Mecklenborg Case Raises Questions - For Journalists (and Batchelder)
UPDATE: While Mecklenborg is on the House Ethics Committee, he is not its chair. The story below has been updated to reflect that reality, and we apologize for the error.
Editor's Note: I originally submitted this as an editorial to The Plain Dealer, Columbus Dispatch, Toledo Blade, Canton Repository, and Youngstown Vindicator. Given its content, it is not surprising that none chose to run it. I'm now sharing it here, in the hope that we might, together, keep the pressure up on a very telling story.
Edward R. Murrow – the model of the modern journalist – once said, “The obscure we see eventually; the completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.”
Perhaps this explains the failure of Ohio’s journalistic community to recognize and report on the biggest news story of the week not related to the state budget. In April, House Ethics Committee member Robert Mecklenborg (R – Green Twp.) was arrested in Indiana for driving under the influence of alcohol, with Viagra in his system and a 26-year-old woman with associations to a strip club in his passenger seat.
That the married Mecklenborg was escorting a much younger woman is salacious. That he was drinking and driving is inexcusable, and that he was doing so in another state despite his lofty position embarrassing. Yet none of these stories has been covered in any depth by a major Ohio newspaper or TV station outside Mecklenborg’s hometown. Editor's Note: The inimitable Connie Schultz wrote about this story this morning, and it's worth a read.
If Murrow’s logic follows, the obscure story here – the tawdry details and whether or not Mecklenborg is forced to resign – will make itself clear soon enough.
The more obvious story, however, is the one that no news organization in Ohio seems willing to cover. House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R – Medina) released a statement on the incident this week calling Mecklenborg “a dedicated public servant” with “an exemplary record of serving the people of Ohio,” and asking the media and the public to respect Mecklenborg’s privacy. He also officially denied prior knowledge of the incident. Despite the denial, Batchelder’s statements raises two obvious questions – what did the Speaker know, and when did he know it?
One cannot help but wonder. In the nearly three months since his arrest, Mecklenborg has continued serving on the Ethics Committee, sponsored a bill to require photo ID for Ohio voters and restrict access to the polls, chaired the committee that voted to allow guns in Ohio bars, and compared proponents of a woman’s right to choose to 1920s Nazis on the House floor. He has been a major player in major legislation, and undoubtedly worked closely with Batchelder on at least some of these initiatives. If the Speaker knew nothing of this incident, it raises the question of his ability to effectively lead. If he did know, it raises serious ethical questions and, sadly, the specter of a cover-up.
An opportunity to question Batchelder on this issue arose Friday during the Speaker’s press availability with Governor Kasich and Senate President Neihaus. The press corps punted, choosing instead to write about the Governor’s qualms with the tactics of minority Democrats.
Murrow also said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible.” Without further inquiry into this incident and the Speaker’s role in it, Ohio’s news organizations risk losing not only their ability to persuade Ohioans on the important issues we face, but their very credibility. The stakes are high in Ohio – and we cannot afford such a loss.