Both Cleveland and its newspaper are shells of their former selves.
This column went up at Watchdog.org a short time ago.
Last week, just before converting to a four-day home delivery regime, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reduced its newsroom staff by “about one-third,” telling “about 45 reporters, photographers, designers, editors and clerks … that they no longer had jobs.”
It is far from coincidental to the Plain Dealer’s transformation into a mere shell of its former self that the City of Cleveland, other than Detroit, has during the past six decades arguably been the nation’s most consistently troubled large city.
The city’s population in 2010 was only 397,000, making it the 45th-largest city in the U.S. That’s a 57 percent decline from 1950, when it was the nation’s seventh-largest, and a shocking 17 percent lower than just a decade earlier. By mid-2012, just two years later, another 5,900 Cleveland residents had voted with their feet — to become former Cleveland residents.
To the city’s credit, its financial footing seems to have improved. But it still faces a horrible reputation problem caused by several high-profile crimes; an extraordinary number of homes either in foreclosure, abandoned, or both; a general crime problem which makes it the tenth most dangerous city in the U.S.; awful, scandal-plagued schools; and a household poverty rate of over one-third.
The Plain Dealer’s current dire circumstances represent the other direction of a pothole-riddled two-way street. A strong argument can be made that over the years, as Cleveland declined, its main newspaper has not adequately carried out its watchdog duties.
First, let’s be fair and note that the paper played a generally admirable role in ultimately ridding the city of incompetent “boy mayor” and eventual two-time presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich in the late 1970s. But it didn’t seem to notice that successor George Voinovich, though he righted the city’s financial ship, was only able to slow suburban flight, and didn’t do nearly enough to stop it. Cleveland’s population declined by 12 percent during the Voinovich-dominated 1980s.
If one buys the paper’s party line that it is now embracing the online world as its best avenue for growth and survival, that would represent a marked change from my experience six years ago.
Along with three other bloggers, I was engaged to write for the PD at its new “Wide Open” site in the fall of 2007. The idea was to have two right-leaning and left-leaning contributors each submit items and “duke it out” among themselves and commenters to generate discussion. The debate was spirited, and the idea seemed to work pretty well until one of the left-leaners was found to have a conflict of interest which he refused to remedy. The experiment was over in less than three months, and the paper’s managers other than our immediate contact seemed to say, “Okay, we’ve had enough of that online stuff.”
One reason for that reaction was the attitude of the rest of the paper’s staff towards those they appeared to see as interlopers.
When I discovered that a new imam who would be beginning his term of service at a Cleveland mosque with an already checkered terror-supportive history had his own record of anti-Semitic sermons and related activities at his prior mosque in Omaha, the PD’s religion writer acted as if my work — posted at his paper’s web site — didn’t exist. The imam suddenly withdrew from his new position before he even started. The PD’s writeup of that withdrawal referred only vaguely to “bloggers.”
The best clue that the PD had been letting its readers down for some time came from a column a couple of weeks later by veteran columnist Dick Feagler. In it, he issued the following breathtaking justification as to why “journalists” are so important (bolds is mine):
Riding with a candidate on a cold night in November, you can say to him: “Answer this question for me and I won’t quote you. I’ll quote myself and pretend I don’t know what you’re thinking.”
You get a lot of insight that way, through the back door.
But to get it, you have to earn trust. Trust that he knows you won’t blow his cover.
As I asked at the time: “Did it ever occur to Dick Feagler that candidates, politicians, executives, bureaucrats, and others with power, responsibility, and the public trust aren’t entitled to have ‘cover’?”
Real journalists don’t give their subjects “cover.” They report to the best of their ability a story’s who, what, where, when, and how — and if they can credibly determine it, the “why.”
Based on my personal experience and my take on the paper’s “coverage” over the years, there’s little reason to doubt that Feagler’s view of his job has been widely shared at the PD. This viewpoint unfortunately lends itself to looking the other way or waiting way too long to blow the whistle when people who have been given “cover” — especially those with whom the reporter might ideologically agree — do bad, illegal, or corrupt things. In the big picture, it ultimately leads to looking the other way as a once great city like Cleveland falls into decay and disrepair.
Next think you know, a former bastion of industrial might is less than half of what it used to be — along with the paper that “covered” it.