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Issue Date: December 2003 Issue


Raising a Voice


Michael D. Roberts

Small towns speak in whispers. There, the real news about important citizens and civic leaders is never found in the media. It is whispered in the barbershops, clubs and offices.

In Cleveland, people no longer whisper.

Inside of an hour, one day this autumn, I had three unpleasant encounters. Mark Stueve stood outside his Old Erie Street Bookstore on East Ninth Street, angry at the decline of a town he grew up in and loved. Alvin Weil, finishing his MBA program at Cleveland State University, wanted to know whether he should move to Chicago. Donald T. Grogan, once the owner of downtown office buildings, called to express anguish over a city in which his family fortune was made. Greed and selfishness has brought on Cleveland's adversity, said the 81-year-old.

Hard words, no longer the stuff of whispers.

In the past two years, Clevelanders have asked serious questions about the direction of their town and those who lead it. The political, business and civic communities are bearing the brunt of anger and scorn. There is talk of finding ways to change how we are governed.

But just at the moment when Cleveland needs transparency and direction, it becomes obvious that the last line of defense the media is part of the culture that has brought us to this crisis point in the city's history. Not just The Plain Dealer, but the collective journalistic community.

None of these observations are new or particular to Cleveland, but they are real and have consequences. Like an editorial urging citizens to exercise their vote to keep democracy alive, the media must be prodded to be freer with its own speech if our town is to recover its vibrancy.

Much has changed in the media since I first became a Plain Dealer reporter just a few weeks before President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas.

Back then, we were the "press" before television labeled us "media." In those days, the city had two newspapers: The Plain Dealer and The Cleveland Press, an afternoon newspaper edited for the blue-collar neighborhoods and written by hard-drinking reporters who made as much news as they covered.

A short, bald man named Louis B. Seltzer ran The Press and embraced abstinence, fought crime and rebuked the bad in both business and politics. He elected mayors, suffered few fools and made plenty of enemies. Mistakes, too.

Today, the media in Cleveland is totally different, more corporate in nature, non-alcoholic in spirit and driven by entertainment. The Plain Dealer is the daily planet around which magazines, weeklies, business papers, alternative tabs and minority publications orbit, to say nothing of dozens of radio and television stations.

With the exception of public radio, local radio and television news is no longer interested in serious issues. Most stations opted out of that coverage some time ago, and at least are honest about it: It is all about ratings.

Over the years, the journalistic community has allowed itself to become part of a culture that shields its business and civic leaders from criticism. It is far easier to report on the plight of the poor and downtrodden than to challenge the established, easier to write about street crimes than misdeeds in high places. Some days, there are so many stories in The Plain Dealer about unfortunate souls that one wonders if Charles Dickens is the city editor.

A few months ago, the lead story on page one of the paper told of the criminal activities of Virgil Ogletree, an aging numbers runner who, investigators claim, was overseeing a multimillion-dollar-a-year gambling ring. Ogletree is so old that I was 12, delivering newspapers, when I first read about his scrapes with the law in The Cleveland Press.

As the story pointed out, Ogletree "is the last link to a criminal era in Cleveland made up of mobsters, hustlers, loan sharks and bookies." Ogletree's criminal pals, such as Danny Greene, Shondor Birns and Don King, have an almost mythical place in Cleveland's history because their exploits were once reported almost daily.

Unlike elderly Virgil Ogletree, the story of a steel mill in Thailand did not make the front page perhaps because it's a story that raises more questions than answers.

The steel mill was financed by a Cleveland investment firm that lost hundreds of millions in the deal. But before the mill went belly up, the investment firm merged with a bank, causing the bank's stockholders to absorb the loss. And while the executives of both institutions were paid millions in bonuses for the deal, a local steel mill closed, resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs.

Some think the failure of the mill in Thailand may have jeopardized the bank's future. But few people probably recall more than these sketchy details if that much because the story was reported as just another dispute settled in court.

Today, our news culture is less inquisitive, less aggressive. No one tells a reporter not to do a story. It's just easier for that reporter to deal with police records than with club rosters.

Take the hasty departure of a hospital administrator. For years, the corporate and civic leader was celebrated as a genius of sorts. When it became evident that her stewardship had left one of the city's venerated institutions in a weakened financial condition, it raised a few eyebrows, but even fewer questions. The story was reported as a retirement.

The fact is, over the years, the community has counted on business leaders, some of whom have mismanaged companies, to occupy powerful civic positions.

The recent convention-center fiasco and the Convention & Visitors Bureau scandal are examples of the folly that some of our best citizens have caused. But this time, because the events were so chaotic, one could sense an anger and concern emerge from what had been an indifferent community.

As the leadership community has grown smaller and more incestuous in its dealings and decisions, many executives in the media find themselves caught in interlocking business and civic activities that make the job of unbiased news reporting difficult, if not impossible. The city would be better served if media executives excused themselves from roles in civic organizations.

Cleveland has many journalists who like to collect awards and enshrine one another in their hall of fame. They need to show the same enthusiasm for their work and challenge the blighted culture around them. They owe it to the public that believes in them and the profession they have chosen.

The news here must be more than just an insider's whisper if this city is going to survive in any meaningful and prosperous way.


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