There are a few new city jobs in town, but none that have grabbed more headlines than Detroit’s Chief Storyteller position, held by our very own Aaron Foley.
In short, the recent position was set up by Mayor Duggan in an effort to give the residents of Detroit neighborhoods a greater voice. Or, as Foley described it – “to talk to people in those neighborhoods, and tell their stories”.
Taken at face value, the role of Chief Storyteller is a unique contracted position set aside for just such a public relations guru . However, the position also has the high likelihood of being seen as a tool of propaganda, with Foley officially going to the Dark Side, as he pushes a city government narrative.
Foley is “telling stories” – but is the content of those stories irrelevant in regard to who he works for and what emblems he must abide?
To preface, it is important to note that I have discussed the issues surrounding this topic with a handful of other journalists and writers in Detroit, all of whom had a strong opinion on the matter, but none of which felt they could go on record.
The following piece has been through numerous drafts and societal explorations as to why such a position was created in the first place, with consideration given to potential misuse of the position inherent in its application.
For this reason it is imperative to provide a clear timeline of events:
March 25, 2017
- Foley is hired by City of Detroit as Chief Storyteller
September 5, 2017
- Foley publishes piece critical of the Metro Times (MT) racial make-up of their staff
September 7, 2017
- Steve Neavling of Motorcity Muckracker writes critical piece of Foley and his “slam” piece of MT
September 26, 2017
- I sent Foley a Facebook message, in short seeking comment via email, on his position.
- Later, I created Facebook post asking for input from my friend group in regards to Foley and the position.
- Conversation began to develop, primarily citing Foley’s pay. Then, Foley himself joins the conversation.
- Concerned that the conversation dynamic of eliciting honest feedback had changed, I deleted the thread.
- I sent Foley a second Facebook message inviting him to meet in person.
- Foley responds and agrees to meet in order to, “Clear up any misconceptions about me and what I do”.
September 27, 2017
- Foley and I meet at Roasting Plant in Campus Martius. It is agreed upon that the conversation is recorded.
- During interview there were a couple of points of interest in relation to this piece that ought to be listed.
- Foley admits he has “always had a problem with the Metro Times”.
- After publishing a piece attacking Metro Times for what he determined to be a lack of on-staff racial diversity, Foley mentioned that he had received an email from MT Editor-In-Chief, Lee DeVito, effectively saying, “Yeah, you’re right” in regards to the city-sponsored piece.
October 5, 2017
- Metro Times Editor-In-Chief, Lee DeVito, confirms he did in fact send such an email to Foley
October 6, 2017
- DeVito again confirms that the email was sent, but notes that communication was supposed to have been a private conversation between Foley and himself.
The Role of Chief Storyteller
Mayor Duggan and his administration created the position to actively tell narratives within the City of Detroit that are not often addressed by local media, as well as populate city-run online, cable and print content. And so far a majority of these stories have been abreast in the commonality of daily life and beauty here in Detroit – many of the stories on www.theneighborhoods.org thus far have been absolutely inspiring.
“I can’t call myself a journalist,” Foley first said when asked about his position. This sentiment is why there were talks between he and Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s Chief of Staff, to call the position Executive Director of Content, as “journalist” did not seem appropriate. But, Foley felt there was nothing approachable about the title: Thus, Chief Storyteller was born.
These types of positions have been trending via corporations for quite a while. A company like Airbnb is a great example of a large representative entity that needs storytellers to engage with their initiatives or projects – such as their latest experiences arm released late last year.
A city, just like a corporation, regardless of the politics of the current administration, needs people to share their stories and amplify narratives, especially in a polarized region like Detroit. Just like nonprofits and corporations, cities have messages, campaigns, and most importantly initiatives, such as recycling programs, which it may want to take beyond a press release. And, while the media can report on and notify the public of such things, private outlets often have their own interests at hand and, therefore, may choose whether or not to actively report anything at all.
Regardless, the “official story” is always constructed, be it by the City of Detroit, a viral tween Youtube celebrity, or by the New York Times, knowing that it risks the malleability of truth (assuming the official story is, indeed, true) once in the hands of ad-supported media – a fundamental reality that has never been pretty.
