Plain Dealer / Cleveland.com high priest Chris Quinn donned his vestments Sunday and took to his pulpit to denounce the rules
for credentialed media at a Friday rally in Youngstown featuring Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Quinn was so aghast, so livid with shock, at the restrictive rules imposed by the rally organizers, the pro-Trump GOP youth group Turning Point Action, that he sent no reporters to cover the event in protest. His column has now been approvingly shared on social media thousands of times
, by supporters and national journalism personalities who cheer on what they regard as a heroic stance against the forces of Fascism.
These weekly Letter from the Editor columns, by the way, are not typically trenchant fare. Quinn uses them to expound upon his thoughts or behind-the-scenes newsroom discussions that precipitate editorial decisions. Those who listen to the publication's daily podcast, Today in Ohio, will recognize them as distillations of ideas rehearsed and bandied about in greater depth there.
Every once in awhile, though, Quinn waxes grandiose.
"Think about what they were doing here," he preached Sunday. "They were staging an event to rally people to vote for Vance while instituting the kinds of policies you’d see in a fascist regime."
"This was a rally for J.D. Vance, who wants to be your senator, who wants to take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States. You know. The document that says Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of the press. And here he was, staging an event in which he thought he could tell the press who they could interview.
"No. Not happening. Not now. Not ever. And voters might want to remember this anti-American strategy when it comes time to vote this November and on presidential ballots in 2024."
Let the record reflect that the rules were indeed ridiculous, not to mention largely unenforceable, as noted by many of the reporters who attended the event and promptly ignored them. Turning Point Action decreed that members of the press could only interview people authorized by event organizers. If journalists recorded video, organizers reserved the right to inquire into what manner the footage would be used and to use the footage themselves, presumably for promotional purposes. Journalists were additionally forbidden from entering the hotel rooms of rally attendees.
The Washington Post reported on the restrictions
. According to Turning Point Action, the rules were designed to "protect the organization from being taken advantage of" by non-traditional outlets hoping to monetize raw footage, and to protect the privacy of the event speakers. Moreover, a TPA spokesman said, the rules would be waived for "legitimate outlets covering the events in good faith," (like the Washington Post.)
Quinn, in his column, said these justifications "rang hollow."
"If you are speaking publicly, people are going to use what you say to help you or fight you," he wrote. "That’s how politics work. And we don’t accept discretionary waivers to unacceptable rules."
Big tough guy words from a big tough guy editor, no doubt, but observers in Cleveland (even those who agree with the anti-fascist rhetoric) might have a hard time taking Quinn seriously. They might believe that the whole column rings just as hollow as TPA's justifications. In 2018, after all, a nearly identical situation arose in Cleveland, and Quinn occupied the opposite position.
The situation concerned then-Mayor Frank Jackson's annual state of the city address. Very much like at the Vance rally, the city's media relations department issued a series of private directives for press conduct at the event. These were framed as "Rules of Engagement." The big controversial one was that reporters would be prohibited from speaking with people in line for the event and from talking to attendees after Jackson's remarks.
Local reporters were naturally incensed at the time, and the Press Club of Cleveland issued a statement on behalf of the local corps criticizing the rules.
But Quinn didn't consider it a big deal. In remarks on WCPN's Reporters Roundtable
— this was before the arrival of Today in Ohio — he downplayed the severity of the rules and chastised reporters for not following up with the city to determine if they were "for real." He said he'd directed former city hall reporter Bob Higgs to call the city and seek clarity, and that the city had immediately admitted they'd written the rules "too strong" and would not be strictly enforcing them.
"They should've made the phone call," Quinn said, of the journalists outraged by the rules, "because what they did was pretty shoddy journalism in the name of good journalism. It's not a small point today. The media is under siege, from the president and elsewhere. We need to do our job to be accurate. And in this case, the word was spread that this horrible police state was being formed, and a simple phone call would have proven that's not the case. We kind of owe it to Cleveland to get that right. All you needed to do was make a three-minute phone call... Of course it would've removed the chance for people to portray themselves as the heroes of journalism."
It's needless to belabor the direct comparisons with the Vance rally. It'll suffice to note that the media restrictions in both cases were bad, but that Quinn has portrayed himself as a hero of journalism in this case far more than local reporters ever did in 2018. Likewise his portrayal of a "horrible police state."
Out of curiosity, did Quinn make a three-minute phone call to Turning Point Action? Was he not willing to extend to organizers the same benefit of the doubt he extended to the city of Cleveland? Was he not persuaded by the specter of "non-traditional" outlets or the notion of decorum — respecting underage attendees, and the speakers' right to privacy backstage and in their hotel rooms — as he certainly would have been in local contexts?
Or did he understand intuitively, as local reporters did in 2018, that the restrictions were an infringement on press freedom?
Assuming both instances represented unacceptable infringements, the question for journalists, (and indeed, for editors overseeing a publication's coverage), is how to respond to them. These can be debated. But Quinn, who is deeply troubled by political polarization in the United States, has changed his posture somewhat dramatically in recent years.
If the rules had been "for real" in 2018, for example, Quinn claimed he would have sent "all our reporters down [to the State of the City] to get arrested." He would have aggressively covered the event and exposed the city's restrictions as intimidation tactics, not as serious rules, in other words. The same option was available to him at the Vance rally. One important way to demonstrate that you won't abide by unacceptable rules is to break them.
Instead, Quinn declined to cover the event at all. And given the presumed tenor of the coverage, that's an outcome Vance and DeSantis are surely delighted with.
The value of covering political rallies can be debated too. Would writing a story about Vance's speech, even one critical of it, give a platform to extremist views? Was there even a qualified cleveland.com reporter available to dispatch on assignment to Youngstown, given the recent departure of politics writer Seth Richardson? (We dare not speculate that the entire column might have been an attempt to disguise a lack of staffing as a principled stand!) The point is, these are tricky questions, and to be fair to Quinn I think he grapples with them often and sincerely.
But the column, in spite of its defiant swagger, articulates another data point in the PD/cleveland.com's pattern of abdication when it comes to coverage of political campaigns. They no longer cover polls
, for example, due to their partisanship and unreliability. They no longer cover "reckless statements" made by candidates "just to get attention." They have forsaken drumbeat coverage of Northeast Ohio political races, (though that's a more conventional casualty of newsroom cuts). And now, they will not cover rallies with rules they don't like. Not happening. Not now. Not ever.
Quinn has defended these decisions on grounds many may find persuasive, but the aggregate result is fewer and fewer stories about campaigns and elections — less news, less analysis, less context. And for better or worse, elections are still the only way most people participate in democracy.
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