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Friday, March 9, 2018

A Greater Impact: On Cleveland.com and Noble Failure

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2018 at 8:50 AM

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Seldom have we witnessed Cleveland.com Editor Chris Quinn reach the rhetorical peaks to which he free-soloed Sunday, in a pugnacious column announcing the addition of gun violence to the digital news outlet's Impact Agenda.

"Today, we say that for every person shot to death in Cleveland these last 8 years, those legislators and justices have blood on their hands," Quinn wrote, calling out the Ohio General Assembly and the Ohio Supreme Court. "They may as well have pulled the triggers themselves."

Quinn said Cleveland.com's upcoming coverage on this topic will take aim at restoring the right of Ohio cities to govern themselves ("when it comes to firearms") and will "take careful aim" at reducing the number of guns on Cleveland's streets, guns that, Quinn noted, killed 836 people from 2011 to 2017.

The editorial was not just bluster. It proposed specific reporting methodologies and an ultimate goal:

"We will demonstrate the death and suffering the Legislature has wrought," Quinn wrote, "and if we can't convince elected leaders to restore the rights of cities, then maybe we'll set off on promoting an amendment to the Ohio Constitution so strongly worded that even [Chief Justice Maureen] O'Connor and her fellow justices can't twist it."

He couldn't have been any more emphatic if he were former Cleveland city councilman Zack Reed. But Quinn's passion was anything but abnormal in the wake of last month's Parkland shooting, which has galvanized a national movement around gun control.

Much like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dennis Kucinich, who is making a proposed ban on assault weapons a central plank of his campaign platform — in large part because it preys on the vulnerability of his pro-gun opponent, Richard Cordray — Cleveland.com has rightly sensed that the current moment may be pivotal. In these days of heightened awareness, aggressive reporting may lead to real, substantive change.

From our perspective, the focus on gun violence will be a welcome addition to the Impact Agenda and will be distinguished chiefly for its identifiable targets. Quinn made no bones about the fact that there are parties responsible for gun violence in Ohio, and Cleveland.com is coming for them. Reporters will not be hounding the neighborhood criminals who buy guns out of car trunks in dimly lit parking lots, but the legislators and justices in Columbus facilitating laws on behalf of the gun lobby.

These are largely "rural legislators," according to Quinn, "who have no idea — and no care — about life in Cleveland." (Many of them are also recipients of campaign contributions from the National Rifle Association and affiliated local groups.)

Reporting on the victims of social problems and structural inequality is critically important, but that reporting is amplified and contextualized by reporting on the creators of those problems and the architects of that inequality. Quinn clearly gets this principle. "We will demonstrate the death and suffering the Legislature has wrought," he wrote. He understands that death and suffering do not simply occur for no reason, and that investigating the reasons they do — "evil" excluded — and interpreting those reasons for the benefit of the public, is one of journalism's higher callings.

New Yorker writer Katherine Boo, in a talk at Case Western Reserve University on Oct. 3, articulated a version of this principle when she presented 12 private rules, or "self-injunctions," for her own writing.

"As effective as [narrative nonfiction] can be at activating empathy in readers," Boo said, "it's also really, really good at being meretricious, at converting genuine hardship into passing diversion for luckier people — sensationalized vacation reading for the minimally concerned.

"If I'm only writing about the so-called victims," she continued, "I'm trafficking in poverty porn. And I don't want to traffic in poverty porn. So I decided early on that to be ethical, my work could not just focus on those victims. It also had to investigate the perps. It had to lay out their wrongdoing, and it had to name their names."

Quinn, Sunday, presented a plan to do precisely that: to report on the tragedies of gun violence and to draw a line from legislative action or inaction directly to those tragedies. To lay out wrongdoing. To name names. (We're looking forward to it.)

But a side effect of Quinn's column was to cast the failures of another project, "A Greater Cleveland," into stark relief.

If you're a regular local news consumer, you'll know that "A Greater Cleveland" is Cleveland.com's months-long series on child poverty, a project that has been repeatedly billed as the most important, the most impactful and the "most enlightening" of the editorial series clustered under the Impact Agenda's umbrella. The failure of the project is surely a noble one, but several months (or is it decades?) in, "A Greater Cleveland" is looking more and more like a missed opportunity. 

For starters, any good will or empathy that the project may have activated in its readership has now surely been compromised by its ongoing (and apparently eternal) occupation of the Plain Dealer Sunday Metro section. In addition to the pseudonymous stories of daily struggle that marked the project's opening salvos, we are now force-fed fulsome vignettes recapping the kindness of readers. This endless play-by-play of the project's individual impacts reads like Cleveland.com's attempts to validate the project to itself.

