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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Is the Cincinnati Enquirer being controlled?

Is it possible that our local newspaper is being controlled in their coverage and commentary? Your first reaction would be to think absolutely not, but one must wonder given the recent trend of the Cincinnati Enquirer and its editorial board.

It is no secret that the newspaper industry is struggling and that a struggling enterprise will do just about anything to stay relevant. So when the majority of your consumers are those that live in suburbia you might just “tell them the stories they want to hear” as a former editor for the Cincinnati Enquirer described to me and my class at the University of Cincinnati.

The response was to a question of mine about their negative slant towards inner-city stories and their positive slant towards suburban stories. I asked why the most mundane stories about suburbia are portrayed as being the next greatest thing for the region, and how stories of greater magnitude are not even covered when they are located in the city.

This was several years ago and at the time I was somewhat shocked to hear the candid response that took little to no effort to regurgitate, and as I have continued my involvement I have seen this trend develop even further.

The most recent and obvious examples have to deal with the modern Cincinnati Streetcar proposal and the Anti-Passenger Rail Amendment that has been put forth by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

Within the past week the Enquirer ran a story announcing that the NAACP/COAST coalition had gained enough signatures to put the Anti-Passenger Rail Amendment on the ballot (nothing wrong there). As a result of the campaign kicking off to a certain degree, several individuals and organizations opposed to that Anti-Passenger Rail Amendment requested that the Enquirer use correct terminology and data in their articles relating to the issue.

Two items in particular were the cost/scope of the proposed streetcar project, and the scope and terminology of the proposed City Charter amendment. While reporters had consistently referred to the project as being $185 million (which would be far beyond a streetcar running through Downtown and OTR, and is not what was approved by City Council for the streetcars funding plan – that number is $128 million for a Downtown/OTR circulator with an Uptown connector), it seemed as though some of the Enquirer’s columnists did not get the memo as $200 million (a number made up by those pushing the Anti-Passenger Rail Amendment) was cited in a recent column.

Furthermore, the Enquirer was consistently referring to the proposed amendment that would prohibit the City from spending “any monies for right-of-way, acquisition or construction of improvements for passenger rail transportation” as the “streetcar issue” or “streetcar amendment.” As Brad Thomas pointed out:

“It is inaccurate and misleading for the Enquirer to call the ballot initiative the “Streetcar Issue” when it would permanently affect all passenger rail. A ballot initiative that affected all highways would not be called the “Norwood Lateral Issue,” nor would an initiative that affected all parks be called the “Eden Park Issue.”

The response from the Enquirer was deafening. Over the weekend the editorial board decided to run a story on the Riverfront Transit Center as being a “waste of money” (an item first brought up by Anti-Passenger Rail Amendment backer Tom Luken). In the story the Enquirer spoke with someone from COAST and Metro. In a non-subjective article they should have also requested comment from someone with a pro-transit agenda to counterbalance the opinions of COAST who also opposed the 2002 regional transit plan. Metro was able to provide the raw data on the matter and correct the false numbers that COAST was using to define the capital costs of the Transit Center (sound familiar).

This was followed up by a piece that incorrectly cited the streetcar would operate with a $3.5 million annual deficit. This number is of course assuming that there would be zero dollars in fares generated and is also a talking point used by the NAACP/COAST coalition to spread falsehoods and mislead people about this one project that would be affected by the all-encompassing Anti-Passenger Rail Amendment.

Normally I would not draw a correlation here given my “viciously optimistic” outlook on life, but a couple recent Cincinnati Enquirer actions made me feel differently.

On Thursday, July 3 I tweeted that Enquirer Editor & Vice President of Content and Audience Development, Tom Callinan, blocked me from following his account – a move specifically taken towards me and specifically initiated by Callinan or whoever he has running his Twitter account. But why?

Well earlier in the week I responded to what I considered a column that used reckless disregard for the truth regarding the streetcar proposal. I sent an email to Mr. Peter Bronson and pointed out what I found to be intentionally false and asked him to adhere to Gannett’s (owner of Cincinnati Enquirer) stated Code of Ethics when it comes to writing columns. His response was rather callous and it was obvious that I struck a chord.

In the end what we are dealing with here is an amendment to the City Charter (City’s equivalent to the Constitution) that would prohibit the City from spending any money on ANY passenger rail project. That would include the proposed 3-C Corridor high-speed rail plan that would have Ohioans riding from Cincinnati, to Dayton, to Columbus, to Cleveland with stops in between at 110mph within 5 years and the larger Midwest Rail Initiative that would do the same but also connect Cincinnati to Indianapolis, Chicago and beyond. It would also include the proposed Eastern Corridor Project that would provide a rail link between Cincinnati’s eastern suburbs with the Central Business District.

You do not have to like the Cincinnati Streetcar project to dislike this Anti-Passenger Rail Amendment for several reasons, and that is why it has a bipartisan coalition of opponents including 16 of 18 endorsed candidates running for City Council (Democrats, Republicans and Charterites), the Mayor, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance for Regional Transit, Cincinnatians For Progress and All Aboard Ohio to name a few.

