I’ll begin this essay as any good reporter would, with a story I shouldn’t tell. In fact, it’s a story that I’ve never told.
I arrived at The Plain Dealer under a cloud on Aug. 6, 1990, believing that my career in journalism was over. A few days earlier, I had been forced to resign from the Dayton Daily News amid allegations that I may have broken the law in pursuing stories about Dr. James C. Burt, a Dayton physician who called himself the “Love Doctor.”
Burt was performing what he called “love surgery” on dozens of women supposedly to improve their sex lives. In it, he would surgically rearrange their vaginas. I don’t want to get too graphic here, but the problem was that Burt wasn’t a surgeon and “love surgery” didn’t work. His waiting room was crowded with the proof – dozens of women who could no longer have sex, their lives shattered. (One of my close sources had undergone 18 unsuccessful reconstructive surgeries trying to reverse the damage.)
I’m going to be careful here so as not to make you an accomplice to any crimes I may or may not have committed in my pursuit of the Dr. Burt story.
But let’s just say that someone was picking up his trash, going through it one coffee-stained paper at a time, looking for scribbled notes, telephone messages, leads for the stories that would eventually play a role in the state revoking Burt’s medical license.
The county sheriff and prosecutor got involved.
So when The PD’s Maxine Lynch called I almost didn’t accept the job. What was the point? But I had a wife, a baby daughter, and absolutely no money. “Yes,” I heard myself saying. “I can start next Monday.”
The Plain Dealer hired me to help cover environmental issues with Tom Breckenridge, “Breck” as we all knew him, an ace reporter with a steady hand in journalism and in life.
I remember walking into the newsroom at 1801 Superior Avenue for the first time on that August day. It was on the second floor, or, I should say it pretty much was the second floor, a huge open space with the editors’ desks arranged in a horseshoe in the middle. A waist-high wall formed the perimeter of the horseshoe and it made it look almost like an ice-skating rink. More than one hundred reporters sat outside, divided into groups according to what they covered, their desks facing the editors to whom they reported.
The newsroom was dingy and like a bar had no windows, so you completely lost track of time.
And it was hot, very hot, because there really was no air conditioning, at least it seemed that way. (I remember Editor Thom Greer bringing in trash cans filled with iced soda one day when it reached 90 degrees and we all complained.) Papers were piled high on every desk. Reporters sat two-to-a-computer. Phones rang. Assistant Metro Editor Jim Darr yelled, “Where the hell’s that story.”
My first week is a blur – I remember Gary Clark, the managing editor, a reporters’ editor who fought for good journalism, coming out and welcoming me to the newsroom. I was nervous. I was on probation. I hadn’t lied to The PD about anything; I wasn’t really asked about Dayton. How long is this going to last?
As he walked away, Betsy Sullivan, who I knew by the excellent reputation of her reporting but had just met, leaned over and whispered, “He’s one of the good guys.” This made me feel good, for a moment. I was glad to be working for the good guys, and I felt that Betsy had shared this with me because I was one of the good guys, too.
Sometime later, perhaps even the next day, Bill Barnard, assistant to Publisher Alex Machaskee, came down from the executive suite, holding a piece of paper, an AP story about me. He was standing off to the side in the newsroom talking to Clark and John Griffith, the city editor. The story said that I now worked for The Plain Dealer.
I didn’t hear what was said, and it was one of the few topics that really wasn’t discussed, even at the Headliner (the nearby bar frequented by PD people). But Barnard left. (Years later, I learned from someone on the newspaper’s business side that I was one of only two reporters ever hired without a background check, though I filled out the paperwork for one during my tryout. Given the colorful cast of characters that walked through those doors, I took this as a badge of honor.)
Barnard came down a few more times, and each time he left, and I waited to be summoned. Finally, I decided to come clean with Griffith, a no-nonsense editor who had a reputation for being equally trusted by both mobsters and law enforcement. Griff didn’t have an office, just a desk in the horseshoe. So we stood in there in the midst of the chaos and talked, for less than a minute. “We know that you were picking up trash,” he said bluntly. “That’s why you’re here.”
This was my introduction to America’s 16th largest daily newspaper, a reporters’ paper. People argued, fought over stories. They disagreed, even threw things. But it was all a part of chasing the news. If you had the ability and the will, you could get a story and get it published. Sometimes, seemingly, against the wishes of the people at the top.
I resolved that my first story for The Plain Dealer would be a good one, so I stayed late every night that week working on it. Early in the evening, I’d run out to pick up Chinese food. The sun would be going down and the PD delivery trucks would be lining up. More than a hundred of them, it seemed. The smoke from their diesel engines was so thick you could taste it. Later, about 10 o’clock, the desks in the newsroom would begin to shake and you could hear the rumble from the mighty presses in the basement as they began rolling.
