Introduction

Dave Davis

I wanted to title this book “Misfits.” But co-editor Joan Mazzolini wouldn’t allow it. “Let’s think of something else,” she counseled. Though I use the term with affection and admiration, truth be told there are only 16 misfits in this book. Maybe 17. As for the other contributors, the label would be inaccurate, perhaps even offensive, at least as it’s commonly used.

But although my original title may have been a bit much, I think it captures two important points that I want to make in this introduction. The first is that I believe that good journalism usually is not the product of consensus, of committee, but rather comes from individuals. Reporter driven, as our contributors say. Television commentator David Brinkley bluntly acknowledged the power of the individual in news gathering when he stated, “News is what I say it is.”

Additionally, I believe that good journalists are honest and fair but willing to take risks and pursue the truth no matter where it takes them or who it offends. They aren’t part of the status quo. They question it. They don’t always comfortably fit into the world around them, and often that’s by choice. They are outsiders, to a degree. It’s an important characteristic, I think. That and a sense of humor.

Plain Dealer columnist George E. Condon, in his piece “Adventures in journalism,” put it this way:

Newspapers traditionally have served as havens for men and women who were not completely understood by the outside world; they have provided sanctuary to those who were harassed and pursued by the keepers of the conventions, carefully keeping alive in the editorial rooms the last spark of individuality in a society that grows more regimented by the hour. Sometimes, … the behavior of newsmen may seem anti-social, or irrational to the outside world. It is not. It is simply a manifestation of the creative spirit at work in material surroundings.

 

Condon penned those words in 1967, and I believe they are true today.

So I let the question of a title roll around in my head for a few weeks. I needed to find something that fit everyone, and that wouldn’t require a long explanation such as the one I just gave. I cracked open a few reference books, talked to Joan and others and even got on the computer and Googled it. Outcasts. Award winners. Truthtellers. Nah. Storytellers. Hellraisers. Straight talkers, hummm, straight talkers. How ‘bout plain dealers.

We settled on “Plain Dealing.”

It’s not as sexy or provocative as “Misfits,” but works well on a couple of different levels. We’re using the title “Plain Dealing” in the original, old-timey sense of the term. A “plain dealer” is a straight shooter, someone who tells it like it is – arguably the most important quality in a journalist. All of our contributors are “plain dealers.”

And yes, everyone in this book – except Louie Seltzer, the legendary and sometimes controversial editor of The Cleveland Press – worked at The Plain Dealer, the newspaper that was my home for 24 years. So, there is that connection as well. For some, their time at the PD was just a matter of months, while for others it was most or all of their career.

What we’re offering you is simply a book of stories, many never told before. These stories begin in the 1950s and go up to 2013, covering the post-World War II era through the days when Cleveland was a three daily newspaper city, then two, then one. The book ends with the mass layoffs and resulting decline that ushered in the digital-first age.

Our stories are first-person accounts of life in the newsroom, the issues and events we covered, the characters we worked with and met and ultimately, I believe, journalism in Cleveland. Yes, the spotlight is on The Plain Dealer, but there is substantial ink devoted to The Cleveland News, The Press, The Akron Beacon Journal, and Point of View, the muckraking newsletter published by Roldo Bartimole. (Yes, even Roldo worked at The PD).

So that’s what we have here, for better or worse.

Today – July 31, 2018 – marks the 200th anniversary of the first edition of Cleveland’s first newspaper, the Cleaveland Gazette & Commercial Register. This book is being published by Cleveland State University to celebrate those first plain dealers, who established our profession in what was then a 22-year-old township. Even though Cleveland had fewer than 600 people then, they felt the need for a newspaper. Obviously, someone had something to say.

Since that time, journalism has changed a lot in many ways and not at all in others. Obviously, the means of delivering the news and the tools journalists used to do that have evolved and in this digital age are the topic of much hand-wringing and discussion. But I would argue that the basic principles – accuracy, fairness, thoroughness – are as important today as they were when the first edition of the Gazette & Commercial Register appeared on that hot summer day in 1818. In the end, we are storytellers, the public’s eyes and ears. We tell people what they need to know, entertain them, chronicle their hopes and dreams and stick up for them.

The Cleveland area has a rich and long journalistic history, from the radio and television stations, to the feisty Akron Beacon Journal, the Knight Newspaper Company’s flagship newspaper, to The Plain Dealer, The Cleveland Press, The News, The Call & Post, the Catholic Universe Bulletin, and some very fine community newspapers. Writing a meaningful account of them would take volumes.

