Too Hot for The PD

Editor defends withholding stories of "profound importance."

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Plain Dealer Editor Doug Clifton -- known for his staunch views on the public's right to know -- last week found himself defending his decision to withhold "two stories of profound importance" from Northeast Ohio readers.

In a June 30 column, Clifton wrote about the chilling effect that would be caused by the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case of two reporters threatened with jail for refusing to reveal an anonymous source, who may have leaked a CIA operative's name. Clifton confessed that two major stories "languish in our hands" because they were based on leaked documents.

"Publishing the stories would almost certainly lead to a leak investigation and the ultimate choice: talk or go to jail," Clifton wrote. "Because talking isn't an option and jail is too high a price to pay, these two stories will go untold for now."

Well, not quite. One of the stories The PD is holding -- about the FBI's investigation of former Cleveland Mayor Mike White -- appears on the cover of this week's Scene.

Meanwhile, Clifton is desperately trying to explain his rationale for sitting on major stories.

On July 11, The New York Times -- whose reporter, Judith Miller, is sitting in jail for refusing to disclose a source -- published a story saying that other top editors were "baffled" by Clifton's decision.

An editor at The Oregonian of Portland -- which, like The PD, is owned by the Newhouse chain -- said, "I have never had any hesitation on publishing solid stories based on government documents we had, and I have never announced that we had any document except in a news story."

Clifton's own reporters, who have long complained about the timidity of PD editors and lawyers, seem equally baffled. In the past, some of the paper's best investigative work has been so diluted by cautious editing and legal advice as to render it almost unreadable. Through the paper's suggestion box, one employee asked PD leadership, "Are we concerned about how [the decision] will affect our reputation with the public and the rest of the journalism community?"

Clifton responded by complaining that he was misrepresented by The Times. "It pains me, after 35 years in the business, to see the inadequacy of daily journalism to deal with subtle shadings of fact."

Due to The PD's aversion to risk, it's a pain he shares with his own readers.

Fulwood funnies
If Clifton was having a bad week, at least PD columnist Sam Fulwood III returned to fine form. He recently unloaded both barrels on Dan Moore, a Cleveland Heights businessman who toyed with moving to Cleveland to run for mayor before backing out last month.

Moore had threatened to spend $1 million on attack ads to sink the campaign of any candidate who doesn't back his ideas. Fulwood responded by writing that Moore's plan "smacks of colonialism." Harrumph!

The great philosopher also threw down the gauntlet to Moore: "Do you -- and others like you -- care enough about the city to make it your home?"

Yet Fulwood, who frequently lectures on Cleveland politics, seemed to be forgiving his own colonialism. He lives in a $267,000 home in Shaker Heights -- a house, we're certain, that's made entirely of glass.

Toxic Land
After waiting months for the state to finish a cancer report for Avon Lake, fretting residents finally got a break last week. City Councilman Michael Stanek announced a public forum scheduled for July 28, where Robert Indian, the state's chief epidemiologist, would present his long-awaited study.

Parents have worried for years that heavy pollution in their otherwise blissful suburb is making people sick ("Cancer in Paradise," June 22). In April, Indian told the mayor that there was nothing to worry about and that his report would be done by June 1.

Parents, however, will have to keep waiting. State health department spokesman Kris Weiss tells Scene that the report still isn't done. The July 28 meeting is to "engage the community in a dialogue and not to distribute reports," he says. And as everyone knows, you can never have too much dialogue.

"What a waste of time," says Megan Graff, a parent pressing city and state for information.

Stanek says he mistakenly assumed the report was finished, which means Stanek knows nothing about the health department -- an agency with a history of delaying results and ignoring pollution. "It's frustrating," he says. "But hopefully the end result is a report we can hang our hat on and take as gospel."

A little friendly advice: Don't count on it.

The anchor's rancor
Sharon Reed is just the type Cleveland Magazine loves to drool upon. The Channel 19 NewsBabe is beautiful, perky, and likes to get barenaked on TV, as she did for Spencer Tunick's nude photo shoot last year. Reed disrobed for the camera in a timely piece of "journalism" that aired during sweeps week -- five months after it happened.

Indeed, Cleveland Magazine's July profile on Reed would be the perfect complement to its April exposé, "Makeup Tips From TV Anchorladies." There was just one problem: Reed was a hostile witness from start to finish.

So instead, "The Mystique of Sharon Reed" chronicles reporter Jacqueline Marino's thwarted attempts to get time with her subject: Requests for an interview came with counter-demands that Reed be pictured on the cover. Plans to meet in person were rescinded by Reed's lawyer in favor of e-mail correspondence. Photos taken for the story were later forbidden to be printed. Even the e-mail responses Reed provided were stricken from the record prior to press time.

What was surely intended as a favorable profile ended up reading like a transcript from the Hague Tribunal.

"We were threatened with a lawsuit before we had written a word, so everything we say publicly is like giving them a free deposition," says Marino, who declined further comment.

Thus far, Channel 19 has been mum about the story. Then again, sweeps week isn't till November.

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