The Press on the Newsweek thing was kind of ridiculous. I think a better way to respond would have been to say “gee, the Press missed the story on this, so we went out and covered it by talking to marginalized voices.” It’s great if Jeff knows those folks and knows “what working class people think about”, but why not talk to them for a story? As it was published, you didn’t share their perspectives. Doing so would have made for a much more valuable blog posting. I think just asking questions in “news analysis” pieces is fundamentally a cop out, because the questions never get answered. Sure, we can wonder, but imagine how much better it would be if GRIID answered these questions.

    And as far as stuff in the past month, y’all have published :

    Original Stories – Local Focus – 9
    Original Stories – Speakers in GR – 5
    Original Stories – Focused on Foreign Policy – 4
    Original Stories – National – 1
    Media Bites – 1
    Media Focused Stories – 5
    Reprints – 6
    Media Alert Reprints – 3
    Media Recommendations (plugs for the Bloom Collective?) – 3
    Event Announcements – 6
    Bloom Collective Announcements – 2
    GRIID Class Announcements – 1

    Maybe I over emphasized the media stuff, we’ll probably differ on that. It’s 20% of the original reporting on here. I think that’s too much, but whatever.

    Anyway, I’m giving up. For some reason recent comments don’t display on the side on this blog (like I have seen elsewhere to promote discussion) so it’s just going to be a pointless back and forth.

  11. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 28, 2011 9:35 pm

    Metropolis………just because we have documented that the local news has failed us shouldn’t be reason to stop critiquing them. Thousands of people in West michigan still consume the major news media and if critiquing them on a regular basis can provide useful analysis about what is being reported and what is not in this community. People tell me all the time that this is useful, therefore I think it is worth doing.

    We only shifted to doing indy about 18 months ago and are still working on building some capacity around doing that. We are trying to get college interns and other people who would like to volunteer to doing independent reporting, but since we can’t pay anyone it makes it less appealing to people.

    We have been reporting on what local working class people think about these issues and we will continue to do so when we are able to. Maybe my response in wondering if you worked for corporate media was unwarranted, but unless you know how we operate and what motivates what we do it is natural to react to your claims that we are “coping out.”

    If you want to see more independent news then we would welcome your contributions. Come to a meeting and suggest stories or better yet become a reporter for GRIID.

  12. brig permalink
    January 31, 2011 6:05 am

    I’ll tell you what would happen if we asked those people. We would get what’s called an “unrepresentative sample,” that’s what would happen. Of course business leaders are not representative either, but they are at least possibly in a position to comment on broad economic trends.

    This is not to suggest that your idea would not be interesting. But it would not reveal anything about overall economic progress or growth.

  13. Jeff Smith permalink*
    January 31, 2011 11:44 am

    “brig” that was partly my point, that the coverage in the mainstream commercial media was unrepresentative of a broad range of opinions and experiences. What do you mean business leaders are in a position to comment on broad economic trends? Business leaders, whoever they are, could tell you about their own economic interests and not much else. Sure they may express the usual “free market” jargon, but they have no more insight into economic trends than the person who mops floors at the hospital.

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