Conversation: Roldo Bartimole, Cleveland's knight in rusty armor, tells why he chooses to live on $4,000 a year.
Every other Friday, Roldo Bartimole borrows a typewriter — a special kind with a carbon ribbon — and types up the copy for Point of View, a gadfly sheet, as he calls it, that has been coming out 24 times a year for the last four years.
In addition to gunning down the usual sacred cows, Roldo (no one seems to call him "Bartimole") comes down hard on the mass media, giving the city about the closest thing to a journalism review that Cleveland has seen.
On Monday evenings he comes back from the printer, hand folds the four-page (sometimes eight-page) sheet, and sticks on 900 mailing labels.
What his subscribers get for their five dollars a year is an irreverent alternative to Cleveland's newspapers, radio and TV stations, and magazine. Some tidbits from the last four years:
"When the welfare mothers sat in at County Welfare demanding more funds for clothing. Channel 8 piously rebuked them editorially, one of the few editorials attacking anything other than traffic accidents."
"Some leadership. That's what reporters want. And some freedom. They'd like to have as much freedom as, say, the PD promotion department, they say."
"The legal looting season is in full swing. It's called Christmas shopping, America's number one cultural bash."
"United Appeal is a very well thought-out scheme to avoid corporate taxes. It is a tax dodge, pure and simple."
"We believe the public will never know the true story of Glenville from either the police or the Stokes administration."
"Our current 'Welfare Recipient of the Month' is Vernon Bigelow Stouffer."
"In its downtown office, Dow employs 45 persons. One is a member of a minority group — a clerk, naturally."
"Agnew should have been born here. He would have made a great West Side councilman."
None of this has made Roldo too popular with establishment types, nor has it made him rich. But, as he explains it, his glasses repaired with rubber bands and the elbows out of his shirt-sleeves, "I think that people think too much of things in a material way — they can't replace the satisfaction I get out of doing what I'm doing."
How did Point of View get started?
Well, it was about this time of year in 1968, that I was working for the Wall Street Journal, and I don't know, but there was a different kind of climate then than there is today — the anti-war movement and other things were very active at that point.
I'd been admiring a lot of things about poor people and about commitments to certain values, and you can go just so far without doing something active about it. I was at a point where I felt that I had to do something active about those beliefs and those feelings.
And one of those feelings was that in a local community, writers that tend to get to know a local community, tend to — if they're any good —— leave. They seek out their careers. They either want to go to Washington or New York.
So there wasn't any local coverage from a different perspective from the Plain Dealer or the Press. I felt that there was that kind of need, and I thought I could fill a gap there, and it would be a way for me to fulfill what I thought was a commitment to poor people and to certain other issues in the society.
I had been, when I was working on the Journal, writing some stuff for something called Common Sense, which was a small sheet that was backed by a group of people, and there were only a few people writing for it. The guy that was putting it out was either going to stop or to try to expand it into sort of a newspaper, but there wasn't any attempt to rally around him or to help him out, so he dropped it. So when I approached him with starting Point of View, he thought the idea was good, and we sort of transferred.
Was there any specific incident that made you start?
Actually, there was. It was April 5, 1968, which was my birthday, and Martin Luther King was killed on the 4th. I attended a sort of conference which was put on for some professors from around Ohio, and it dealt with urban issues and I was invited as some sort of observer.
The speaker was George Wiley, who is head of the National Welfare Rights Organization, and he had been chemistry professor at some well-known eastern college — Princeton, or one of those, I forget. But he threw it away and went to work for the National Welfare Rights Organization, and he spoke to these professors about the feelings of black people on that morning after King had died.
He is a black man, and he was really pleading with those professors — both saying that he was through pleading with white people, yet he was still pleading with those white people and trying to get them to realize what the hell it meant to black people to have King gunned down.
And some professor — in fact, it was a journalism professor — brought up the fact that black people were looting and burning and "shouldn't we teach these people a lesson" — that kind of response.
It was like something that's too much to take, mentally; and 1 had a feeling at that point that life had to be radically changed, and I made a decision then that I was going to quit.
