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Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Scene Responds to Accusations of Yellow Journalism, Racism in Cleveland Foundation Story

Posted By on Wed, Oct 7, 2020 at 1:35 PM

click to enlarge COOLCLEVELAND.COM
  • CoolCleveland.com
Local journalist and Chateau Hough proprietor Mansfield Frazier penned a lengthy Facebook comment Saturday accusing Scene Magazine of yellow journalism borne of racism. The comment was in response to our article, published Friday, about developments in a controversy over the proposed new headquarters of the Cleveland Foundation.

This is a touchy, complicated subject.



Mansfield, for example, supports the Cleveland Foundation's relocation from Playhouse Square to Midtown. He recognizes the promise of adjacent real estate development in the area of Euclid Avenue and E. 66th Street as a significant windfall for both Midtown and Hough, where he lives and does business. My read is that like others, his support for these ends, (which are, no doubt, at least marginally well-intentioned), has led him to ignore, shrug off or favorably misrepresent the means by which the Cleveland Foundation and other powerful brokers in town have been working to achieve them, according to allegations in a 2019 lawsuit filed by former members and trustees of the Dunham Tavern Museum, which allegations I find persuasive.

Via an assortment of rhetorical strategies, Mansfield upbraided Scene for biased, racist, sensational reporting. I presume this is because our story reflected the opposite position, i.e., sympathy with the former Dunham Tavern Museum members, who had donated money to preserve the land in question as greenspace. They are the plaintiffs in the ongoing case and have now filed a jurisdictional brief with the Ohio Supreme Court, pleading that it take their case after lower courts dismissed it.
   
Mansfield's mischaracterizations about the story and about Scene, while obvious and frankly wild to me, were nevertheless very serious and not entirely baseless. His observation that Scene has no full-time writers of color on staff, for example, is correct. That's a legitimate and enduring failing which, like other local publications, we've long tried to correct, (with plainly unsuccessful results).

But his conclusions — not only that Scene is therefore racist in its core vision, and anything that appears in our pages regarding Black folks should be regarded with suspicion, but also that I am a "hired gun" publishing sensational material on behalf of unnamed sinister benefactors — were drawn without additional evidence. 

As the author of the article in dispute, I felt obliged to publicly respond on his Facebook page. Mansfield is a respected, influential elder in Cleveland's Black community, and one whose work and advocacy I've long admired. Because of his authority, his inaccuracies are more significant, his patent absurdities more dangerous. They require stronger, more precise rebuttal.

If you're like me, you may feel that these sorts of quarrels are, paradoxically, both too performative and too back-stagey for public interest. Alas. Mansfield has now published his comment as a column on CoolCleveland.com, where he has long been a contributing writer. (You can read it in full here.) The expanded publicity of these accusations necessitates that I publish my response accordingly. It's copied without edits from Saturday below:

Mansfield, my good man:

Just seeing this now. I'm happy to chat offline if you care to discuss the story or my motivations further, but you'll no doubt agree some of this merits a public response. I'll try to be brief.

1) Here is the story in question:
https://www.clevescene.com/scene-and-heard/archives/2020/10/02/dunham-tavern-museum-members-want-ohio-supreme-court-to-rule-on-cleveland-foundation-dispute?fbclid=IwAR0mqQfTb_BmsXTvMI6U8UR1WDpls3aRIGUD35Td9Pf5Ybta9o9s2jaDzgM

2) Is it yellow journalism to summarize a legal brief and amplify the concerns of those who oppose a prevailing position? I hope not. I hope, for example, that my reporting on the Q Deal wasn't construed that way. Suffice it to say, bread doesn't get buttered in this town by speaking out *against* the Cleveland Foundation, (lol). I don't know what you think my purposes are, but it's precisely because so many non-profit and political leaders — and residents! — accord automatic reverence to the major institutions, corporations and foundations that I believe it's essential to report on those challenging them, and to challenge them myself when I can, even when doing so doesn't make me many friends. (It'd be very easy to write yet another piece celebrating the Cleveland Foundation or the United Way or Sherwin-Williams or the Cavs, quoting economic development executives about Ronn Richard's commitment to racial equity or Dan Gilbert's commitment to CMSD kids. I'd probably be working for the New York Times today if I'd been writing stories like that for the past seven years.)

