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Detroit Residents Stung By Criticism Of Car Industry

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Well, the Detroit Auto Show opens to the public later this week, which would normally be a cause for celebration, just not so much this time. And the depression is not just because of bad car sales. When auto executives went to Washington late last year, they were grilled by Congress and heavily criticized by the media. And some Detroit residents feel the city has become a national punching bag. Other people say that the car industry has been living in a bubble, that's their metaphor here, and they say the car industry has to come to terms with a harsh reality. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: In Detroit, 2008 was a very bad year.

U: Thank the heavens above, the Lions are 0 and 16.

LANGFITT: The mayor resigned after lying about an affair.

U: Mr. Kilpatrick, you understand that by pleading guilty, that you're going to give up certain constitutional rights. And one is the right to be tried by a jury. Do you understand that, sir?

M: Yes.

LANGFITT: But perhaps what stung people the most was when car executives went begging for money in Washington, and many in Congress bashed them.

INSKEEP: No one can say that they didn't see this coming. Their boardrooms and executive suites, in my view, have been famously devoid of vision.

M: It was a complete shock to me.

LANGFITT: Susan Tompor writes a column for the Detroit Free Press. She was surprised at how commentators attacked the auto industry and by extension, her hometown. Tompor remembers a CNBC reporter based on Detroit, trying to give what she considered a balanced report on the car companies. Then, she says, other people on the program accused him of, quote, going native.

M: In a way, it said we're a Third World country or something, that we're not a part of the United States.

LANGFITT: Tompor vented her anger in the paper. She wrote...

M: "I've always understood that many people do not like American cars or union workers or car company CEOs. I didn't know that some really, really hate us."

LANGFITT: The column drew more than 200 emails. Many readers said they were just as frustrated with the outside criticism.

M: I use the word mean-spirited.

LANGFITT: Paul Chido is a retired engineer with Ford. He thinks some people resent Detroit because of what they see as overpaid auto workers. And along with Tompor, he admits the car companies made some big mistakes in the past.

LANGFITT: How do you think the country sees Detroit?

M: Well, I think they know we're in trouble, but they don't really - they feel it's our own making. I guess that's true, to a degree, but I don't see that we abused anything here and we need to be punished.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

LANGFITT: Daniel Howes has covered the auto industry for the Detroit News for a dozen years. He says people here shouldn't be surprised at the anger focused on their city.

M: We tend to exist in here as the Detroit bubble.

LANGFITT: Howes says some people here live in the past. They act as if Detroit still dominates the car industry, although foreign companies now sell more than half the vehicles in America. And Howes says some union members think they shouldn't have to give up benefits, even though their employers have to borrow government money to keep operating.

M: Particularly in southeast Michigan, a lot of folks approach their relationship with their employer that it's a lifetime kind of relationship, and that once you, quote, hire in, not only do you work for them until retirement, but they will then take care of you in some manner, shape or form, until the grave.

LANGFITT: But Howes says if some thinking here is out of date, so are some outside views of his adopted city. Like most people in Detroit, he says public perception of domestic cars is caught in a time warp.

M: Detroit today is building some of the best products it's ever built in its history.

LANGFITT: Independent analysts say similar things. But some people here are moving on from the industry that has defined the city for decades. Christopher Lowe(ph) considered a job at a Ford plant a few years ago. He's so glad he didn't take it. Now 27, he works for a rental-car agency while studying for an MBA. Lowe says sympathy for the auto companies, even here, is waning.

M: From, you know, management experience and from my education, I think it's a joke. You have to change, you have to adapt. I mean, foreign-car companies are making changes, and they've done it two, three decades ago. They're not cutting back and laying off entire plants and layoffs, and they're not going to Capitol Hill asking for money.

LANGFITT: That said, Christopher Lowe still loves his hometown and its gritty, industrial roots. When the economy improves, he hopes to put his MBA to use here - just not in the auto industry. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.