On Sunday, for example, the Metro Section featured a column by Phillip Morris and six bylined stories by Plain Dealer and Cleveland.com reporters. Three of the stories were 'A Greater Cleveland' installments. One, by reporter Sharon Broussard, told of a mother and her two children moving from "gritty and impoverished" Garfield Heights to Beachwood and the ensuing struggle to afford name-brand clothes. Another, by reporter Courtney Astolfi, introduced us to a seven-year-old girl called Yvonne who, inspired by African-American dancer Misty Copeland, wanted to start taking ballet lessons.

"[Yvonne's mother] wants to foster Yvonne's dreams as much as she can," the story reported. "But she's a single mother raising her daughter on $1,000 a month in disability benefits, and a lack of disposable cash and not having a car present challenges more often than she would like. One challenge is finding an affordable and nearby ballet class for her daughter."

The third story, by reporter Brenda Cain, showed the project's flip side.
Ten-year-old Tiffany Everhart squeals with delight as her mother, Violet, pulls the car into a parking space in front of the pet store.

"Finally," she cries as she dashes to the store. "I finally get to meet my new hamster."

Tiffany has been saving the money she receives for her birthdays and other occasions with the goal of buying a hamster. But until today, that goal seemed hopelessly out of reach because her parents could not spare the extra $16 she needed for a cage, food and accessories...

But the Everharts caught a rare break after reports about ... their inability to provide their daughter with a fuzzy bit of joy. Several readers were so touched by the account that they donated the needed money. [Italics added.]

It's not even an especially cynical interpretation, anymore, to see these short dispatches as asks, as requests for donations gussied up as narratives. We are presented with a story about a particular financial hardship or the particular desire of a child in need. Then, some time later, we are presented with what has become the formula's second half: a story about how readers were so moved by the given plight that they made a donation.

In an important way, the series is accomplishing the goal it set for itself. Quinn has written repeatedly that the project's mission is a call to action. Each week, for those of us who read the print edition, we are reminded that these stories of poverty are intended "to mobilize the community to help remove the barriers to success faced by Cleveland children in poverty."

But as constructed, the success of the project is unsatisfying. Quinn tells us in virtually every editor's update that the response from readers has been "overwhelming." But what has this overwhelming response, this community mobilization, consisted of?

Well, among other things, individual monetary donations. That's to be commended, certainly. But one-time charitable donations — whether it's $16 for a hamster cage, $200 for ballet lessons, or even a day at Mabel's BBQ, courtesy of "famed chef" Michael Symon — do not remove barriers to success faced by children in poverty, at least not in any systemic or lasting way. They certainly don't help identify barriers, one of the project's earliest stated goals.

Furthermore, these individual donations deepen and perpetuate the project's editorial rut. There's no natural ending to the project in its current form, and that's one reason why the vignettes have become so eye-rollingly tiresome and futile. I hate that I get annoyed every time I see a new story in the series, but I do! I think I'm annoyed because they aren't vectored toward the dismantling of an inequitable system; it's not like a corrupt politician will be booted from office; it's not like an ill-conceived or outdated policy will be reversed or revoked. Instead, scattered benefactors from North Royalton to Mayfield Heights get to feel good about themselves as they write tax-deductible checks. And we get to gawk. 

On the other hand, that is an awfully cynical interpretation, and there are much worse outcomes, which is why I hesitate to come down too harshly on the series. As I say, it strikes me (even to this day) as a noble attempt to open the eyes and soften the hearts of the publication's readership. Though I initially gasped at the notion of dispatching Leila Attassi and Mark Naymik, Cleveland.com's best reporters, to the Boys and Girls Club and the King Kennedy public housing complex for months, I came around. An evening constitutional through the Cleveland.com comments section will alert most folks to the fact that readers could do with a good deal more empathy. That is to say, any empathy. Credit to Quinn for devoting flagship resources to a project that might have been easy to ridicule.

He should feel no trepidation over efforts to activate empathy in his readers, many of whom, it seems reasonable to assume, are rural or suburban folks who have no idea — and no care — about life in Cleveland. Quinn has been open about the struggle of making this project meaningful, and I, for one, regard that struggle as sincere.

"I have to say I was pretty frustrated as the year neared its end," Quinn wrote in January. "I had promised to come back to you with a call to action, but every time we thought we had a solution, we hit an obstacle that sent us back out to search."

He was pleased to announce that he'd found an answer after seeking counsel from his Leadership Cleveland cohort and receiving assurances of support from County Executive Armond Budish himself. The answer was Open Table, a project that invites privileged people to build relationships with poor people over the course of regular meals, thereby giving the poor people a leg up.

"The members of the table use their knowledge, life experience and connections to help their young person," wrote reporter Emily Bamforth, in a profile of the program. "Every table is different because every person being helped has different needs."