3) My sourcing on the story was the legal brief itself, the appellate court decision and the local media coverage of the controversy in 2019. I included multiple links in the story, but folks are welcome to peruse the court documents here:
  • http://supremecourt.ohio.gov/pdf_viewer/pdf_viewer.aspx?pdf=892017.pdf&fbclid=IwAR2zssf2e-FVPnkr-asjUu098mtnpL4IX4osOQzfaq1nqq2L6ZzEWtlOhko
  • https://www.dropbox.com/s/5hz1133o8sd52qe/Durham%20Tavern.pdf?fbclid=IwAR3JXSk4HWUhwxkTwghxb55XNA23_mtksDC8jps379pPDCT8win5jpgvako

4) My own opinion is that in the comment above, you're not accurately characterizing the dispute, and that you're unfairly disparaging the "disgruntled" "dissenting" "naysayers" from the Dunham Tavern Museum, who in my view have very good reason to be disgruntled. After all, they'd just donated $700,000 to purchase the land in question for another purpose: to preserve as greenspace, in keeping with the museum's mission and historical character. One can certainly debate the merits of that land use, or the effectiveness of their prior community outreach, but there's no question that members were deceived. Don't take my word for it. Read the words of one of the members:
-https://www.cleveland.com/opinion/2020/01/cleveland-foundation-errs-in-thwarting-dunham-tavern-museums-green-space-rebuilding-efforts-thomas-bier.html?fbclid=IwAR1eDxLJX8kuFz22hv_0HOKt2Jzos9qirusNteJte4zp8d5vj7gVK1y8aRI

5) Having familiarized myself with the existing material on this, I think it's much more likely that the lawsuit emerged from the profound sense of betrayal and dismay alluded to above; not, as you suggest, a desire "to impede the progress of the communities the Foundation serves, particularly those of color." With respect, I think that's off-base.

6) If I've gotten major or minor facts wrong — as I routinely do! — I'll absolutely correct them, but the two you referenced are from other documentary sources. The acreage, for example, ("more than two acres") is the total lot size the Museum purchased after they raised funds from members. The Cle Foundation's portion was not the entire lot — I think it's in the ballpark of 1.2 or 1.4?

7) The language in the brief does indeed contain several rhetorical flourishes. Pattakos is an energetic brief writer and my sense is he wanted to convey what he viewed as the moral case for the Supreme Court's intervention. (I think even he recognizes it's a bit of a long shot — *which by the way should not be taken to mean that he's merely pursuing the case to collect legal fees. I know Pete and I think he sincerely believes in the merits of the case.*) Citing the dismal quality of life metrics was not at all to "pimp poverty." On the contrary, it was to condemn it, and to ensure that the institutions who have presided over its growth in Cleveland don't continue to have free rein. In context, the argument was that allowing a politically influential organization like the Cle Foundation to run roughshod over the rules, *in a city with such staggering inequality,* could undermine citizens' faith in the judiciary.

8) Basheer's quote to me was emblematic of the over-the-top remarks that leaders provided on the occasion of the relocation announcement in 2019. I wasn't trying to twist it, merely to communicate what I called the "parade of plaudits."

9) Like you — and like the plaintiffs in the case, for the record — I think Cleveland Foundation moving to Midtown would be fantastic. I'm 100% on board with the idea of the move, and appreciate the excitement of community stakeholders. But the museum members' central question is nevertheless a good one: Why is the *exact site* that they'd just acquired for another purpose the only viable parcel in Midtown for an org w/ sufficient financial reserves (at least $2.5 billion) to locate anywhere it wants to?

10) Lastly, given Scene's significant cuts during the pandemic, I am currently the only full-time writer on staff. My editor, Vince, is also a white male. Promises to do better and try harder aren't worth much when we don't have the money to hire anyone new, but if it's worth anything to you: I hate that Scene hasn't reflected the community it covers and continues not to. I try to be as much of an ally as I can, and since late 2016, I've been committed to reporting on inequality with as much rigor and depth as I can muster, and have tried to proactively nurture young writers of color in Cleveland. That has included providing one-on-one story coaching, freelance opportunities, and more recently, donating all of my pandemic stimulus check to local writers of color and the Native American Journalists Association. I know those are small, sometimes ineffective, steps. But I'll keep trying to improve and keep pushing Scene to be better.

Thanks, as always, for your strong words.
Lunch again soon, I hope.
Sam
***
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