On Thanksgiving Day, NEOMG Editorial VP Chris Quinn
emerged from his cave or chamber, as he seldom does (save for WCPN's Friday morning Reporters' Roundtable) to explain, and thereby vindicate
, what many in Northeast Ohio considered a "despicable" editorial decision:
Crime reporter Brandon Blackwell, with the assist from Sun News' Strongsville ace Bob Sandrick, and under the guidance of God Knows who — Quinn himself? — published what was little more than a rap sheet on Tamir Rice's parents.
"Tamir Rice's Father Has History of Domestic Violence"
read the headline, followed by 20 images of protesters on Public Square and then a rundown of Leonard Warner's (Rice's father's) multiple convictions. Blackwell, or somebody, later inserted two limp sentences saying that the "story" was in direct response to mysterious "people from across the region" who had been dying to know whether or not Rice grew up around violence.
On that note, very quickly, since Quinn is committed to establishing premises on which we can all agree, plus spearheading whatever he means by "communal soul-searching," let's agree that asking questions about general exposure to violence among the city's poor black youth is dumb or parodic or, at best, superfluous.
Poor kids around here are exposed to violence. Period. They are exposed to drugs. They are exposed to guns. They are exposed to poverty, if you'd like to use "exposed" as a substitute for "living in," to anesthetize the fact that, e.g., a huge percentage of them are hungry most of the time.
Despite the best efforts of civic and corporate "narrative-makers" 'round these parts, the majority of people who actually live in Cleveland (not just work and play in its "up and coming neighborhoods") are doing so in extremely difficult circumstances. And for all the lip service we may pay to "community policing," huge swaths of the city are just plain tough. Drugs are bought and sold regularly. Home life is rarely what you'd call stable. Fights within the woebegone Cleveland Metropolitan School District
are about as common as passing grades. Violence is just, you know, there.
So manufacturing ex post facto causal links
between Tamir Rice's parents and the 12-year-old's "randomly aiming what looks like a real gun in various directions," is dangerous. It's also beside the point:
"One way to stop police from killing any more 12-year-olds might be to understand the forces that lead children to undertake behavior that could put them in the sights of police guns," Quinn actually wrote, digging himself a hole the exact width and depth of a coffin, a hole deep and dark enough (some have joshingly speculated) that not even reader representative Ted Diadiun was able or willing to exculpate the brand. "...We believe [the story on Tamir's parents] may shed further light on why this 12 year old was waving a weapon around a public park."
But it doesn't. At all. And Quinn must know. The piece, as Scene
(and many enraged commenters) have noted, is absent any context whatsoever. It's literally a criminal history. There's not even so much as a quote — this in a story which purports to illuminate the Cleveland Police's use of deadly force. Rice's mother believe it or not got similar treatment in a piece two days prior
, but it didn't engender the same hostility (we suspect) because it was thinly veiled as information about the Rice family's lawyer. That piece did, in fact, include a source, a child psychologist from Case who opined that "growing up in such circumstances can be confusing for a young person."
One aspect of the bigger media picture here is not the NEOMG's reporting itself, but the reporting style.
Blackwell's piece is part of the frantic, ejaculatory tradition that has become the NEOMG's stock in trade in the immediate wake of major stories — PROM PICS FROM WESTLAKE! PROM PICS FROM ORANGE! PROM PICS — VOTE FOR BEST COOKIE IN NORTHEAST OHIO — FROM OLMSTED FALLS! Quinn calls it iterative reporting, and he's been quoted saying that this is how readers want to consume news.
Scene wrote yesterday
that the piece on Tamir's parents has bred some internal discord, intensifying already burbling hostilities between the Plain Dealer
and NEOMG staffs.
But the real problem is for readers, many of whom simply don't have the wherewithal to connect a story's scattered dots. The underlying assumption (or corporate strategy) inherent in Quinn's iterative method is that readers don't have the energy or attention span to read and digest a single story that might take them 15 or 20 minutes. (Plus what about pageviews?) But it actually requires considerably more energy and attention to assemble an entire narrative oneself, bit by bit as it were, laboring to arrange little 250-word fragments in a comprehensible order with some semblance of cause and effect, some nod to broader context, some sources with specialized insight, some Godforsaken chronology etc.
