Art Sales and Angry Journalism

Detroit Free Press editor's remarks uncalled for

Recent news reports on the Detroit bankruptcy have spilled a lot of ink over paint. Specifically, in coverage of a partial state bailout of the city intended in part to insulate paintings in its art museum from being sold off. I’ve spilled some of that ink myself in a blog post on the issue.

Another ink-spiller is Detroit Free Press Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson, who made the following argument in an April 9 column: “Hands off our stuff, you soulless, greedy, scavenging vultures.”

This is beneath Mr. Henderson, who I and others at the Mackinac Center greatly respect despite frequently (but not always) disagreeing with him. His words were hostile, failed to grant those who don’t share his opinion the presumption of good will, and ignored valid interests of many who in good faith loaned their money to Detroit.

If a case for giving city-owned paintings privileged status in bankruptcy depends on comparing lenders to soulless animals that feed off the dead, it’s probably not a very good case. It almost feels hateful, and is unlikely to reassure any potential new investors or lenders that their interests would be respected by Detroit and its institutions (including the Free Press).

Moreover, while they obviously don’t top Mr. Henderson’s popularity list, lenders are people, too. Banks are easily characterized as cold, soulless institutions, but ultimately they are merely agents for real people who put their own money at risk in hopes of earning a fair rate of return. Also, why are bank lenders who took a chance on the city bad while taxpayer lenders — forced to give even more money to Detroit — good?

And what about the Lansing politicians who would force Michigan residents outside the city to give up $350 million in state services and revenue to keep certain city assets off the auction block — are they vultures too? Why shouldn’t Michigan voters in other communities — who for years have already bailed out Motown in many ways — demand that “scavenging” politicians and “greedy” Detroit keep their “hands off our stuff” as well? After all, every dollar used to bail out this city is a dollar that won’t be available to fill potholes or meet other critical needs elsewhere in the state.

I have met and been interviewed by Stephen Henderson by phone, in person and on television. I like and respect him. He is normally a very reasonable and a thought-provoking fellow. This vulture article demonstrated neither of those qualities.

Stephen, you know there are thoughtful, principled people who have many good and valid reasons to oppose a partial state bailout of a city that has so thoroughly fouled its own nest. Obviously you don’t have to agree with them, but referring to them in these terms is wrong, whether done by a Pulitzer Prize winner or anyone else.