I do not have a problem with dissent, what I have a problem with is misleading the public. The Enquirer has a responsibility to cover the news subjectively and to provide the most accurate information possible to their roughly 200,000+ daily readers and nearly 300,000 Sunday readers. When disregard for the truth is employed by the media, then we have very little else to rely on when it comes to informing the electorate. It is not a fair game when you have the cards stacked against you like that and I hope that the Enquirer takes this opportunity to right the ship and start using accurate information with equal representation from both parties revolving around this Anti-Passenger Rail Amendment Cincinnatians will be voting on this November.

Additional reading:
More lies from Jason Gloyd and COAST by The Phony Coney


Jason McGlone said...

It's posts like this that put me on the fence about our newspaper. On one hand, we're looking at unfair reporting. On the other, it's our only newspaper. Tough pill to swallow. Or to decide whether to swallow. How does this metaphor thing even work?

dwhit said...


It might be our only newspaper, but luckily we're not living in 1980 and we have other options to get our news (including blogs like this).

Interesting article, and it's a little troubling to hear that the Enquirer might be skewing their coverage like this. A great project (for a Coms or Journalism major at UC perhaps) would be to go through the past 3 months or so of Enquirers, cut out any story dealing with a downtown or a suburb issue and to categorize them as either positive, negative, or neutral. That should start to give us a pretty broad set of data on if there is a real problem with the Enquirer's coverage, or if this is just a reaction to a couple of stories.

Living in Gin said...

The Enquirer seems to be dropping any pretense of objective journalism when dealing with city issues, in favor of becoming a "lifestyle" rag for its suburban and exurban readership. Unprofessional hacks like Peter Bronson are Exhibit A of why the Enquirer is a dying newspaper. Unfortunately, this isn't unique to the Enquirer, and is a big reason why newspapers in general are rapidly going the way of the telegraph and typewriter.

A couple weeks ago while stranded at CVG Airport, I stopped at Starbucks and paid $2.50 for a cup of coffee and $.75 for a print copy of the Enquirer. The newspaper purchase was the bigger rip-off.

At the same time, I could whip out my iPhone anywhere in the world and get access to excellent local blogs such as this one, for free. Cincy is blessed with a vibrant local blog scene that provides better city coverage in a day than the Enquirer could do in six months. This is where the future of journalism is headed.

Andrew said...

Thanks for the great blog entry. The local media is one of the major problems why native Cincinnatians view their city with disdain.

I'm also concerned that Cincinnatians for Progress isn't doing enough, other than preaching to the choir. At this point, they are only raising money and sending out emails to their members. Are they going to take their message to the general public and educate them? Are they working with the local media to make sure that the reporting isn't biased?

This whole situation is frustrating and one reason why people think Cincinnati is weird.

Jason said...

Great Post. And I agree with Drew's comment above about Cincinnatians for Progress. It definitely feels like they are only preaching to the choir right now. I can only hope that they have larger plans to compete for votes this November because their current efforts are going to get us nowhere. This terrible charter amendment must be defeated (or I won't be staying in Cincinnati) and getting the local media outlets to cooperate with fair and accurate reporting is going to be a key ingredient.

Unknown said...

Is there going to be any sort of get-out-the-vote or door-to-door strategy? I'd gladly volunteer some afternoons going around neighborhoods handing out accurate information. It's the only way it's going to get to the general public.

Jason McGlone said...

@ Living in Gin:

I wonder how much of this "Subjectivity Creep" is the direct result of blogs doing a good job covering city news, city politics, etc. Is it possible that it's a sort of "response to stimuli" in order to try to regain some relevance? You know, the old-man-in-a-young-kid's-clothing bit.

I mean, clearly it's not working, given the impending layoffs @ the Enquirer, but you've got to think that they're at least trying to put up a fight against those they see as their competitors, right? That is, assuming The Enquirer sees blogs as competition.

Paul Wilham said...

I personally do not see the Enquirer as a "nuetral" paper but then most papers are not. Papers follow their revenue stream and at the moment that is suburbia. Go to cities with vibrant downtowns and its the opposite AND there are usually 1 or 2 alternative papers that people read. Unfortunately the people who do read the Enquirer are not "plugged in" and do not access the whole story but they vote in droves.

Blogs will replace newspapers in the next 10 years. I think you will see a growing professionalism especially amony bloggers who cover specific areas.

Currently you can get the vast majority of what is "really" going on in Cincinnnati by folowing 20 or so bloggers, Business news, zoning issues, sports, restaurant reviews, neighborhood news and more.

The first person who can consolidate all that content into a daily digest and can find a way to monetize it with local advertisement and pay the bloggers for their content will put the Enquirer out of business. The Enquirer knows this too!

Living in Gin said...

Well, Peter Bronson just got the axe.

I feel bad for the real journalists who lost their jobs at the Enquirer today, but Bronson wasn't one of them.

Randy Simes said...

Sad to hear the news about layoffs at the Enquirer and CinWeekly, but it's certainly not shocking either given the state of newspapers today.

N_O_R_T_O_N said...

Reminds me of a time when I was visiting a nursing home in Montgomery, researching for a class project on retirement homes. An elderly man was reading the Enquirer, put it down when he saw us students and said, "don't ever read this crap. it's okay to read the (new york) times. but don't read the enquirer." we laughed it off like he was joking, but he remained alarmingly serious. i wonder what exactly set him off?

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