Finally Getting Around To Dateline NBC...Sort Of
I've got a terrible, albeit late, admission to make.
I know I'm supposed to be part of a big national media project tasked with peering into and vetting all things Detroit. And I know I'm supposed to keep up with everything from the earth-shaking headlines to the backstreet minutiae of our city. I know I should be up on these sorts of things--so maybe I shouldn't be saying this. But I figure, better out than in, right?
So here goes...
I missed the Dateline NBC special on the city that aired recently.
There. I said it. And I would toss in an apology with that admission, too. Except, I'm not at all sorry.
I missed it for one big reason: My friend had ordered the Ken Burns jazz documentary on Netflix and, since I was visiting his house with my son, I wanted to give the boy a chance to learn a bit more about the classics.
But I also missed the Dateline piece for a few lesser reasons. One, as much as I enjoy watching Chris Hansen bust Internet predators down deep in the Georgia backwoods, I got enough of his brand of "hard-boiled" street reporting of Detroit back when he and a guy named Ti Hua Chang were chasing dope boys and crackheads around Van Dyke, W. 7 Mile and Grand Boulevard back in the '80s. I didn't automatically think his Dateline piece would suck, but, having sat through many of his breaking local exclusives back in the day, I also didn't expect it to reveal much that I hadn't already been told (or seen or done) repeatedly.
(Alright, I'll admit, he got me with the "Coon Man"--which forces another confession: I did watch snippets of the special for a few sporadic moments, mainly because my buddy's fiancée insisted we try to check it out. We switched back and forth, ran across the "Coon Man" segment and quickly went back to Burns' deification of Satchmo once and for all.)
I also missed the Dateline piece because personally, I'm sick of how, every time one of these big excavation projects jumps off, Detroiters get all prepared to either be mortally offended or pleasantly surprised by what turns up. I don't begrudge NBC for taking a look at Detroit anymore than I'm mad at TIME or anyone else--but pardon me if I'm just not that excited anymore about every single finding, conclusion or supposition. Bottom line, we're a major American city with major American problems--and major American impact.
Sure, gawk at us, perhaps even harder than you would at Boston (where kids are being bullied into suicides) or D.C. (where whole crowds of youths are being sprayed by gunfire) or Chicago (where there's talk of calling in the National Guard), but you'll have to pardon my disinterest in your shock. We're just like most other American urban centers, big and beautiful and, to one degree or another, broken. In some ways, we're better off. In other ways, yes, we're far worse. But whatever our real problems, we ought to be busy enough that prime-time TV one-offs shouldn't rate among them.
In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I will be watching the special, or at least reading the transcript, mainly because I was asked to be on a panel discussion about it later this week. (As long as my folks don't expect too much of me in the "angry black man" department—only on this one, though, I promise—we should be cool.) But honestly, I'm far less interested in what Detroit looks like through Chris Hansen's eyes than I am in what the city looks like through the eyes of the men, women and children who actually make this place go. And neither I nor you should have to depend on Hansen for that.
I'm not mad, sad or glad about Dateline NBC screwing up. Sure, as a journalist, I wish everyone would do a better job of reporting what goes on here--and that's as true of the local FOX affiliate and the Detroit News as it is of Dateline and TIME. But as far as being a native Detroiter? I simply refuse to be perma-pissed about any more must-see specials or late-night punchlines. Even though I deeply respect some of those who've registered disdain for the Dateline piece—and actually I respect Hansen too when he's on his "Catch A Predator" game—I'm far more ready to keep discussing how we plan to turn around this city, region and state; how we will teach and raise our children; how we will pay our bills and manage our land; how we will re-discover our confidence and pride independent of what New Yorkers or Chicagoans think.
And if we really need to take a break to watch something on TV, I can safely say that that old Ken Burns joint was alright—even without the Coon Man.