Office of Citizen
Rest in Peace,
PLAIN DEALER - DISSECTED ON ISSUE 6
Submitted by Roldo on Wed, 12/23/2009 - 14:45.
Veteran reporter Anastasia Pantsios has written a detailed and convincing piece on Ohio Daily about the Plain Dealer’s campaign to pass Issue 6 and how it failed to give the public a true picture about County reform and hid some of the characters behind the push.
It was, of course, a PD campaign not only to pass Issue 6 but one that tried to make the paper a champion of the public.
The PD has shown some aggressiveness in pursuing some issues but there it has the odor of self-promotion and service to certain interests. It also has a strong element of trying to appear a strong watchdog while slinking away from sacred cows.
Here is her piece in total:
How a Newspaper Commits Journalistic Malpractice
Submitted by Anastasia Pantsios on Tue, 12/22/2009 - 11:19pm.
What’s the role of a newspaper? As newspapers have fallen on hard times nationally, the value of what daily papers do has been widely debated. Their supporters wail that without newspapers, there will be no one with the resources to do the sort of investigative reporting that produces the information citizens need to be engaged and make good decisions. The Plain Dealer has argued this. It would have a stronger case if not for its coverage of county reform — Issues 5 and 6 — which verges on journalistic malpractice. In the service of defeating Issue 5 and passing Issue 6, the Plain Dealer redefined its function as advocacy — taking a side and shaping coverage to support that side.
Since the November election, the PD has been in full gloat mode, crowing that voters were “not fooled” by the claims of the Issue 5 people. In fact, the voters were massively fooled — by dishonest, slanted and incomplete reporting by the Plain Dealer. They were fooled because they were never provided with accurate information about what is really going on in the county, who was behind Issue 6, what the Issue 6 charter really says and will do, and what Issue 5 would have done. Rather than function as an investigative organ, providing citizens with a balanced, complete look at the issues of county corruption and reform and the streamlining of government, the Plain Dealer picked a side and tilted its coverage to favor that side. It was —and is — essentially a promotional arm for Issue 6. Now it boasts about its role when it should be hanging its head in shame.
I spent a lot of time documenting the omissions, exaggerations, fictions and unbalanced coverage the paper employed in the service of passing Issue 6. I was ready — as were many supporters of both issues — to move on after the election until it was clear the Plain Dealer wasn’t. They continued to smear the credibility of anyone who supported Issue 5, giving a forum to the idea that good people who had a difference of opinion about HOW to approach county government reform should be exiled from any new government — to the victor belong the spoils, even if some among the victors are likely MORE corrupt than those whose deeds the new charter was to be an answer for. In a sense, the Plain Dealer betrayed well-meaning citizens who want to see a stronger region.
There were two primary fictions the PD hammered about the Issue 6 charter: that Cuyahoga had had extensive public discussions of county reform over the last decade and now we just need to act regardless of what we’re acting on, and that the Issue 6 charter in some way addresses corruption. We haven’t, and it doesn’t.
The Plain Dealer began with its corruption drumbeat that set the stage. Following the FBI raids in July 2008, the PD abandoned all pretense of objective reporting to exaggerate even the flimsiest suggestions of wrongdoing. Its coverage had a cute tag — “county in crisis” — that implied some extraordinary level of corruption here. Through slanted headlines, it suggested that county officials against whom no wrongdoing was even hinted — effective officeholders like Jim Rokakis and Peter Lawson Jones — were somehow in on the game — scamming, wasting tax dollars, connected to questionable people. The effect was to suggest an extraordinary level of out-of-control corruption that needed an immediate, don’t-even-think-about-what-we’re-doing fix.
I’m from Chicago, and I know that’s laughable. While the FBI raids may have been dramatic theater — and many here still think they were staged to try to hurt Democratic chances in the November 2008 elections — the corruption exposed so far has been basically penny-ante — no worse than that found almost anywhere. That doesn’t make it right but it’s not an extraordinary situation requiring heedless, immediate action. It’s been limited to a few officials, a few offices — it’s not as systemic as the PD has constantly suggested. And when the PD is reduced to running front-page stories about $3,000 worth of driveway work Jimmy Dimora MAY have had done for free, you’re getting into truly trivial territory. Many have pointed out that the PD has been pretty unconcerned about an unbid contract for a HALF BILLION dollars of tax money being shipped to a Chicago firm (MMPI) for the proposed medical mart. OK, so maybe that’s technically “legal,” but there’s something way off in this balance.
Having laid down that BIG fiction, the PD proceeded to establish two corollaries: We must act NOW and Issue 6 will clean up corruption. So I’ll start my 10 examples of journalistic malpractice with those.