How would you describe Point of View?
Well, first of all, people call it a publication or a newspaper — I just call it a sheet. I think it's a sort of polemic. One of your colleagues talked about indignant writing, and I think that every two weeks in Point of View there is a little bit of indignation.
But I try to back it up with as much fact as I can find because I know that people are going to be skeptical. I knew that would be one of the problems from the very beginning. People are so used to reading homogenized versions of what goes on in a community through the mass media that they are unwilling to accept something else.
They're unwilling to accept another perspective from, in a sense, a radical position: a position that talks about the same people that the mass media talks about, but in very different ways.
Where the media can take the same set of facts and applaud a community leader, I can use the same set of facts and show where it is nothing to be applauded at all — here is a man, or a corporation that is using certain things for its own self-interest. Maybe that's the way things happen in this country, but I don't think they should be applauded for doing some kind of civic duty. I see it from a different perspective.
Do you see Point of View as an underground publication?
Well, I think "underground" is a term that is really misused. Underground, in the true sense, is something that is being published which is against the law, or something that would subject you to arrest if you were caught with it. In that sense, there aren't any underground publications that I know of.
But I would say that it's an alternative type of journalism, without being presumptuous and calling it "underground" or any other glamorous name.
You mentioned a "radical" perspective. How would you define your politics?
I would define them as Left, first of all — anti-corporate. It's not based on a kind of philosophy or a kind of intellectual understanding. I once got a letter from a subscriber saying, "your Marxist analysis is over-simplified." Well, I'm not a student of Marx and I'm not writing from a Marxist perspective that I know of. I said when I started that I would be writing from a gut reaction and not so much from an intellectual view — with feelings backed with as much fact as I can bring to bear to my viewpoint.
Are you registered in any political party?
No, not in the sense that I'm a participating member of the Democratic or Republican or Socialist Worker party or anything like that.
What disturbs you most about Cleveland?
Well, the idea that in a community such as Cleveland, which is a wealthy community — which has always been a wealthy community — there are thousands upon thousands of poor people.
That for an example, the city supposedly is bankrupt — that is a real crock. I took 50 corporations in the City of Cleveland, and looked at their profits in a recent issue. I went back and took their profits for the last ten years, and it came out to six billion dollars, and I contrast that to the austerity moves of Mayor Perk.
Why is it that a community is almost bankrupt when it has produced that kind of wealth in the last decade? That is just 50 corporations, that is not counting all the law firms, all the doctors, all the accountants, all the rest of the small businesses. That is only 50 major corporations. And if a community can produce that kind of wealth, why is it that the City of Cleveland cannot furnish a hundred-million-dollar budget?
How would you answer that question?
Well, obviously, I think the answer is that the wealth produced by people should be shared by people. There has to be a better way of sharing the wealth.
Now I know that there are other factors involved, but I think the continued revelations of corporation after corporation not paying income taxes when so much of their business — much of the engineering and technical stuff — comes from government contracts, is ridiculous.
The wealth belongs to people generally, not to certain people who can figure out ways to make personal profit out of it.
How would you define that economic viewpoint?
I don't know. Well, I guess I would call that a sort of socialism. If I had to define myself — if I really sat down and examined what I'm saying — it would be more of an anarchist kind of viewpoint. I'm against government and big private institutions.
What would you put in their place?
Well, I think small community control . . . The thing . . . progress has to be stopped. The idea that we have built this kind of idolatry to progress . . . the more we progress, the worse things get.
The poverty gets worse. The pollution gets worse. In other words, we've got to build a jetport because it is going to create jobs. Usually it doesn't work out that way. Everything gets worse, but everybody says the way to do it, the way to cure this, is to have progress.
I think that life styles of people have to change. They have been taught to be interested in certain things through the mass media advertising, and those things have corrupted their values and have used up resources needlessly.
How do you go about a change like that?
It's a long process. I see Point of View as only one really small attempt to do that, you know, in a certain way. It talks to people about different values.
