Greasing the Kids

Why Cleveland education became the darling of contractors everywhere.

Everybody's Famous! In Dutch with English subtitles
What does a $2,000 campaign contribution buy these days? That's the question ahead for builders, engineers, architects, and bond sellers who contributed $132,320 to the Committee for Cleveland's Children in its successful school bond and levy drive. All told, The Edge counts 66 construction-related contractors who ponied up.

Now it's possible these good people are simply concerned about the well-being of Cleveland's children. But with a sweet $880 million in renovation contracts up for grabs, The Edge can't help but wonder if dreams of large checks -- not higher test scores -- dance in givers' heads.

Barry Doggett, deputy director of Cleveland Tomorrow, the corporate consortium that helped monitor the committee's cash, discards such conjecture. "It was an opportunity for them to step up and do what's right for the community, and it's something they know about -- construction. A contribution doesn't buy anything. It's a competitive bidding process, and there's no opportunity for something that's not completely aboveboard to take place."

Forgive The Edge for maintaining skepticism, but the timing of some donations emits the thick scent of opportunism. The levy campaign kicked off in April; contributions rolled in throughout the month. Then, on May 7, The Plain Dealer reported poll results indicating the issue might pass. That day, three more engineering companies cut checks. After the issue passed May 8, six more companies opened their wallets, including engineering firms in Texas and Washington. Rhode Island-based Gilbane Building Company, for example, sent a tidy 10 grand.

Now it's common knowledge that Rhode Island considers itself Cleveland East. Drive down the streets of Providence, and all you'll see is Chief Wahoo flags and children wearing the glorious Brown and Orange. Rhode Islanders care deeply about Cleveland kids. Surely Gilbane, a leading builder of municipal complexes, college halls, and, of course, school buildings, wasn't hedging its bets by waiting until after the election. Just ask company PR guy Wes Cotter, who calls Gilbane's late benevolence "just a technicality."

The company, says Cotter, does brisk business in Cleveland and really does care about our children. "One of our corporate philosophies is to support these types of efforts," he says. "Kids are the future."

With declining ad revenue and subsequent layoffs, life hasn't been a garden party for newspapers lately [cue the sappy violins]. But perhaps no paper has been hit harder than the Akron Beacon Journal.

When we last left our heroes ["Slouching Toward Mediocrity," March 8], the paper had dumped its Sunday magazine and News & Views section, laid off reporters, cut back on resources, barred some sports reporters from covering away games, and eliminated suburban bureaus.

Since then, things have grown worse. If at least 14 newsroom staffers don't accept parent company Knight Ridder's buyout offer by July 23, more layoffs are to come. And now the Beacon can add ridicule to its pile of troubles.

Last month, the paper printed a story about child slavery in the Ivory Coast. The story included a photo of a 15-year-old who escaped his owner, but didn't have the 15 bucks for bus fare home. A reader called to ask if the reporters slipped the kid some money. (They did.)

Only in the newspaper business would helping a kid prompt an ethical debate. But a week later, the Beacon ran a story about the moral quandary of forking over 15 bucks. Most Beacon staffers quoted said, yeah, give the kid some money. Yet Assistant Managing Editor Mark Braykovich was adamantly opposed. The act would amount to "messing with reality," he argued, and therefore alter the true story. "It may seem coldhearted, but if we accept these types of assignments, we must also accept and maintain a certain distance from our subjects."

Jim Romenesko's MediaNews is a website where journalism geeks debate all matters great and small (with particular emphasis on the latter). It's also a place where savaging one another is considered good sport. When word of Braykovich's comments reached the site, he ascended to Target of the Day.

Though some wrote in to defend the editor, most ripped him as inhumane. Transient sportscaster Keith Olbermann provided the sharpest bite: "I volunteer to give Mr. Braykovich fifteen dollars to get into another profession, and, for that matter, into another species."

The genial Braykovich was surprised, but not altogether upset, by the verbal ass-whupping. "I took a hammering, didn't I?" he laughs. "I guess I was a little shocked at the personal nature of the attacks. I guess I felt that some people didn't get the point of what I was saying."

Braykovich believes reporters can "do the humanistic thing," they just can't write about those subjects as well. As for his newfound foes in the trade, he merrily returns fire, particularly at Olbermann. "That doofus can't even hold a job. I could care less what he thinks."

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