First, Cuyahoga NEVER before had a full public airing of county government reform. The “discussions” the PD constantly refers to consist of two commissions over 14 years — the Barber commission in 1995 and the Abbott commission last year — neither of which presented a plan for public discussion and vote. Other than that, “discussions” have consisted mainly of Republicans trying to squeeze a charter onto the ballot and then deciding it’s not the right time. While both the Barber and Abbott commissions produced proposals, the Barber report was never came to the ballot, with the full airing a campaign would have given it. The Abbott report was a proposal to the Ohio legislature, which didn’t act on it. It never was placed before Cuyahoga citizens. Now they asked voters to vote on something they had never been educated about. The PD did its best to keep it that way.
Second, it’s a myth that the Issue 6 charter addresses corruption. Marcia Fudge said it best: “Systems aren’t corrupt, people are corrupt.” The PD should have been at the forefront of explaining that the reform of government structure is fundamentally unrelated to corruption control; instead it cynically conflated the two. People become corrupt over two things: money and power. The new charter increases the influence of both, in creating an ultra-powerful county executive with few checks, and in failing to enact any campaign finance reform or campaign regulations. Perhaps with saintly officials, the temptation could be avoided. But given the people who are injecting themselves into its planning, it looks likelier by the day that the new government will be as or more corrupt than the old one. Will the PD hold accountable people it’s protected because of the side they were on in the county reform battle?
Third, the PD constantly imputed bad motives to anyone associated with Issue 5 and opposed to Issue 6. They were blocking “change,” protecting or supporting corruption, it said. This narrative has continued since Issue 6 passed, with the seeming goal of locking out anyone who in good faith opposed Issue 6 from having any role in the new government, implying that only those behind Issue 6 should any role in the county’s future. In fact, people on both sides supported their issues for a variety of reasons, some well-intended, some not. The PD never questioned even the most transparently self-serving motives of Issue 6 supporters or pooh-poohed any laudable motives of those supporting Issue 5. They did this in many ways. For instance, they smeared the members of the proposed Issue 5 commission, calling it “labor dominated” when its percentage of labor representatives was equal to union members in the county workforce. It downplayed the deliberate, system-gaming of the “opposition” commission slate, which was intended to assure that if Issue 5 passed, the Issue 6 charter could be installed. It mentioned the almost total Republican domination of this slate in passing, but usually referred to it as a “citizens group.” It downplayed why anti slate was created because it didn’t fit the “Issue 6 people have only noble intentions” narrative.
This led to a another fiction from the PD: that the Issue 5 people were merely stalling by asking for the proper, Ohio law-provided process for creating a charter to be followed, and that they wanted no change. They simply wanted the public to be involved. It’s true that Issue 5 was a response to Issue 6, but Issue 6 was an opportunistic attempt to coattail onto the corruption investigations and pass something unrelated to them.
Fifth, it failed to explain who the key drivers of Issue 6 were and what their motives might be. Several times, the paper said that the process was set in motion by a meeting between county prosecutor Bill Mason and Ed Crawford last December, and that they joined with another “group” headed by soon-to-be-former Parma Heights Mayor Marty Zanotti in February. None of the motives of these three were fully explored, and Crawford was left unidentified. If Crawford was a prime mover in getting the effort off the ground, as the PD said, people should know who he is.
Crawford is a wealthy industrialist and one of Ohio’s biggest Republican fundraisers, who hosted President George Bush a couple of times at his house — in Lake County. The paper must have felt that it would have been unhelpful to the passage of issue 6 to reveal that it was set in motion by a wealthy out-of-county Republican. Mason’s motivation, which I’ll deal with separately, was never questioned. Even as it became more and more apparent that he was wading into a huge conflict of interest. And Zanotti, who was presented by the paper as Issue 6’s face of “bipartisanship,” was almost totally unexplored. In fact, he was (and is) a political loner who betrayed the Democratic Party the previous year by supporting the under-qualified Republican Deborah Sutherland in the county commission race against Peter Lawson Jones. So as a “Democrat,” he had no constituency. He apparently had none in Parma Heights either. The minute council president Mike Byrne announced in June he would challenge Zanotti for mayor, Zanotti made himself a lame duck. So — as a not-really Democrat soon to be without elected office — who was he fronting for? The PD never asked, just showcased him. He comes off as a random person who inserted himself in the process despite representing no known county group.