The Duggan administration, by way of Foley, seems now in position to be able to sidestep that reality and go straight to the citizen using its own form of language. While publishing stories that define Detroit’s narrative may be legal; and, while it may have the public benefit in mind; like it or not, the concept of this government sponsored narrative is not far off from an Orwellian horizon.
Edging into Propaganda
First and foremost, propaganda by many accounts is a viable concern.
Propaganda is the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; also it is ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.
As far as the term propaganda is concerned, Foley had this to share: “If it was propaganda, one I’d be trying to silence the other publications and like bully them into not reporting on the Mayor, [and] two that would just be stupid”.
On the surface, it does not appear that Foley calling out Metro Times (MT) earlier this year on the racial make-up of its staff could be seen as the spreading of information to help or hurt an institution. In the article it was clear, after citing a recent CFSEM report, that Foley was attempting to speak on a greater social issue and not directly at MT. But then Foley did say that he has “always had a problem with Metro Times”…
Additionally, the CFSEM’s report, as enlightening and welcomed as it is, does not provide enough pertinent information, such as the statistics of racial diversity in Metro Detroit, or the audience and community many news outlets serve in the area. In fairness, the report provides some valid, if not vital, and uneasy trends to look at in regards to the diversity of publications that represent an entire region, like the Detroit Free Press.
Is it true that, statistically speaking, there is misrepresentation in Detroit’s journalism landscape?
Is it true that it is an issue that ought to be discussed and acted upon?
But, by whom?
Foley confronted and disseminated information on MT’s ethnic diversity, which in all actuality is a direct attack by a city government official against a legal, privately held, free press – to make a factual point.
Perhaps, MT isn’t as good as it could be in regards to staff diversity? But, who is its audience? What comprises its ad base? Who does MT actually serve?
Foley, pointing out the perceived lack of racial diversity, also suggests that MT’s stories do not justly represent the communities of Detroit. Simply by writing his criticism, Foley has effectively created a paradox between his opinion and the official position and liable actions of our city.
And, then there is the fact that MT Editor-In-Chief, Lee DeVito, privately messaged Foley in response to the Chief Storyteller’s article. While DeVito acknowledged an email was sent, he offered no further comment, other than he expressly asked Foley that it’s content remained private.
DeVito’s email could suggest that MT might be interested in changing that statistic; A point Foley was proud to share with me despite DeVito’s request. But, it also stands as an illustration of the city administration singling out a privately held media outlet, writing an intimidating piece about it, and then potentially affecting the internal workings of that outlet.
One may interpret this as one sees fit. In all respects, one could agree that Foley impacted MT for the better. But the question really isn’t if the outcome is to the benefit of the public, as much as it is whether such an action by the city is appropriate.
It may not be something we want to hear, but such points and privileges of a free press are at the prerogative and risk of each media outlet. If the Metro Times paints a false narrative, call them out. If MT does not speak for you do not share their stories, do not pick up their paper. Go ahead and burn their paper if so impassioned.
These freedoms of press and speech are what we have afforded ourselves. Personally, I was offended by MT’s recent vegan related articles, and so I decided to write something in opposition of such claims. But then again, I do not work for the City of Detroit. The choice one has as the reader and as a potential customer extends to all publications. But as a government, this freedom, does not translate in the same manner.
There are some levels of censorship that can be taken by a government that is more subtle (The editor of this publication calls it “soft censorship”). And, one that, if we all ignore, could worsen.
Foley’s attack on Metro Times puts into question the responsibility city government has to its constituents, in order to create just, equitable and thriving communities, by developing a relationship where city government acts to censor the rights of the people.
Yes, in a just world people have equal representation in government. This same ideal structure also extends to the press, and carries into anti-discrimination laws, but the moment government decides to interpret and intimate which one of us fits the bill, and who does not, is the moment we actively become Sneetches with stars upon thars.
If it is a Detroit issue, as far as the Chief Storyteller is concerned, and thus by extension the city, Foley is free to cover it: minus, the obvious snafu, wherein Foley does not write negatively about the administration itself; nor, its financial donors, for by doing so he would jeopardize his own job.
Not only is that point obvious to us all, Foley admits that being critical of his boss is not something he is “allowed” to do; nor can he promote himself, which is curious as he posts links to his books on his portfolio.