What I try to do is really de-legitimize the values that society has, and attempt to undermine those values and that authority.
Once those values are de-legitimized and undermined, what replaces them?
I think people want a change. I think they want to do better by their environment, and I think the way young people have flocked to the anti-pollution effort is an example of that. Another is the way young people have flocked to Nader's attempt to give people more power over what they eat and drink by allowing them into decision-making on consumer issues. I think these are the types of movements and values that I would be favorable to, although they are not radical, and they don't go as far as I would like them to go.
How far would you like to see them go?
Well, far enough, for example, that the wealth of the community, the wealth of the nation, was evenly divided, in the sense that people wouldn't have any of the dire needs — hunger, clothing — there are certain necessities that people should have and I would want it to go that far very fast. And where we are evolving to, I don't pretend to know.
But I know the direction I want to go, and as an individual effort, I'm willing to try to push it that way.
When you look at Cleveland, what do you like best?
I think the pause sort of tells you what the answer is. I don't know. I seldom think about what is good. People are always criticizing me for not writing about what is good.
I just don't think there is time, I don't think it is my task to point out what is good. I think there are enough people trying to point out what is right about Cleveland.
Self-boosterism is, I think, really dangerous. I think Cleveland is just about like any other big American city. It has got things that are essential to an American city, but there is no one thing that I would point out and say, "this is great," or that "Cleveland has this" in the sense that I have civic pride. A lot of things really disgust me, though. Especially the media, and the way they glorify people like Nick Mileti.
In my opinion. Nick Mileti is simply a front man for some big money people who see profits in sports. I have no objection to that. I'm a sports fan and always have been. But to glorify him as sort of a civic leader, as somebody for young people to look up to because he is able to turn a profit, is the kind of mass manipulation and distortion that is constantly in the media.
And they talk about objectivity. That is the most unobjective handling of news that I've ever seen. They have created kind of a god-hero out of a man, yet there are people working in neighborhoods to better the community that never get any recognition at all. And these, in my opinion, are the real heroes, not Nick Mileti. But they're not glamorous, they're not big names, so the media passes them by.
Who are these people that you're talking about?
People who are working within their own communities. Like Shirley Smith, who calls herself a hillbilly, but who is working for the community. Another one is Naida Sutch who wants to do something about poverty in her neighborhood. And I think of a guy like Jan Van Lier, who is working for public housing in Ward 9 where people are very hostile to public housing.
What kind of stories do you go after for Point of View?
When you are doing something like Point of View, a lot of what you're doing is reacting to what others do, because the mass media really sets the pace and sets sort of the battleground.
On certain issues, you have to respond to what they are writing. Then there are other issues.
Like Glenville, and the United Appeal. The United Appeal was sort of one of my targets, not specifically because I have a particular gripe against the United Appeal, but that I think that it symbolizes a certain way of doing things in a society.
I thought I could really show people something by attacking the United Appeal in the way that I've been able to. And the way is to show that while a business community and certain leaders push on workers the idea of contributing to United Appeal as a way of solving problems, those same leaders either don't contribute at all, or they contribute much less than their "Fair Share," which is their motto.
And I've been able to show it so consistently that United Appeal has dropped publication of contributions of individuals and corporations. In fact, I sent them a letter asking for the donations of 50 corporations and they returned the letter saying that they will no longer do that.
Another way is to show that a society that can spend billions of dollars in Viet Nam can't solve certain community problems. Or has to solve certain community problems by charity.
One of the things that I keep repeating is the idea of young kids at a multi-million-dollar shopping center selling chocolate bars to help the mentally retarded. In the richest country in the world!
In my view, that is completely wrong. There is no reason why you have to sell chocolate bars to solve problems of mentally ill children.
Another thing is the difference between what community leaders and business leaders say and what they do. I try to keep track of what's going on in business — foundations and suburbia run the community, and why they really run it is something I try to explain from my viewpoint.
Do you feel that you've made any enemies?
