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Enquirer Plays Politics with Page 1

By Ben L. Kaufman · November 9th, 2011 · On Second Thought
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Until its Page 1 story on public employee “perks” last week, The Enquirer was doing a pretty good job of playing pre-election partisanship down the middle.

That story — which required a major page 1 correction — embraced the paper’s historic Republican and anti-union demons. The timing was too neat; the subject could have been explored in many ways at any time.  Almost on the eve of the Issue 2 ballot, it was no coincidence.

I was willing to cut the paper some slack on its pre-ballot front page blowout on the local agency supposed to protect children; who cares except when we’re asked to pay for their care. At least that story didn’t advance the Republicans’ image of overpaid, underworked employees with their parasitic public perquisites and pensions.

But not that “Public workers get perks” banner atop Page 1. 

Ethical news judgment involves not only story selection and editing, but also the way its played in the paper. This one screams “bias!” No one should be surprised that the page already endorsed the “Yes” vote on Issue 2 which would end public employee ability to bargain for perks and other core elements of any union contract. 

The Page 1 correction of the perks story was the longest Enquirer mea culpa that I can remember since the groveling apology to Chiquita in the 1998 debacle. Then, reporter Mike Gallagher compromised a year-long investigative project by illegally gaining access to Chiquita’s worldwide voice mail system. As remarkable as the length of last week’s correction was the generosity of the wronged party. The error came in the first paragraph of the story: “Since January, the Batavia school board has paid 100 percent of its teachers’ contributions to their retirement.”

Wrong.

The Enquirer said its unattributed assertion was based “on information in their contract.” District treasurer Michael F. Ashmore granted that the contract language was “understandably confusing;” teachers pay 10 percent of the retirement contribution.  

At least the story, which addressed many of the public employees in Southwest Ohio, noted that the perks typically were approved by elected public officials in a region not known for pro-union sympathies. 

For decades, it has been axiomatic that public employees traded security for higher compensation their skills could command in private enterprise. Their public jobs often were lifetime hirings and their pensions were meant to maintain their living standards.   What’s troubling in this debate is the wildly divergent conclusions that partisan studies reach when appraising public versus private pay and benefits. 

Now, I'm looking for the same editorial outrage about perks that corporate and bank/fund executives give themselves. We pay for those, too, through bailouts and reduced dividends and stock prices. 

Curmudgeon notes: 

• But for the “perks” story, I cannot remember a better pre-election job by The Enquirer and my memory goes back to the late 1960s. I stand by what I say below about endorsements in general, but The Enquirer’s were uncommonly well done. Council candidates — typically thin on everything but slogans — were adequately treated in news columns. So were issues, although I wonder why it took an election to move The Enquirer to write about problems and plans at public bodies with levies on the ballot.

• When it comes to Ohio politics, The Enquirer’s Howard Wilkinson is as savvy as any reporter I know. That’s why his Oct. 31 “panel” on Obama and GOP challengers was so puzzling. A Washington, D.C., firm chose the dozen Southwest Ohio participants for Wilkinson. He interviewed and summarized the panelists’ judgments. Not one was from Cincinnati, the dominant urban influence on the region. Curious.

• That same Sunday’s Enquirer did a massive pre-election job of explaining state issues with centralohio.com carrying much of the burden.

It’s another Gannett operation that includes the state capital and smaller communities.

• A problem with a biweekly column is too much is ancient history in today’s breathless Twitter environment. That’s especially true of pre-election endorsements published and broadcast between these On Second Thought columns. That said, I always read endorsements with a my own peculiar bias: Who cares? My gut tells me they are written to reassure people at newspapers that they still matter although Cincinnati dailies never reached that many households and every year, fewer people buy Our Sole Surviving Daily Paper. Endorsements resemble a dinosaur stamping its feet in hopes of turning back encroaching natural disaster. The Enquirer’s endorsements included vote “yes: on Issue 2, the anti-union legislation. Hardly a surprise. Although brief, I wish the Cincinnati City Council endorsements included explicit party allegiance/endorsements. It would've been handy if the paper told me whether it was backing a Republican majority on that dysfunctional body.

Enquirer reasons for not endorsing incumbents Ghiz, Winburn and Thomas were clear, sharp and appropriate. I don’t know if another “Gang of Nine” will work together better than the current Cincinnati City Council but there’s a chance if voters leave Ghiz and Winburn at the curb.

• I was delighted by CityBeat’s refusal to endorse nine Cincinnati City Council candidates. I rarely vote for nine; I can’t remember a council with nine competent members, regardless of party.

• Page 1 of that Sunday Enquirer tells us that employers can’t find enough bilingual employees . . . who are educated and/or trained to do available jobs. The headline says our region suffers from lack of “diversity.” Does that mean all of those millions spent on “diversity training” really was about race, and corporations would have done better putting that money into bilingual public education? Was it ironic that the same Page 1 was dominated by a story on Asian-immigrant families preferring Mason in large part because of its schools? I wonder if their youngsters — studying in English — will also be fluent in their parents’ or grandparents’ Asian languages? Or will they follow so many earlier immigrants who took two or three generations to realize that Americanization didn’t require them to shun the languages that their families brought with them.