Sixth, the PD never revealed where this particular charter came from and who wrote it, or make clear how little input the second tier of people who represented actual county constituencies, really had. The charter was created behind closed doors and presented to the public as a done deal. Zanotti insisted there were opportunities for the public to weigh in before the charter was written, but couldn’t name them because there were none — until it came to selling a pre-decided charter. The PD suggested the more inclusive second tier had real influence and smeared some of them — like county recorder Lillian Greene and congresswoman Marcia Fudge — for failing to be obedient rubber stamps. I’ve talked to people in that second tier and they said their influence was limited — that when they pointed our certain worrisome provisions, they were told those were not negotiable.
The PD also apparently didn’t ask for the names of those who created the charter out of view of the citizenry — or if it didn’t it didn’t choose to share them with readers, as far as I know. If it ever printed such a list — with the affiliations and interests of those people — I’d appreciate a link. One thing’s clear: The non-negotiable charter is pretty much the one that’s been pushed by the Republican Party for years, and they have been looking for an opportune time to put on the ballot and foist on voters. The PD-inflated “corruption scandal” gave them the opening. But that’s not an inconvenient truth for the Plain Dealer.
Seventh, the PD constantly pooh-poohed the Republican underpinning of Issue 6. Yes, there were Democrats on board. But a vast majority of Democrats didn’t support it. Some people they promoted as Democrats were marginal to the county party (Zanotti) or probably had self-interest at stake (Turner, Mason). The charter was PRIMARILY a project of the region’s Republicans and corporate community. The PD bent over backwards to claim it was a “nonpartisan” effort. They were aided by the inexplicable partisan bias of the county League of Women Voters, whose position was baffling, considering the Summit LWV’s involvement in the more open Summit County reform process.
Eighth, the PD failed to thoroughly investigate the charter process in Summit — the only other county of 88 to have charter reform in 1979 — why it happened, how the charter was written, why it was written the way it was and how well it worked. Its coverage was sloppy and cursory. The paper ran a single (as far as I can find) superficial article in June and then pushed the line that it was similar because Summit also had a county executive and county council. In fact, the process and the result were radically different. Theirs was an open process that respected all stakeholders; they prioritized consensus and made some compromises in order to assure they didn’t have a divisive battle that crippled the new government. The PD has done its best to assure that Cuyahoga does.
Ninth, the paper avoided exploring Bill Mason’s involvement with Issue 6: setting it in motion, working for it and now involving himself in the formation of the new government. One thing the full coverage of the Summit process would have revealed is that while their charter-creation process was open to almost everyone, they deliberately excluded ALL current county officeholders lest that they concern themselves more with turf protection than writing a workable charter. Compare that to the Cuyahoga process, which the PD has said was launched by county Prosecutor Bill Mason and a handful of others. Yet the charter they proposed eliminates all county offices except Mason’s. What this means is that instead of a number of competing fiefdoms and patronage armies, you have one: Mason eliminated his competition for control and influence. If that isn’t an open door to corruption, I don’t know what is.
Many feel that having competing spheres of influence has actually kept corruption in check. Who will keep Bill Mason in check? The PD hasn’t asked. In fact, it has ignored or downplayed disturbing stories about Mason’s office — it buried a story about Mason’s employees returning contributions to his campaign fund inside the Metro section. It’s an open secret around town that his employees are urged to run for precinct committeeperson to support Mason. Now, Mason may be a saint, but he’d almost have to be superhuman to avoid the temptations that having the sole political army in the county offers. The fact that he propelled this charter and continues to be engaged is a big, flaming red flag. At this point, in order to assure that the new government is free from even the appearance of corruption, he should be stepping down as prosecutor and going back into private practice. And, having avoided asking these questions and protected Mason (because he was pushing Issue 6?), can or will the PD hold Mason’s feet to the fire, or will they be the last onboard — as they were in the Coingate scandal —if a scandal breaks in Mason’s office?
Tenth, the PD pointed out only in passing the influence of big money and who that money came from. While the paper did run a story about the campaign contributions to Issues 5 and 6 a week or two prior to the election, it was probably too little too late. The campaign finance reports were alarming. Issue 6 had swamped Issue 5 in the cash department, with $20,000, $30,000 and $50,000 donations from big banks, law firms and corporations. Issue 5 got $1,000 and $2,000 contributions from unions (“labor dominated” indeed — it would have been nice if the PD had ever used the words “corporate dominated’ for issue 6, instead of painting it constantly as some sort of citizen-driven, good-government effort). It failed to acknowledge that Issue 6’s passage wasn’t due so much to a wise voters as ones bamboozled by big money and a corrupt newspaper.
There are probably many more examples, but these are 10 major points that demonstration how the PD has chosen to make news rather than report it. Again, I emphasize this not to dredge up a divisive campaign but to point out how the Plain Dealer helped to divide a community and refuses to be an agent in mending it.