Yeah, I probably have. But I haven't had anybody try to do anything to me or try to shut me up in any way. I think they would be foolish to try. I think the best method is the method people are using — that is, to ignore me.
Do you feel that you're being ignored?
Oh, definitely, yes.
Well, I think by the media, in particular. The Cleveland Press, I think, has been fairly open and receptive to some things I have done. They've followed up, in fact, on some of the stories I've done. But there have been other stories that I have done that the media simply wouldn't follow up on, either on TV, or in The Plain Dealer for example. I think that the only time my name will get into The Plain Dealer is in an obituary — my own.
One of the reasons, of course, is that a lot of things that have gone on at The Plain Dealer have appeared in Point of View, including stories or parts of stories that The Plain Dealer has censored.
How do you find that out?
You find that out from inside, of course, and a lot of my information I have to credit to reporters who know that either they can't get it printed or on the air, or who have tried and failed. They'll pass on either the information or the tip to go after the information.
People see a need — people who are working, journalists who are working — see a need for this information to get out, and even if it is only in a piddling kind of publication that reaches only a few people, at least it is out, and there is some sort of satisfaction.
You get tips and parts of stories from people who are writing those stories for other media?
Sure. But I don't want to get into who it is.
How many people are you talking about?
It may be someone who has never said anything to me before, but is involved in a certain story or knows of an involvement and for some reason is upset about it. In fact, some of it comes in anonymously or just in the mail. I can check it and then I have a story.
Some people have said that you never let facts get in the way of a story. How do you react to that?
Well, the only thing I can say is that they should prove that I'm wrong. Most of my stuff comes from certain documents, a memo written to somebody, or filed with the FCC.
If they disagree with my opinion — and I expect a lot of people do — that's one thing. But if they disagree with my facts, they should let me know. I've printed corrections. Point of View does do a lot of interpretation, doesn't it?
And that is why it is called Point of View. There is no pretense about it being objective. I am taking a certain stance and viewpoint, and I'm bringing to bear as many facts as I can to prove my point.
Now there are certain things that I've just reported straight — you know, as in the rest of the media. Even then, I'll admit, I'm adding some kind of opinion to it.
The thing that bothers me is that the mass media thinks that it's objective. And that, of course, is utterly ridiculous.
Nobody can be truly objective. You bring all kinds of values to something that you cover, and if you look at any of the newspapers or look at any of the TV stations, you find that most of the people involved are middle-class white males.
Don't be afraid to mention the magazine, by the way.
I'm not. It hasn't really been around long enough. But most of the people in the media are middle-class white males, so you have ruled out about 80 per cent of the population: 50 per cent are women, plus 10 to 20 million blacks, all the Mexican-Americans, all the Puerto Ricans, all the Indians — their views really aren't reflected, so I don't see how the mass media can talk about presenting an objective point of view.
Do you think that any medium, any publication, any broadcast station can be objective?
No. I don't think that the media should strive for objectivity at all. I think that they should simply strive for fairness.
What I mean is that reporters are told to be objective and what they get from training and experience is that there are two sides to every story. And you give two paragraphs to one side and two paragraphs to the other side.
That leaves the reporter with no real leeway to tell the people what the hell is happening. It is simply a way, I think, of not facing and not being able to make decisions as to what the hell happened in a certain situation.
It may very well be that there are five sides to a story or there may very well be only one right side to a story. And to be shackled by that kind of objectivity, I think, helps to distort the news.
Do you think you're having an effect?
I don't know. That's pretty hard to tell. There is really no real way to gauge it. I think that it has a gadfly effect.
It bothers some people. I'll give you an instance. I'm doing an article for a magazine, and I wrote to about 30 corporations asking them for information about their social responsibility and what they have been doing to meet social responsibility — that's a big thing with large corporations now.
I got a letter back from the P.R. director of Cleveland Trust saying that "although I have been a reader of Point of View for a long time," and in parenthesis, "but never a subscriber," and "in my mind I don't think that you can interpret business, so we are not going to send you any information."