Each of these news organizations, at times, has been outstanding. And each has fallen down on the job. And even in the worst times, good journalists have continued to do good work. It’s in our blood.

In working on this book, I’ve concluded that it’s too simplistic to dismiss any of these publications based on our bad experiences, though it’s important to learn from those experiences and do better. As my friend and contributor Michael O’Malley points out, The Plain Dealer missed what were arguably the two biggest stories of the 19th century – the surrender of Robert E. Lee (April 9, 1865), effectively ending the American Civil War, and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (April 15, 1865).

That happened when publication was suspended for nearly two months in 1865 during a family dispute over the direction of the newspaper after the death of its publisher, William Gray, three years earlier.

And then there was the time that The Plain Dealer stumbled in covering its own story – the 78-day, 3,200-mile voyage by PD copy editor Robert Manry, who sailed from Falmouth, Massachusetts, into the hearts of an adoring public and a gaggle of reporters and photographers when he entered the harbor in Falmouth, England, on Aug. 17, 1965. Manry made the trip in a 13 1/2-foot sail boat named Tinkerbelle. The PD finally showed up to cover it, but it was late to recognize the story.

And the newspaper’s biggest and most shameful journalistic lapse involved coverage of former Teamster boss Jackie Presser. On Sunday, Oct. 10, 1982, a front-page story on federal officials closing an investigation into allegations of criminal wrongdoing by the Teamster boss appeared in The Plain Dealer. (The story did not carry a byline and it was later learned that it had been written by Executive Editor David Hopcraft). The investigation was based on reporting a year earlier by Walt Bogdanich that revealed that Presser had taken kickbacks and was an FBI informant.

What the story didn’t say was that federal officials had determined that the statute of limitations had run out on any possible wrongdoing, and so they closed the investigation. Still, the story was widely viewed as a retraction of the earlier reporting. Presser hailed it as “vindication,” and it cleared the way for him to become president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose rank-and-file members would not have liked the idea that he was a snitch.

Later, Bogdanich’s reporting was found to have been completely accurate, Presser was acknowledged to have been a longtime federal informant, and his crime associates testified in 1988 before Congress that the Plain Dealer story had been arranged by the mob. Plain Dealer reporters, through the Newspaper Guild, immediately spoke out against their employer’s action, setting up an informational picket in front of their own newsroom the day the story appeared, publicly shaming the newspaper for not standing up for the good reporting. Once again, the power of the individual at work. (See the Resources section in the Back Matter of this book to watch coverage of the controversy by Don Webster at WEWS-TV5).

But there was a lot of outstanding reporting on Presser, too, and all of the problems over the years combined don’t amount to much when compared with the solid reporting that appeared in the newspaper day in and out. There have been hundreds of thousands of stories published since the PD’s first edition 176 years ago.

And then there are my highlights:

  • The Plain Dealer’s 1861 coverage – and its editorial support of – Sara Lucy Bagby, the last person prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act. Johnson was an 18-year-old slave who escaped to Cleveland, only to be captured and sent back to Virginia just days before the Civil War began. The newspaper covered events as they unfolded, which rallied support for her among residents. On the day she was forced to return to captivity, N.A. Gray, brother of The Plain Dealer’s founder, traveled with her on the train in a show of support.

  • The remarkable deadline coverage of the Collinwood school fire in 1908, a tragedy that claimed the lives of 172 students and teachers and led to fire safety reform.

  • The 1969 publication, the first by any news organization, of the pictures by former Army combat photographer Ronald Haeberle documenting the My Lai massacre and helping to change the course of the Vietnam War.

  • The 1971 exposé on the abuse of patients at the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane by William Wynne, Ned Whelan, and Richard Widman. Stories and photographs documenting horrifying abuses ran for days on the front page of the Plain Dealer and eventually resulted in nearly 30 hospital employees going to prison.

  • The ground-breaking precision journalism project in 1978 by Leslie Kay and Tom Andrzejewski, who exposed unfairness in the Cuyahoga County court system by analyzing every single county court case from the early to mid-70s.

  • A five-day series by Mary Anne Sharkey, Stephanie Saul and W. Steve Ricks in 1984 that played a major role in bringing down Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Celebrezze, who had turned the high court into his own fiefdom, awash in partisanship, patronage and political manipulation.