Beyond “not being allowed” to be critical of the Duggan administration, Foley has become increasingly more supportive of the Mayor since he took the position in March 2016, citing Duggan’s politically charged tweets, and defending his positions both on Facebook and in person.
This isn’t an opinion, these are facts.
It is also important to note that this change in tune is more than just the loss of a voice that was often critical of the current administration; it is the loss of a good black journalist. We no longer have Foley’s independent voice that once wrote revealing and engaging articles on our schools, on home demolitions, on the water department, among other things that are city level problems. This isn’t a slight towards Foley taking the job as much as it is recognition of who we’ve lost and what that means.
Foley, aware of the rising amount of questions and pressure in relation to his aptitude to sufficiently fill such a job noted, “I am serving the public – and I don’t want to let the public down”.
In all ways, this is something we want to believe. We want to believe in him. We want to believe in the voice that once was often critical of the very administration he now works for. We want him to be the voice of stories that go untold. We want Foley to tell the good, bad and ugly and to touch on the essentials and essence of who we are.
But it is not ethical of ourselves to choose when to look away and when to protest. By default, Foley does not by any means have the same voice he once had. One may argue that Foley writing an article attacking the Metro Times on racial grounds is exemplary of the BLAC magazine voice we all recognize, but it is not. It is very much a filtered message, a message that now speaks on social issues through a lens. His new voice of course is not run by Duggan’s desk every day but just as Foley stated in our interview, he has been “entrusted with his voice”.
Thus, in a very real way, Foley is censoring himself.
Chief Storyteller Compensation
Currently, the Chief Storyteller position receives $75,000 a year. Charged with the daunting, yet relatively undefined, task to actively and sufficiently tell Detroit stories is a relatively low pay rate for a Duggan staffer, regardless of what Foley has been writing on or how good of a job he has been doing. The pay rate of the position itself is actually considerably lower than a majority of Duggan’s administration, many of whom make more than $100,000 a year.
Did you know that Foley and his team, including its website, and Channel 21 are all paid for via PEG funds?
PEG money, spelled out Public, Educational & Governmental, basically means it is earmarked for very specific uses and cannot go into Detroit’s general fund. Guess where taxpayer dollars funnel in and out of – the general fund.
Almost all of PEG funds come from fees associated with cable providers, like Comcast. Obviously, these PEG dollars are still public money – but the use of them cannot lower class size, they cannot fill potholes or hire more police officers. They must be used on very specific public enrichment, like a public access channel, that in turn needs to produce content.
Is our governmental system overly bureaucratic, often confusing, and perhaps even a little unjust?
But, someone taking issue with Foley based primarily on compensation, or more specifically, on PEG money, seems unreasonable. The issue here is not about Foley’s pay, but the ethical use of his voice.
Should there be a Chief Storyteller?
Telling a truthful narrative would almost be better illustrated on a spectrum.
Absolute False – False – Partially False – Unknown – Partially True – Truth – Absolute Truth
The truth spectrum of storytelling may be intriguing but, to be honest, if we were genuinely concerned with recognizing and ethically attending truths of our society than answer me this:
- Why is the Armenian genocide not actually categorized by the United States government as genocide?
- Why does the hashtag #blacklivesmatter have to exist?
- Why do we overwhelmingly choose to get our news from article headlines on Facebook instead of going directly to some type of reputable source?
- For that matter, what constitutes a reputable source these days?
Fake news represents one of the greatest American feats of our era. So, in that light, yes, let’s keep up our façade and continue writing convoluted history. This kind of adaptive yet inherent human thinking is most likely where that insensitive See Detroit Like We Do ad originated.
Under this light, Foley, a Detroiter, is a good candidate for the job. And, while he has overstepped his professional bounds with Metro Times he at least has personal ties with the community.
The Detroit Chief Storyteller is an unchartered, city-sponsored, outlet to amplify segments of society that often are left out of the equation. The relationship cities have with its number one resource, its people, is evolving and adapting to a constantly changing society.
With that, it is reasonable to expect that our government be accessible, relevant and, even more so, defenders of the public. Unfortunately, even good willed attempts to beset ills of society can be misconstrued or misguided.
Julien Godman is a contributing writer to The Metropolitan. His cowriter, Lady K, accompanies Mr. Godman on many of his culinary journeys. To read more please visit his blog Tonic & Juice