Marty Gitlin is a white guy. This is not a good thing if you're a sports writer in Northeast Ohio, he believes.
For years he toiled at outer-burb newspapers, most recently at the News-Herald in Willoughby. This is not a good thing either. Despite the righteousness tumbling from their pages, small dailies tend to embrace the slumlord theory of finance: Keep costs down to nothing and you can earn, no matter how decrepit your paper.
So the pay was bad and the hours were long, but that didn't bother Gitlin. He was a son of Northeast Ohio. He had a dream. And he was willing to do his time in the sweatshops to get there.
"When I was young, in my 20s, I wanted to be a sports writer at The Plain Dealer," says Gitlin, now 46. "I didn't want to be at The New York Times or Sports Illustrated. I wanted to be at The Plain Dealer."
He did his time well, winning more than 40 awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Prep Sports Writers Association. When he saw PD writers at high school games, they would encourage him to apply for openings. He did, four or five times, he says. But he never got the call. The paper was looking for something else, he claims, and it didn't have much to do with skill.
"The basic problem here, to my knowledge, is that The PD has not hired a white male sports writer -- full-time, from outside The PD -- since 1989," Gitlin says.
By his calculations, the 10 or so openings have all gone to blacks or women -- save for the hiring of columnist Bud Shaw. He estimates that "80 percent of sports writers nationwide are white males. That indicates policy to me."
So Gitlin recently filed suit, claiming discrimination and asking for damages. "I feel to a great extent that it cost me my career." He's now pursuing work as a nursing-home administrator.
There are certain connotations that come with the white guy who cries racism. He's usually down on his luck, beaten by the forces of economics and circumstance, and he's looking for someone to blame. To a certain extent, this is true of Gitlin.
He spent 17 years in the field. For all the hardware he brought the News-Herald, he was earning just over $30,000 when he left last year. "By the time I was 60, I could have been making 40," he sighs. It might have been wiser to devote his gifts to the graveyard-shift cleaning crew at Wal-Mart. The only place a sports writer can earn more is at the Akron Beacon Journal, which is bleeding jobs, and The Plain Dealer. Hence, a man with two daughters is bound to be pissed.
Yet Gitlin doesn't speak the redneck's lexicon. He comes off as bright and eminently reasonable, with none of the fire-breathing usually linked to Oppressed White Man claims. "I'm about as liberal-minded as you get," he says. "I've always been in favor of affirmative action. If you have two people of equal merit, then you can use it as a tie-breaker. You simply don't base hiring on the basis of race, creed, or color."
Herein lies the problem with his suit. Like most writers, Gitlin is not particularly modest about his skills. "I hate to say it, but dammit, I'm good enough to be at The Plain Dealer."
Being the King of the Sweatshop, however, doesn't necessarily mean you're worthy of the big leagues. In the realm of small dailies, the best writers leave for bigger papers, and the rest depart for livable wages, pushing competition to a minimum. It's hard not to win awards.
Could it be that The Plain Dealer simply thought he sucked?
"I would find that hard to believe, based on what I've accomplished -- the awards I've won," Gitlin says. But that isn't his point. "Even if I wasn't skilled enough, why would they be interviewing exclusively females or African American males?"
The paper won't say why Gitlin was rejected. Nor will it illuminate its hiring practices. "We don't -- and can't -- discuss personnel issues," says editor Doug Clifton. "I have no comment," echoes sports editor Roy Hewitt.
But there's little doubt that The PD, like all papers, has been amplifying its ranks of women and minorities in an attempt to remedy decades of honkification and testosterone overload. (Confession: Scene suffers the same affliction.) A number of women and blacks have been given major roles within the sports section, which, one might presume, is to be applauded. Except that, when dealing with race and gender, the ground is tender wherever you step.
Gitlin says he's heard PD writers complain about the new hires, namely the women. "Hiring females was a big joke among everybody. They give them more prominent beats right off the bat. I know there are some Plain Dealer high school writers who are very resentful about that."
Which leaves the paper screwed. Do nothing, and you're accused of being sexist, racist, and other unflattering "ists." Do something, and you're accused of tokenism.
There were perhaps better ways for Gitlin to handle this. His real beef, after all, is with the company that used his labor, but refused to pay him a family man's wage. The News-Herald and its sister paper, the Morning Journal in Lorain, badly need a union. Gitlin would have been the perfect man to lead the fight.
He could also have walked away. There's an argument to be made that white guys have had it so good, for so long, that it's time we take one for the team. For us to claim oppression is like a rich man whining about his money troubles. Nobody wants to hear it. Better to just take the hit.
Which all sounds good in theory, except when you're the guy who actually has to do it, and you believe your skin is keeping you from your dream. "Justice," explains Gitlin. "I just think it's so unjust."