Moreover, you can't post 12 stories to Facebook. So for the hundreds who shared the story on Tamir's parents — even those who did so with a sense of outrage, prepared to spar with dissenting friends — their private audiences who may have glanced at the headline or gave it a cursory read had no way to gauge the value of this information, no nudging to process it in relation to the literally hundreds of other snippets being actively churned and prepared for excretion within the NEOMG's small-intestinal newsroom.
We fully concede that there may have been a place for information about Tamir's parents in a longer analysis of neighborhood dynamics, or in a piece which looked closer at Tamir himself, his life story.
But right now, the boy who frankly just looks bored in the minutes before he is shot — the boy who tosses a snowball in the air and then stomps on it, who sits at a table with his head down to pass the time, who twirls his toy gun and points it at trees — is portrayed as somehow predisposed to this sort of behavior because his mom sold drugs and his dad beat up women.
Quinn assures us that there will be equivalent coverage of the officers involved:
"Now that the names of the officers have been released, we will fully delve into their backgrounds as well, looking for anything relevant to their actions," Quinn wrote.
But as of this posting, the only information published by the NEOMG about Timothy Loehman, the 26-year-old rookie cop who shot Tamir in the gut, was a quick update from crime reporter Ryllie Danylko that the hacktavist group "Anonymous" has "begun looking"
into his past.
Another troubling, salient, (sort of poetic) bullet point from Quinn's defense
was his insistence that NEOMG lawyer Dave Marburger played a significant role in the release of the surveillance video at Cudell.
"That video was made by cameras at a city recreation center, meaning it is public record. You own it. You have a right to see it. State law does not let police hide public records under the cloak of a criminal investigation," wrote the high-minded Quinn.
"Marburger demanded the release of the video and let city officials know on Tuesday that we would take whatever steps we needed to compel the police to comply with the law. He also worked with the attorney for the family, which soon formally requested the release of the video. Within hours, police announced they would release the video the next day."
But Daniel Ball, from the City of Cleveland's media relations department, said Marburger had zero impact on the city's decision to release the video.
"We've said it multiple times: Our actions have been dictated by the requests of the Rice family," Ball said in a phone conversation with Scene
. "I read Mr. Quinn's piece, and I don't know how influential he perceives the NEOMG to be, but I could care less — and the Mayor will tell you this himself: Our concern was for the respect and the wishes of the family."
Ball said it's possible Marburger contacted the Rice family and even persuaded them to change their minds — they had initially asked that the video not be released — but that the city felt no pressure from the NEOMG's legal emissary.
"I have no idea if he contacted our law department or who," said Ball, who later openly interpreted Quinn's self-aggrandizing pronouncements as noisy compensation for the Kasich endorsement interview video debacle earlier this month.
Ironic indeed that Quinn should be so adamant about the public's right to see a video.
This all just makes us really miss the Plain Dealer, and the journalism it produced.
Quinn notes in his piece that the NEOMG's reporting on Cleveland Police's use of deadly force began in 2011, when reporter Henry Gomez lead a team in a months-long investigation that inspired a probe by the U.S. Justice Department.
Quinn holds up the 2011 investigation as some sort of evidence, as if to say that the piece on Tamir's parents was born of the same journalistic lineage — long-term projects with editors and purposes and teams.
But all it does is present a stark contrast.
Back then — this is like three years ago, mind — editors were writing introductions to major investigations with pride and even panache, not cowering behind post hoc rationales for irrelevant, coolly received content. Back then, at least in some instances, the afflicted were slightly more comfortable. Back then readers were informed, not enraged.
Notwithstanding Advance Publications' quarterly profit margins or cleveland.com's monthly metrics, the brand — the brand! — is damaged.