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State Scandals? Not in Cincinnati

By Ben L. Kaufman · July 6th, 2005 · Media, Myself & I
With perennial fears of a "long hot summer" simmering and Cincinnati City Council and mayoral elections before us, a warning: Beware of news media whose stenographic reporting fails to challenge candidates and activists who invoke some number of black men killed by Cincinnati Police.

Since Timothy Thomas was shot by a Cincinnati officer in 2001, the mantra "15 black men killed by Cincinnati police" has been repeated until it no longer is challenged here or in the national news media.

To their credit, the Post and Enquirer explained how the 15 died. Most shot or shot at police. Most would be alive if they had obeyed police.

Since Thomas' death, more black men have died in encounters with Cincinnati Police: a suspect swallowed cocaine to hide it; a man shot at an officer; another pointed his handgun at officers; a fleeing burglar was winning the fight with an officer who tackled him; and, most famously, drugged and confrontational Nathaniel Jones died when officers subdued him using what was supposed to be non-lethal force.

These details matter. They are the stuff of accuracy for the news media and the substance of public policy debate for the rest of us.

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The FCC has approved WGUC's (90.9 FM) purchase of WVXU (91.7 FM) and the new owner has begun staffing its WVXU newsroom. Maryanne Zeleznik will be news director; she was WNKU's (89.7 FM), news and public affairs director. Reporters/announcers/producers will be Jay Hanselman from WNKU and WVXU's Ann Thompson and Mark Heyne. WGUC also hopes to hire an executive producer and a weekend host. Expect news links between WVXU and WNKU. WVXU already works with WCPO (Channel 9). WNKU works with The Post. WCPO shares stories and a suburban newsroom with The Enquirer.

Speaking of "convergence," the industry buzzword for such intimacies, The New York Times' business cover story June 26 suggests how the news might develop.

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Columbus must be on another planet, dimly perceived by Cincinnati news media. Editors seem to have trouble connecting the two dots along Interstate 71. Some examples:

Joe Deters' triumphant return after his tenure as state treasurer was marred by missteps and crimes of associates.

Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's dismissal of complaints that many blacks and students, who might have carried Ohio for Sen. John Kerry, were discouraged by long waits for too few voting machines.

Gov. Bob Taft's roles in coin investment and lobbying scandals suggest that he must be the most detached chief executive since Ike went golfing. Cincinnati's dominant news medium, The Enquirer, is almost as detached.

A recent Internet search of two weeks' papers in June found: The Cleveland Plain Dealer had 18 stories, columns and editorials on the scandals involving missing coins and Taft's recovered memory of golf outings. The Toledo Blade, whose reporters uncovered the coin scandals, had 36 stories, columns and editorials. The Dayton Daily News had 16 stories, columns and editorials. The Enquirer had five stories and editorials.

The Columbus Dispatch had 20 stories, columns and editorials in 21 days before the Internet survey.

It's too easy to attribute Enquirer passivity to partisanship or a desire to protect local lads seduced by fast talkers in the big city. Rather, blame historic Enquirer ambivalence about state government news. That affects staffing and speeded the departure of its award-winning Columbus/investigative team, Debra Jasper and Spencer Hunt.

Curmudgeon notes
· Rejoice. Howard Wilkinson is writing politics again for The Enquirer.

· Cincinnati's Red Cross pleads for donations for struggling local military families. Where is news coverage of those family struggles? Are editors fearful of "stab in the back" accusations like those that followed our defeat in VietNam?

· Columnist and Bush polemicist Robert Novak named an undercover CIA agent, quoting anonymous high administration officials. No one is threatening him with prison. However, New York Times reporter Judith Miller faces prison for protecting her sources; she made calls about the agent but wrote nothing. The Time reporter who wrote about the agent probably will escape prison because Time said it will give a grand jury his notes after the Supreme Court rejected its appeal. The New York Times said that won't affect Miller's decision. Prison also is likely for five reporters who refuse to identify sources in the Strangelovian persecution of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist.

· Michael Jackson's trial proves again that reporting beats bullshit. Reporters told you what happened in court. Highly paid commentators told you what it meant. Unlike the reporters, they got it wrong.

· Watch how liberals and conservatives use the news media to mobilize their bases in the battle to replace swing vote Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court. What will be new is the impact of 24/7 cable news and partisan bloggers on mainstream media's news judgment.

· A newspaper need not be rich and powerful to win a Pulitzer for reporting. Rather, you need a helluva story and reporters and editors who see it through. This year reporter Nigel Jaquiss, of The Willamette Week of Portland, Ore., won for his investigative reporting on a 30-year state secret: former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl. That was a rare win in a major category for a weekly.

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.


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