"Why Should We Care If You Don't?"
Earlier today I was among a number of people copied on an email sent by area activist/blogger/videographer and long-time OhioDaily Blog front pager Tim Russo to Plain Dealer publisher Terrance Egger and editor Deborah Simmons. Tim, whose video of Occupy Cleveland's activities you may have seen posted here last year, calls out the Cleveland daily for its belated coverage of the dismissal by the th district court of appeals of charges against Occupiers Lea Tolls and Erin McCardle stemming from a sit-down on Public Square last October, when Occupiers refused to honor their eviction from the square by the city.
See what a threat to Cleveland citizens Lea (in plaid pants, left) and Erin (in polka-dot boots, right) are by exercising their First Amendment rights!
Mr. Egger, Ms Simmons,
As a daily newspaper facing extinction, guardians of the First Amendment in Cleveland, your 3 day late coverage of the Thursday decision by the Ohio Court of Appeals declaring the October 21, 2011 arrests of Occupy Cleveland unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds is a disgrace.
Even on a crass profit/loss analysis, your readership has shown an insatiable interest in the Occupy movement, largely from your core readership, older readers who cannot stand that Occupy exists, who descend upon every mention of Occupy to attack it. At this moment, when revenue seems to drive every decision you make, burying this story on Metro page B3, three days after the decision was published, is odd to say the least.
But most of all, can you tell me the last time any law in Cleveland was struck down on First Amendment grounds? You are the vanguard of the First Amendment in this city, an incredible privilege. These arrests occurred on ground called literally Public Square, named after Mayor Tom Johnson and dedicated to free speech itself. The court's opinion even goes out of its way to note this historic tie to free speech - did you even see that? Here's the opinion, you really ought to read it.
On the night of these arrests, every single local TV station covered them live, and the only vehicles outnumbering satellite trucks at Tom Johnson quadrant were police. We now know that even the FBI was there. The full power of the state was documented from every angle, on live television, targeting the First Amendment. Has there ever been a more frontal police power assault on the First Amendment in the history of Cleveland? Moreover, the Occupy Cleveland arrests were one of the first evictions of an Occupy encampment in the entire country, nearly a month before the eviction of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park.
By any measure, this story is not just news, it is historic, placing Cleveland into American history's DNA. Metro section B3? Really?
It was your newspaper's right, this entire city's right, to free speech that was attacked, and a court finding that attack unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds should be celebrated by your newsroom. At a minimum, though, as your newspaper fights for survival, it's incredibly sad to watch you purposefully ignore a story so utterly Cleveland, so draped in Cleveland history, tying Cleveland to the founders ideals so directly. Your reporter didn't even call the city for reaction. Pathetic.
If your newspaper can't find joy in this story, why should any Clevelander support your campaign to survive as our city's First Amendment flagship? If you don't care about your First Amendment right to even exist, why should we care?
It's not like the paper's coverage of the Occupy movement has ever been "fair and balanced" — or particularly informative.
Like most papers, it focused on things like what it perceived as the movement's lack of organization and clear leaders (the movement was deliberately defuse and decentralized) and how quickly the movement would die without having had an impact (it shifted the entire public discourse on economic justice). Its coverage of the five Cleveland Occupiers who were set up by the FBI and arrested as "terrorists" was, at best, a mixed bag, and not very illuminating. There were many who reflected on how quickly the media dismissed hundreds of thousands of Occupiers while giving extensive, respectful coverage to ever couple of dozen Teabaggers who showed up anywhere to spew ignorance. I also reflected on how much easier it likely would have been for the FBI to infiltrate a Tea Party demonstration and persuade a group of them to commit a terrorist act, such as maybe shooting the President. The Plain Dealer didn't.
The arrests on Public Square that swept up Lea and Erin seemed pointlessly provocative. It was hard not to think they were all about seeing the group as somehow spoiling Cleveland's "image," part of the attitude passed down through management to the newsroom by those the Plain Dealer genuflects to, like the Greater Cleveland Partnership.
I'm sure there are people who are going to say "Don't blame the reporters," and I agree. They are undoubtedly already overburdened, having to pick and choose among stories and be more cursory than they would like. And when that happens, reporters don't gravitate toward stories they know management doesn't like and won't give much space or good placement to (inside Metro with routine stories about auto accidents is a good place to bury something). You always hear about how the publishing side doesn't influence editorial (an increasingly laughable claim at papers around the country) but newsroom people know who signs the paychecks.
But this is why I have a conflict about the "Save the Plain Dealer" campaign. We're being asked to appeal to these same corporately oriented entities that have given us a corporately oriented paper that brushes off important issues with cursory coverage, if it covers them at all.
Sadly, at the time when another voice is needed the most, alternative weekly Scene has abandoned news coverage to become a "what's happening in town" service paper. As recently as early this year, Scene was running significant stories the Plain Dealer didn't get or wasn't interested in. Twice within six months, it was forced by Scene to cover something and acknowledge Scene writer Maude Campbell's work.
But Scene never did a good job of covering Occupy anyway. I wrote a couple of the early items about the movement. When it became clear the paper didn't want an inside look at what was going on but rather something on which to hook quips and putdowns, I opted off the beat. Maude took it up and found herself in a similar situation. Quotes were twisted in order to make wisecracks and conclusions she hadn't drawn were extrapolated incorrectly from things she wrote. It felt like Scene saw its role as being cynical about everything and making everyone look like buffoons. In other cities, alternative papers have — and in some cases, still are — doing award-winning work that rivals anything their dailies might do.
People involved in the "Save the Plain Dealer" campaign are asking "Where will we get our news?" Maybe we should respond, "Well, where do we get it NOW?" The PD may currently publish seven days a week and have a staff a third larger than what is being proposed but it leaves its readership uninformed or misinformed about so many issue with major impact on their lives. "Saving" a paper that in its present form ignores the voices coming from the bottom, doesn't hear masses of people speaking out against injustice, and whose response to things like police brutality is often "Why don't 'those people' just behave better?" is a mission it's hard to feel passionate about.
"Dangerous thug" Lea Tolls being hauled off for the protection of Greater Clevelanders. God forbid they should be forced to confront ideas they aren't comfortable with.