On Saturday evening, I stopped in late to look over my story – a front-page, above-the-fold Sunday piece about PCBs being found in a sprawling abandoned auto plant in an East Side neighborhood. Residents in the area hadn’t been told about the contamination, which was making its way to the water. Now they knew.
An editor looked over my tweaks, probably scoffed, then waved me over. “Come with me.” We hurried down the stairs to the basement and wound our way through The Plain Dealer’s massive, block-long maze of printing presses – dangerous territory for outsiders, who could easily get lost forever. The editor knew the way.
We walked fast for a few minutes, past the grimy men in worn overalls, past the huge steel structure with its never-ending roll of paper that was wound around printing plates and would move a hundred miles an hour when the presses were rolling. (At this moment they were stopped.)
We stopped at the end of the line, the place where the papers roll out. “This is Dave Davis,” the editor said. “His first story is in tomorrow’s paper.”
The pressman, who, splattered with ink, looked like a coal miner, pulled a paper off the press without emotion. He handed it to me. “Welcome to The Plain Dealer.”
This is how ink gets in your blood.
I attended high school in genteel Cincinnati, a nice enough place but too conservative for my liking in its Procter & Gamble sort of way.
I began my journalism career phoning in sports stats to the local newspaper for high school basketball, wrestling and track events. I didn’t ever get a byline, but occasionally The Enquirer would use a quote I got, and that was a big deal. My mother was supportive of my desire to be a writer, as long as I took typing in high school. It was what she thought of as a fall-back career.
I longed to escape Cincinnati. Early on, Cleveland captured my imagination.
I was drawn to the city’s grit and grime and the fiery steel mills with flames leaping skyward, to the labor unions and the politics and the place that had so many immigrants with names that I couldn’t pronounce. Cleveland was so very different from my WASPy, white-collar life in Cincinnati.
It was a far-off place, with alluring images and, yes, names. I was drawn by “The Plain Dealer.” Winston Churchill, on a visit to Cleveland, said, “Oh, there’s the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I think that by all odds, the Plain Dealer has the best newspaper name of any in the world.” That’s quite a compliment in a state with newspaper names like The Vindicator and The Blade. And let’s not forget the Eagle-Eyed News Catcher, which was one of six papers in Cleveland in the 1840s. “The pity of it all, of course, is that the Eagle-Eyed News Catcher was not able to survive,” George E. Condon wrote in “Adventures in journalism.” “It had a name that deserved to live.”
I worked at The Plain Dealer for 24 years, for five different editors and three different managing editors. When I look back at those years, as I am in this essay, they have merged and condensed into a highlight reel. As Dick Feagler says in “Stop the presses,” they are not the truth of the place, at least the entire truth. They are my truth, my memories.
~High School sports reporter Dick Zunt giving me the best piece of reporting advice I’ve ever received, “Work a lot of names into your stories.”
~Griff’s wisdom, “Never give your word lightly, and when you do always keep it” and “Act as if the whole world is watching.”
~Exposing the worst radiation accident ever in medicine – when 28 patients died from radiation exposure in the mid-70s at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. The tragedy was part of a five-day series with Ted Wendling. It had never been disclosed, leaving families angry and uncertain. “I didn’t realize until I read the articles how hard it was” on them, said Ivan Selin, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Selin then set out to overhaul the regulation of nuclear materials in hospitals.
~Publishing the average waiting times and mortality rates for every transplant center in the nation, information that had never been made public but that we got because of PD reporter Joan Mazzolini’s dogged efforts. With our partner Ted Wendling, we found patients who were told they would die within six months at transplant centers where the wait was measured in years. We followed a patient though a heart transplant and looked at smaller hospitals that were turning away donor organs for nonmedical reasons.
~Receiving a standing ovation at The National Press Club when we received the Heywood Broun Award for our stories about inequities in the nation’s transplant system and patients who were waiting for transplants that would never come – patients like Teddy DeWalt, a Kansas City firefighter who died after enduring months of poking and prodding with the hope of getting a new heart, a second chance at life. His wife Loetta never left his side. No one bothered to tell the DeWalts that a political struggle within the University of Kansas Medical Center had already shut down the heart transplant program, that the surgeons were turning away all of the donor hearts matched to the hospital’s 38 waiting patients. In the acceptance speech, Joan talked about the important role of journalism, words that I often recall today:
We are especially honored to receive the Broun Award because we believe it stands for the very ideals that brought us into journalism, the ideals that keep us going: That news organizations should give voice to those who cannot be heard, those who have fallen through the cracks; and that our work, in some small way, should promote the dignity of ordinary people who find themselves struggling in difficult times.