  • A 2002 series of stories by Connie Schultz on Michael Green, a black man who spent 13 years in prison after wrongly being convicted of rape. The stories were so moving that the man who actually committed the crime turned himself in after reading them.

  • Joan Mazzolini’s work exposing life-threatening shortcomings in the VA health system and the care given to military veterans, and Rachel Dissell’s more recent relentless coverage on untested rape kits, reporting that has led to hundreds of indictments in previously unsolved rape cases, closure for many victims and their families, and a change in the way that law enforcement agencies handle rape kit testing.

And there are literally hundreds more.

Many thanks to our contributors, who opened themselves up and wrote about their lives and careers with honesty and detail. Not everyone here agrees on everything, as you will see. But that’s as it should be. As news people, we don’t often write about ourselves and some of our contributors have never done it. I think it’s fair to say that it made them uncomfortable and, at times, it was painful process. The other thing you should know is that for everyone involved in this project this was simply a labor of love, which is a nice way of saying that no one got paid. Our authors and the others involved gave generously of their time because they believed in the project, and they had a story to tell.

We are hoping that the book will be of value to other journalists, students, educators and people who love Cleveland history and journalism. To that end, we are making it available for free as an e-book on CSU’s website (See http://bit.ly/PlainDealing2018). It also can be downloaded for free as a PDF or in other formats that will allow you to read it on a smart phone or tablet. You can pay to get actual printed copies of the book at cost through CSU’s print-on-demand service.

Please use it, share it, enjoy it. All we ask is that you do so for noncommercial purposes, meaning that you don’t try to make money off of our work, and that you give us proper credit.

Thanks to Bill Barrow at Cleveland State University, the force behind the Cleveland Memory Project. Bill is head of Special Collections at CSU’s Michael Schwartz Library. He is a close friend to many Cleveland journalists, most notably the late George E. Condon, and he has worked tirelessly to preserve their work. This book would not have been published if it weren’t for Bill’s determination. He’s a journalist at heart.

Thanks, too, to Joan Mazzolini, my co-editor. Her will is strong.

Molly Callahan and Doug Kramer lifted this project up.

I also would like to recognize the contributions by: the talented and hard-working team at CSU, including Barbara Loomis, Justin Grogan-Myers and Donna Stewart; Ryan Donchess, a broadcast engineer at Youngstown State University, where I teach; historian John Vacha, who shared his ideas and research; Brian Meggitt and Adam Jaenke, caretakers of Cleveland Public Library’s photography collection; Lisa Lewis at the Northeast Ohio Broadcasting Archive at John Carroll University; Cleveland Magazine Editor Steve Gleydura and Lute Harmon Jr., its president and publisher; Jim Strang, Tom Suddes, Wendy Carr McManamon, David Gray, Dave Tabar and Marcia Wynne Deering.

As I’m writing this introduction, I’ve just learned of the death of Dick Feagler, perhaps the single most important person in this era of Cleveland journalism. We are honored to republish his 1982 column for Cleveland Magazine on the closing of The Press, a piece he likened to an obit, where journalists often overlook the bad in favor of the good. (An editor once sent an obit I wrote back to me saying nicely, very nicely, “We try not to kick people in the ass on the way out”). I didn’t know Dick personally, but Joan was a friend whom he frequently invited to appear on his television show, “Feagler & Friends.” She saw him recently and, as always, he was full of stories. They caught up and, after a couple of hours, he told her that the Indians game was about to start; she would have to watch it with him or leave.

On her way out, she told Dick, “I’ll come back and see you soon.” With a glint in his eye and a mischievous grin, he responded, “Don’t threaten me.”

In thinking about this book, I find his words in “Stop the presses (for the very last time)” prophetic:

I notice, too, to my dismay, that the truth of the Cleveland Press — all of it — is not captured in this obit. What is captured here, in part — in small part — is my truth. All of us have our own truth and those of us who are left will carry our own versions of the feel and history of the newspaper with us to our own graves. Each one of us will call his version the truth, but none of us will have it all because you don’t get it all. In journalism or in life.

 

Equally important are two other stories we are republishing by Cleveland journalism giants who are gone – The Plain Dealer’s television critic and columnist George E. Condon and Louis B. Seltzer, the editor of The Press.

Lastly, the strength of this book is in its essays, the work of our contributors. Any flaws or limitations you see are my own.

There are a million reasons why this book might not have happened, and only 25 why it did. I offer you those 25 reasons, my colleagues.

 

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