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Plain Dealer’s “lilly white” news room shocked Rev. Jackson

Cleveland's newspaper and television media ignores black journalists, readers and viewers beyond crime stories

CLEVELAND, OH  – Rev. Jesse Jackson couldn’t believe his eyes when he walked into the newsrooms of the Plain Dealer and Columbus Dispatch this past June.  He didn’t see a single black journalist in the Plain Dealer’s newsroom and saw only one at the Columbus Dispatch.  Both newspapers operate in the two Ohio counties with the most black residents. 

Plain Dealer editor George Rodrigue met with Jackson and cleveland.com editor Chris Quinn.  Columbus Dispatch editor Alan Miller told Jackson he couldn’t find any black journalists.

Jackson left Ohio and shared what he’d discovered with writers at a National Association of Black Journalists conference in August.  Cleveland and Columbus newspapers have re-segregated.

The Plain Dealer during the 1990’s was #1 in the nation among the top daily newspapers for black hiring at 18 percent.  The achievement came after a 1984 report by the Cleveland NAACP chapter identified that in a city nearing a 50 percent black population the newspaper and television station staffs were not reflecting the reading and viewing market’s demographics.  Lora Thompson delivered the report to concerned citizens at WOIO’s Shaker Square offices when it was founded and led by a black man named Hubert Payne as the station’s CEO.

Today AdvanceOhio’s editorial, sales and design staff is “lilly white” in a city with a nearly 60 percent black population; and a county where the black population is nearly 30 percent and the largest ethnic demographic.

The Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com’s hiring under Chris Quinn looks like a pre-civil rights picture of a newsroom from 1939.

From a “pure business” perspective it makes no sense for the Plain Dealer and its cleveland.com alter-ego to ignore 400,000 potential readers.  But Quinn, who leads AdvanceOhio as president and editor, has done so to the detriment of the Newhouse family’s bottom line.   

Ever since former publisher Alex Machaskee hired ex-Miami Herald editor Doug Clifton in 1999 to lead the Plain Dealer’s editorial team, and Clifton brought Quinn, Mark Vosburgh and Bill McDonald with him, the quality of content grew so disrespectful and antagonistic towards its black readers that the growing audience Tom Greer and Maxine Lynch-Greer built as the newspaper’s first black executive and managing editor disappeared.  So did black writers like Richard Peery, Mark Russell, Jesse Tinsley, Sam Fulwood, Afi-Odelia Scruggs and others whose connections to Cleveland’s black community and insights encouraged black readers. Peery served as president of the Writer’s Guild.

Doug Clifton’s “southern white male” mindset was reflected in his disrespectful coverage of Cleveland’s black public figures when he was hired in 1999 as the Plain Dealer’s editor.

Clifton’s team of editorial managers and writers with Quinn as a ring leader literally led an all out assault to put an end to the growing number of black writers, sales, production and circulation workers; and ties that were being built between Cleveland’s black community and the daily newspaper whose coverage the average black resident viewed as “racist.”  Pro-slavery Plain Dealer founder Joseph Gray competed with four other abolitionist publishers in the city during the 1800’s before slavery.  His was the only newspaper to survive.  Clifton, the southern editor with the southern mindset, seemed hellbent on restoring the Plain Dealer to the spirit of its past.

Plain Dealer news coverage of local governments under editor William Woestendiek, executive editor Greer and managing editor Lynch had been driven by examinations of public records connected to incidents and acts of elected and appointed officials.  Instead of relying on the “words” of quoted officials, reporters prior to Clifton based questions on data found in audits, reports and findings of other regulatory agencies.  The sources and information was better and more informed.

Clifton’s team of reporters abandoned all sense of “source document” reporting and concentrated on the soap opera dramas that existed between political “personalities.”  Coverage of Cleveland city hall became nonsensical as evidenced by a January 2, 2001 story Quinn wrote under the following headline. “Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White wants to get a few things straight:  His toes.”

Former Cleveland Mayor Michael White had built a strong relationship with the Plain Dealer under executive editor Tom Greer and managing editor Maxine Lynch. When Doug Clifton joined the newspaper in 1999 black reporters were not allowed to cover city hall in a city with a black mayor.

The “National Enquire-ish” headline came at a time when the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) was investigating the city’s police department under Martin Flask as chief of police for civil rights abuses.  The first of three investigations of the Cleveland police department was released in July 2002 after White left office and was replaced by Jane Campbell.  The second the following year in 2003.  The third in 2014.

White had “leaked” information about racist graffiti in various areas of the police department that signaled concerns to him as the city’s “chief law enforcement officer” about the type of encounters police were having with black residents. So he shared them with a reporter thinking he could build a relationship which would lead to revelations about more detailed acts of misconduct.

Clifton and Quinn had totally ignored, as an example, a report White obtained and tried to share with the public that Cleveland police were literally targeting dark-skinned black males for stops, citations and arrests at a rate of 85 percent.  The conclusions came from Cleveland State University associate professor Ronnie Dunn’s research of 6 months worth of citations at White’s request.  Dunn drew the same conclusions for the city of Shaker Heights.