• Little arouses journalists more than a hint of hypocrisy. Bill Sloat’s blog, The Daily Bellwether, sensed this in Ray Cooklis, deputy Enquirer editor and chief of its opinion page. This is how Sloat’s Nov. 3 column began: “The newspaper that has been preaching and demanding fiscal responsibility in state and local government on its editorial pages seems to have a tax deadbeat in charge of its political endorsements. Oh, the irony. This week, The Enquirer said Democratic City Councilman Cecil Thomas deserved to be voted out of office Tuesday because he didn't have a grasp of Cincinnati's financial condition. Thomas pays his bills. Courthouse records show that the editor didn't in prior years.” Ouch. He goes on at length, with links to public records on which he relied.

• Have you noticed how easily the news media embrace government gobbledygook? “Underrepresented” and less seemingly benign “surge,” “surgical strike,” and “non-lethal projectile”? What happens when a teargas cannister or “rubber bullet” hits a person in the head and kills them? Is that a lethal non-lethal projectile?

• Newspaper chains continue to look for ways to use technology to shed workers. According to the Poynter Institute’s Jim Romensko, the Cox chain is consolidating some papers’ copy editing and page design jobs at The Dayton Daily News at the expense of its flagship Atlanta Constitution staff.

• In a national pre-election doldrum, when almost nothing is happening, Herman Cain is a godsend. Every day, there is a new story and the story has become the story.

What made his alleged improprieties newsworthy is his mishandling of the initial accusations, not the substance of the women’s complaints. I don’t believe that the 20-year-old sexual harassment of an employee — or two or three — reveals a flaw that disqualifies a candidate for the GOP nomination. Both parties nominate and elect adulterers and other philanderers pursue or hope to retain elected office. Even if the reported harassment transpired, it’s not relevant.

Knowing it could blow up and not being prepared to respond, however, says that Cain is not ready for the nomination he seeks. At best, he initially dissembled. His story kept changing. This is the kind of trickling out of bad news that Clinton’s staff so feared during his two successful campaigns for the White House.

Now he’s facing a credible accusation of sexual assault from a woman willing to face the public. That’s different.

• When first blaming the news media didn’t grab the public fancy, Cain blamed a former staffer now working on rival Rick Perry’s campaign. Blaming the messenger is standard operating procedure when the message stings. Blaming a rival for spreading what appears to be a true story of misbehavior is dumb. That’s what happens in politics. It’s called “opposition research.” You dig for dirt and spread it around when it suits your side. Not pretty but omnipresent. Cain didn’t know that or ignored it. He’s not ready for the role he seeks and after this, probably will never be seriously considered by anyone who includes “smart” and “savvy” among qualities in a candidate.

• With friends like these, Cain might consider switching parties. Republican bloggers and talking heads are playing the race card, claiming that white liberals can’t stand the sight of a successful, strong black man in politics. His purported allies even are disinterring Clarence Thomas’ self-pitying claim that he was a victim of a “high-tech lynching” at Senate hearings after Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment. Blacks who were lynched in any fashion didn’t survive to take seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. The technology didn’t matter. When news media repeat such racist bullshit, we also ought to recall voter suppression efforts in minority communities by white Republicans.

• If initial news stories were fair, Cain’s supporters ignored the sexual harassment incident(s) and his inability to get his story straight. We’ll see what the polls say now. Iowa caucuses could be decisive.

• It’s telling that the source(s) who told Politico.com about the Cain sexual harassment accusations went to an investigative website. Not The New York Times or Washington Post, not the Associated Press. It’s a new era and one that is increasingly hopeful as traditional news media try to cope with falling revenues and audiences.

• My model for a quick, conclusive denial is Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s assertion that “I have always lived a chaste and celibate life” after a former Cincinnati seminarian accused him of sodomy.

That was one of the most painful stories I had to write. I liked him. He treated me and The Post’s Jim Adams with respect. Bernardin been Cincinnati archbishop but was cardinal/archbishop of Chicago when the seminarian’s lawyer filed a federal civil suit in Cincinnati. That was my beat. The “press” copy was on the court clerk’s counter for anyone to read.

We knew Bernardin was celibate (unmarried) but his denial would have crumbled had even one person credibly challenged his assertion of chastity. No one did. Unlike Herman Cain, Bernardin was well-advised and ready for the big time. Later, as he was dying of AIDS, the seminarian recanted his accusation and Bernardin went to his bedside to pray with him.

• Faux news: A newborn in China, Philippines, India or Mt. Auburn might be Human No. 7 billion. Or might not. What I didn’t read or hear was how populations are counted. Or estimated. Even U.S. Census doesn’t know how many people live in this nation. Are there really a billion people in India or China? Does anyone subtract the millions massacred in various civil and ethnic wars? Other than an opportunity to renew Malthusian fears, to put down the Green Revolution and to tut-tut that People Not Like Us are having too many babies, this isn’t a story.

 
 
 
 

 

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