For example:

"Michael needed help improving his low credit score and paying off debt. His table helped him obtain his credit report and showed him how to read it. They deciphered the roots of his debt and came up with a plan to pay it off. One table member talked to a contact, which led to Michael using community service to pay off old tickets."

Obviously this is great.

Notwithstanding Quinn's insistence on characterizing Open Table as "a board of directors for someone in need" — which, yuck — the program is much closer to something that removes the barriers to success faced by children in poverty. Indeed, Open Table originated as a program to help young people aging out of the Cuyahoga County foster care system. By developing sustained relationships with people who have "knowledge, life experience and connections," they really do stand a better chance of breaking out of poverty's stranglehold.

But once again, Open Table's expansion is deeply unsatisfying as the culmination of a reporting project on poverty. This may reflect my own misunderstanding, but it seems to me a fundamental misapprehension of the problem's 'perps,' to use Katherine Boo's language. And it suggests that the solution to multigenerational poverty is not legislation, organization or advocacy, but empathy. Or perhaps charity: a community's willingness to devote an hour per week.

Moreover, this solution is coming from an ardently pro-business news outlet that has editorialized viciously against policies designed to lift people out of poverty. Some of Cleveland.com's most strongly worded editorials in the past few years have been about local efforts to increase the minimum wage. Several of the subjects profiled in 'A Greater Cleveland' work full-time or nearly full-time, yet still find themselves trapped in substandard housing and dangerous neighborhoods. Shouldn't low wages have been identified as a barrier to success for children living in poverty? Wouldn't $15 per hour be a lot more impactful than $16 for a hamster cage?

That's not to say Cleveland.com shouldn't have reported and/or opined that the Raise Up Cleveland campaign was flawed — one of the editorial board's chief criticisms of the $15-an-hour proposal, in 2016, was that it would have made Cleveland less competitive because the wage increase wouldn't have affected neighboring communities — but the editorial writers could scarcely contain their contempt for those supporting higher wages. Their disgust for the Service Employees International Union, in particular, infected their coverage of City Hall and of broader social issues for months.

That's just one example. Cleveland.com also routinely fawns over the philanthropy of the region's business and civic leaders. It is every bit as concerned with the "Cleveland renaissance narrative" as is the tourism bureau. On the topic I'm most familiar with, I watched Cleveland.com bend over backwards to justify support for the Q Deal last year, a public subsidy strenuously opposed by thousands of poor and working people in Cleveland (among others).

"Elected leaders — and all of us — should rise to the challenge to identify the investments we can make to ensure that prosperity reaches deeper," Cleveland.com wrote in its first editorial in support of the Q Deal, in a rare moment of concession. "Perhaps [County Executive Armond] Budish and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson could schedule a summit to come up with the kinds of solutions that opponents to this deal have so clearly articulated. We hope that happens. But that does not undo the worth of the deal now on the table to upgrade the Q and extend its economic development value."

I never saw mention of a Budish-Jackson Prosperity Summit ever again.

Anyhow, when Cleveland.com hosted an info session for Open Table at its headquarters last month, the response was, once again, "overwhelming." (And for the record, if I were in charge of the project, I'm sure I'd be just as floored and heartened by the response as Quinn has been.) More than 250 people showed up, and Quinn gushed in this way:

"We hope you are the beginning of a movement, one that shows the world that Cleveland is the city that cares."

...Man. 

I don't know what the solutions to child poverty are. And my hunch, as I've said, is that Quinn and his crew of reporters have made a genuine effort. (Some of the profiles by Leila Atassi, Mark Naymik, Courtney Astolfi and others have been really splendid, compassionate stuff.) But I do know that Cleveland.com can hold local authorities accountable, a lot more effectively than Scene can, at any rate. So why not dedicate a reporter or two, full-time, to go beyond short profiles and start investigating institutions and systems that erect and fortify the barriers to success they've identified in 'A Greater Cleveland?' Why not dispense with the series, learning from its successes and failures, and inaugurate a beat?   

In the same way that Quinn has admirably proposed going after those at the top responsible for gun violence, why not go after legislators and local leaders — those at the top — responsible for poverty? Why not start attempting to reconcile some very thorny realities with Cleveland's self-image? Why is the city still so segregated, for example? Why is it still so violent (poverty and violent crime being closely linked)? Why are black babies still dying at such alarming rates? Why is educational attainment still so low? Where exactly are those new lead inspectors? Why can't a community known for its philanthropy and historic community foundations rally to improve its dismal quality-of-life metrics? Where is the urgency? What are we doing wrong?

Because Cleveland is pretty clearly doing something wrong. And with respect, it will never be seen as "the city that cares" until it actually does.


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