Margaret Buchanan, president and publisher of The Cincinnati Enquirer, resigned from the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees Sept. 28, citing potential conflicts of interest in her staff’s reporting on the UC Board.
It’s a good day for journalism when a newspaper’s president places the newspaper’s needs above her personal ambitions. With former UC President Greg Williams’ sudden resignation, the potential conflict of interest had recently become a topic of interest in industry circles as The Enquirer covered a major story in which its leader was directly involved. Jim Romenesko, a popular journalism blogger, pointed out The Enquirer’s apparent inability to ask Buchanan questions. CityBeat also covered the potential conflict of interest in blogs and news briefs.
To a lot of people, CityBeat’s coverage of The Enquirer might seem like the bitter little paper bitching about the big daily newspaper rival. That’s genuinely not the case. We recognize The Enquirer’s important role in local media and politics, and that’s why we’re so hard on the big newspaper in town. And that’s why we’re about to be hard on them again.
It’s great Buchanan stepped down from the UC Board of Trustees. There was a potential conflict of interest there for a long time, but, like Buchanan acknowledged by pointing out in a press release her other connections in town, that’s not the only potential conflict of interest involving The Enquirer’s president. Buchanan is also involved with other organizations the newspaper regularly covers, including serving on the boards of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), Cincinnati Business Committee, UC Health, Marvin Lewis Foundation and Neediest Kids of All.
The connection with 3CDC isn’t a connection to an uncontroversial, irrelevant nonprofit group.
3CDC is a nonprofit company deeply involved in the current development of downtown Cincinnati, specifically Over-the-Rhine. The company has done some great work. It’s hard to walk around Over-the-Rhine without feeling safer nowadays, and new restaurants and shops are popping up every day as more and more people trickle into new apartments. The development has been a source of pride for almost every city official CityBeat has spoken to in recent weeks.
But the development is not without controversy, and it is definitely worthy of journalistic scrutiny. The recent complaints from homeless advocates about Washington Park are one example. The complaints have mostly involved a rule that allowed park officials — with the help of 3CDC — to enforce controversial rules as law by simply placing a sign on the park.
Jerry Davis, a member of the Homeless Congress that sued the city over the special signs, cited 3CDC’s involvement as a problem in a statement: “3CDC is a private corporation that does not answer to the citizens of Cincinnati. This private group should not get to decide what rules are created and enforced. 3CDC is saying to the citizens of Cincinnati, ‘You pay the bills and we make the decisions.’ ”
Washington Park’s rules are only one part of the issue. The development of Over-the-Rhine has come up as an issue for the poor and homeless again and again. Generally, they feel like they’re being pushed out and left behind as rich people pour into renovated buildings. Yet The Enquirer has previously covered the gentrification process of Over-the-Rhine without mentioning the concerns of the poor and homeless or Buchanan’s involvement with 3CDC. Whether The Enquirer covered it because of Buchanan’s involvement doesn’t even matter — the fact that it could be the case hurts the major daily newspaper’s credibility in Cincinnati. Failing to formally acknowledge the connection makes it even worse.
The newspaper’s editorial team hasn’t exactly been helping matters. Time and time again, The Enquirer has reported on issues pertaining to 3CDC and UC without a disclaimer mentioning Buchanan’s involvement on either board. A CityBeat analysis in April found Buchanan was mentioned in only 15 out of 481 potential articles about 3CDC. (Due to how The Enquirer’s database is organized, some of those news articles could be duplicates.) In a Sept. 30 article by the editorial board, which called for the end of the streetcar, The Enquirer praised 3CDC’s work but never mentioned Buchanan’s involvement.
There’s no evidence the coverage was planned by Buchanan or to protect her interests, but the potential conflict of interest raises questions about how major newspapers around the country, with their big corporate connections, should handle conflicts of interest. One thing is for sure: The Enquirer’s approach isn’t helping credibility.
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