White also had issues with how Flask was handling discipline.  He wanted cops prosecuted for crimes and Flask was obstructing him by disciplining them administratively. Flask was like every other “in grown” police chief who’d risen through the ranks as members of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association.  He managed the police department based on the labor agreement and not the charter, ordinances, state and federal laws that guides and limits the conduct of public employees.

So when White fired them it guaranteed a return to work by an arbitrator.   Even when he tried to have cops prosecuted he was being thwarted by CPPA endorsed judges.

While Plain Dealer reporter Allison Grant had broken through and was gaining insight on how Flask was disciplining instead of referring law breaking Cleveland police officers for prosecution, the articles Quinn was pettily writing drove a wedge between the newspaper and mayor’s office; and made her job more difficult.  

“White is scheduled to undergo surgery this week at the Cleveland Clinic to correct a painful condition called hammertoes in his left foot, according to two of his confidants, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  Hammertoes, most often occurring in women over 50, permanently arches the toes into the shape of a claw hammer.”

Under Clifton with Quinn, Vosburgh, Joe Frolik and Ted Wendling covering city hall any white male who criticized White was given instant credibility. 

Michael Polensek criticized White for telling a reporter before he told Flask that he wanted the USDOJ to investigate the city’s police department.  Polensek didn’t like the fact that White distrusted his chief.

Instead of fully-embracing what is now known after three federal investigations, and dozens of innocent black men released from prison as a confirmation of White’s claims, Clifton’s Plain Dealer editorial team threw water on the mayor’s concerns of racism in a 2001 editorial.

“The first concern is White‘s role in this affair. The Plain Dealer’s first story on this subject originated not in tips from independent sources, but in a leak from the mayor himself. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last, that a public figure helped reporters to do their job; it’s part of the business. But it’s also part of the business to question the motives of the leaker, and no leaker’s motives are entirely pure.”

The rest of the editorial also demonstrated how little Clifton, Quinn and their white male counterparts even understood the issues then that are now clearly understood today.

This newspaper has come in for some criticism for fanning the flames of tension between the mayor and police, but the mayor‘s statements about police racism were too dramatic and sweeping to ignore. Nor can his attempt to use this newspaper go unchallenged.

The Plain Dealer has done and will do its best to determine whether Police Department racism goes beyond the bathroom vandalism of a few twisted individuals. 

Clifton and Quinn never delivered on the newspaper’s promise to investigate the black and civil rights community’s “ongoing” claims of not only racist graffiti White had exposed, but the type of criminal justice that type of thinking spawned.  

Clifton and Quinn continued to let CPPA presidents describe every dead unarmed black citizen killed by a Cleveland cop as a “good shoot.” They continued to drive a wedge between a mayor who was trying to solve a problem with unconstitutional policing and the people who elected him.  By the time White decided to retire, his relationship with the Plain Dealer because of Clifton and Quinn, resulted in him barring its reporters from entering the elementary school building where he publicly announced his retirement.

Clifton and Quinn’s reporting demonstrated they had no interest in uplifting Cleveland’s majority black population or embracing them as readers.  Their coverage was all about suppression and keeping “uppity blacks” like White and others in “their places.”

WOIO reporter Harry Boomer has twice led the Cleveland National Association of Black Journalists chapter and twice did nothing to advance the presence of black journalists in the city’s media; or more respectful coverage of the city’s black community.

The constant denigration of the town’s black leaders and issues resulted in black and white readers turning away by the thousands; an act that made the Plain Dealer a 4-day a week newspaper that’s as thin as two-ply toilet paper.

Quinn published an editorial after Rev. Jackson’s June 2018 visit that the Plain Dealer and cleveland.com were looking for a diverse group of editorial board members.  No money.  No writing.  Just a “free” chance to help the newspaper’s lilly-white staff decide who’s best qualified to serve in elected office everywhere.  The newspaper and website’s white reporters will insert all the “right” words.  One black person was given the free job as Quinn’s commitment to diversity.

This is, again, where Quinn misses the point.  Jackson didn’t observe that black people weren’t participating in the Plain Dealer’s editorial board like slaves for free.  He observed that black reporters, sales, design, marketing and circulation professionals were not “working” and “being paid” to provide services to two apartheid-like newspapers that serve cities with majority black ethnic populations.

While Jackson is right to criticize the Plain Dealer and Columbus Dispatch to the national NABJ,  there is a local “Cleveland” chapter of the same organization led by WOIO reporter Harry Boomer that meets monthly and plans party mixers. 

Boomer never discussed Rev. Jackson’s visit to Ohio and his concerns with the NABJ’s local members.  Perhaps Boomer’s too afraid of being fired to lead; which is why in Cleveland and Columbus it took a black man from Illinois to speak up.

CORRECTION: It was originally written that Chris Quinn did not meet with Rev. Jackson.  Plain Dealer Editor George Rodrigue confirmed that a meeting between all three and other staffers did occur.

Eric Jonathan Brewer
Author, Investigative Journalist, Speaker, Politician, Consultant

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