~Along with reporter Mike O’Malley, going after sleazy landlords and rip-off security companies that preyed upon the poor, and, with consumer reporter Sheryl Harris, documenting shoddy home repairs by contractors who had received $21.5 million in tax dollars in a Cleveland program meant to help residents improve their homes.
~The “sleeve,” our not-so-secret signal to meet at the bar next door.
~Going after the Federal Aviation Administration with reporter Mike Sangiacomo over misleading the public about a faulty radar system that had cost billions of dollars and sometimes did not work.
~Working with editor Stuart Warner on “From flowers to fear,” an investigative narrative piece about a local doctor who was being stalked by her former fiancé, Rick Simon, whom she had met through a dating service.
~Rushing back to the newsroom on Sept. 11, 2001, the day planes hit the twin towers, the Pentagon and crashed in Pennsylvania, trying to contribute to our coverage, worrying about my family and what lay ahead.
The truth is that even on the worst days – and there were a few – it was an honor to be a journalist at The Plain Dealer. It was a sacred public trust. I was honored every day I walked through the doors at 1801. On many days our stories helped people in small ways, and on big days, they changed lives.
Like everyone in this book, I have thought much about the future of the profession I love. I don’t have an answer for the problems we are facing, and I haven’t heard one that I think will work. Sure, there’s a lot of good reporting being done now, but not in the volume that we need. And who’s going to stay in a profession that can’t sustain them. Things seem to be in a continuing state of decline. It’s not that I want things to return to the good old days. That wouldn’t be progress. And I know that it’s important to make money.
Seventy-nine years ago, in 1939, Heywood Broun founded the Newspaper Guild in Cleveland. I was an active member of Local 1. Broun believed, I think, that if reporters received job security and decent pay, the profession would improve and society would benefit. I believe we are back at this point today.
Our country needs good journalism now more than ever. As I write this, there is growing concern about local journalism. Cleveland.com has just downsized again, and there is a question about whether The Plain Dealer will be dismantled next year when the contract with the Newspaper Guild expires. It’s mind boggling to think of Cleveland as a no-newspaper town, but we seem to be headed that way.
I worked on many big stories for The Plain Dealer over the years, but it’s a smaller one that I carry with me and most often recount.
I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom on Oct. 15, 2012, drinking my second afternoon cup of coffee, when the phone rang.
On the other end was a woman, Joan Grace, whose voice was polite, perhaps too polite, and measured. She was a member of the Gethsemane Baptist Church and the Wings Over Jordan Choir. She was in charge of promoting the group’s 75th anniversary concert. It was just five days away, and things weren’t going well. She was worried that no one was going to come. And they were holding the concert at a larger church, Holy Trinity Baptist Church, because everyone thought they would draw a large crowd.
“That’s not what I do,” I remember saying.
“I was given your name. They said you might be able to help. We’ve got a rehearsal tomorrow.”
I paused and carefully thought about it. “What time?”
I arrived at the Gethsemane Baptist Church on E. 79th street the next day to beautiful, melodic chaos. It seemed like all 100 members of the a cappella choir were there, dressed in their Sunday best, laughing, singing. I was the center of attention.
I’ve been buked and I’ve been scorned
I’ve been buked and I’ve been scorned
Children, I’ve been buked and I’ve been scorned
Tryin’ to make this journey all alone
You may talk about me sure as you please
Talk about me sure as you please
As PD photographer Lisa DeJong took pictures, I talked to people. Teretha Settle, whose grandfather started Wings Over Jordan, told me about how the choir traveled the country during the Jim Crow era, drawing tens of thousands of people, black and white, at each stop. The Rev. Glenn T. Settle refused to sing to segregated audiences, so everyone listened together.
Children, talk about me sure as you please
Your talk will never drive me down to my knees
Jesus died to set me free
Jesus died to set me free
Children, Jesus died to set me free
Nailed to that cross on Calvary
Others told me about how, for nearly a decade, America listened to the Wings Over Jordan choir, the first black singing group on national radio. Their distinct voices emerged in the days before television, when families often sat around on the front porch listening to the radio together on Sundays. The choir was an early voice in the civil rights movement.
Back in the newsroom, I put together my story – words, a photo gallery, audio and hyperlinks would be published online and a written story with Lisa’s pictures would go in the print edition. It had been picked for the Metro section cover.
Saturday evening, I found myself in my car driving down to Holy Trinity. There were cars everywhere and no available spots to park. So I pulled up in front of the church and stopped for a moment, watching what seemed like hundreds of people filing in.
My career at The Plain Dealer was coming to an end. I thought about the power that reporters hold, the power of storytelling, the power to fill churches. And I thought about Joan Grace, who when I prepared to leave the choir rehearsal gave me a big hug, whispering into my ear. “Thanks. It means so much when The Plain Dealer shows up.”
Yes, it does.