If a tree falls in the forest and a journalist isn’t there with an audio recorder, does it make any sound? Today, for many people, the answer would be that it doesn’t make any difference.
Television, for too many people, is reality. Broadcast journalism does a great job reporting concrete events. But all journalism too often misses the impact of stories that unfold slowly over time.
One of the biggest of these is the continuing story of the thousands and thousands of Michiganders whose trades became obsolete overnight, who have a set of skills that suddenly are as worthless as those of a mastodon hunter.
They include factory hands and tool-and-die makers and plenty of white-collar workers. Some of these were men and women who on paper were once accountants and engineers, but who today are really only skilled at being Ford or Delphi bureaucrats.
They made very good wages, most of these people. Yet now their employer has vanished or is vanishing, and the skills they have are no longer marketable. What do you do when that happens and you are fifty years old, with mortgages and payments and kids in college? Politicians chatter on about retraining programs. But as one of these folks told the mayor of Grand Rapids, “So, I’m supposed to go become a research scientist now?”
This happened before, in the first major permanent downsizing of the auto industry a quarter-century ago. I watched some of them walk out of their plants and offices, beaten men.
The media soon lost interest. Perhaps they secretly melted away into the deep recesses of the Amazonian jungle, where they have created a world where Ford Fairlane and Rocket 88 Oldsmobiles still pour off assembly lines.
But somehow I think not.
Recently I had a time capsule experience. A woman whom I had known in high school saw me on television and wrote to me. I hadn’t seen her since 1970. Debbie had moved to upstate New York, gone to Cornell, lost touch with the area.
Now, she had unexpectedly come back, to take care of her elderly mother. She found herself in a city she barely recognized.
Places she had known were ruins. Sprawling city-suburbs she had never heard of had sprung up out of crossroads and cornfields. What happened, she wanted to know? What happened to Detroit?
How could I explain? Suddenly I remembered being in Berlin. They had shown us pictures of the destroyed city in 1945, and there were urban planners with maps already surveying the ruins. They called that time -- they still call it -- the year zero. They started from scratch -- they had to -- and in the end built something far better than they had before.
We have to do that too. Our job will be both easier and harder than theirs. But the biggest step is realizing this. The thing is, Debbie, we’re approaching Year Zero ourselves, and parts of our economy have really lost a war. Now all we have to do is figure out what’s next.