I took that as feeling that there is an impact there. In other words, I know that copies are going to Cleveland Trust and various people there are reading it. They don't agree with it and they want to keep information from me for that reason. That only tells me that it has some kind of impact.
How many people do you reach?
That's hard to tell. I have about 900 subscriptions, and the most I've ever had is about a thousand — a little over a thousand. One of the things that happens is that it's small enough to be Xeroxed, so there is sort of a double-edged sword there — I would like to do something about the Xeroxing — it deprives me of subscriptions, but I think a lot more people read it that way.
Circulation depends on the specific issues, too. A couple of years ago I wrote a number of articles on the Glenville shoot-out, which 1 saw from a completely different viewpoint, and I think that even the facts showed that the mass media here completely distorted what happened in Glenville.
But in that case, thousands of copies were reproduced — I would say maybe 15,000 copies were reproduced and were used in neighborhood meetings and so forth. So a specific issue, even though the circulation is only a thousand, it can often reach many more people.
Another example of that is an issue that was written on the United Appeal, which was reproduced in the thousands — there was a real demand for them. People wanted to buy 50 copies and distribute them where they worked, or to a group that they knew.
Do you ever get discouraged?
I don't think about it that much. I mean, I didn't weigh my reasons, motives, or financial considerations when I went into it, and I haven't done that kind of thing as a way of living. I just do it.
For myself, I have found that to be acceptable. I think too many people tend to try to read their own motives. They examine everything so carefully before they go into something that they never get a chance to do it.
As long as I can survive financially, I think that I have to keep doing it. In a sense, what I started out to do was to show that something can be accomplished if you examine a community and do something over a long period of time.
I think that too many people, especially young people, expect that they can do something for two months and show an end result that they can document. I don't think that things happen that quickly.
Is Point of View a big money-maker for you?
I don't pay income tax, that's for sure.
Which means you make under what?
Under four thousand.
And you are married, correct?
I have two daughters and one son. Three kids — 10, 8, and 6.
How do you support a family of that size?
For one thing, it's amazing how much you waste and how much you can cut back on a budget. It's really remarkable.
Then there is the question of never having to make any large buys, such as an automobile, and we haven't had any sickness. I do have a health insurance plan, and I think that was one of my biggest worries when I started out — the health thing.
Secondly, a lot of people think that it costs a fortune to put out a publication, but I haven't made any investments. I haven't even bought a typewriter. Everything I use is essentially borrowed. I do all of the manual work — either myself, or Sue, my wife — both of us do that. So really the only cost is the paper, the printing and the mailing. Less than a 100 bucks an issue.
Yeah. So people keep asking me, "Where are you getting your money?" "You are getting money from someplace." One of the rumors was that Cyrus Eaton was backing me. I just point out, why the hell would I just be printing 1,500 copies if Cyrus Eaton were backing it?
Do you qualify for welfare?
I don't think so, I had a little money when I started. I may qualify now, probably for food stamps. Also, I have insurance, which the welfare department frowns on, and I wouldn't be willing to give that up.
Would you be opposed to going on welfare?
No I wouldn't. Why should I be? There is no reason to be opposed to it. I have, and I am, contributing to the society, so I have no qualms about the idea of accepting money.
I think that is another mass media brainwashing technique — to get people to think that they don't deserve things when in fact they do.
I had to laugh ... I wrote a story when I was at The Plain Dealer, and some woman called up, objecting to it. Her voice seemed to be that of an older woman, so I asked her, "Are you getting Social Security?" and she said, "Why yes, of course." I said, "Well, you know you are on welfare."
But it's the kind of degrading attitudes that are built up in the media that I object to. Welfare is a right. If you have problems and don't have money, then you have a right to welfare. There are legal means of proving that. But I think the mass media treats it as "on the dole," and it is not that at all.
If Point of View could no longer support you, would you go back to newspaper reporting?
No, I don't think I could do that. 1 don't know what I'd do. I've never thought about it. But I couldn't go back to a newspaper and do the thing that 1 found so distasteful in the past.
Any future plans?