A tragic wakeup call for taking control of our own story

We’re going to be OK.

The June 30 murder of Jim Brennan was wrenching in so many ways, but within a couple days I knew, as I watched the community circle around those closest to the tragedy, this is still the kind of place I want to live.

The impromptu memorial that formed immediately outside Brennan’s Colony could be expected; that would probably have happened anywhere.

The vigil that next evening, where 1,200 people lit candles and hugged strangers, was a bit less de rigueur, though we’ve all seen film at 11 of such scenes in other places.

On the third day, Rebecca Smolensky and Jeanne Gordon – two thoughtful people I’ve never met – started a fund to keep Colony employees in salary until arrangements could be made to reopen it. In 72 hours, nearly 850 people stuffed it with more than $45,000. That’s a show of community you don’t see every day.

Meanwhile, the Cleveland Heights Police Department was quick to identify, arrest, charge and get confessions from four suspects, according to a police department statement issued on Facebook.

Yes, we’re going to be OK.

Click-driven journalism

But not everyone sees this as the whole story. The Plain Dealer and Northeast Ohio Media Group (alias: Cleveland.com/Sun News) wove their own a narrative last week of a beleaguered, crime-plagued city teetering on the edge of an abyss.

That narrative isn’t a conspiracy against us; it’s just an easy cliché that replaces the hard work of understanding a place in time – work that media institution no longer seems interested in doing.

PD/NEOMG’s first point of contact with our city is Adam Ferrise, the part-time crime reporter (according to his Linkedin profile he also posts news online a media group in Youngstown) who pulls police incident reports for publication in Thursday’s Sun newspapers; Friday’s Plain Dealer; and online at Cleveland.com – where they are search-engine-optimized and posted for the entire world to view as a representation of life in Cleveland’s east suburbs.

It’s not constructive, but it’s cheap. PD/NEOMG reporters are now evaluated in part by the page views their stories get online, and some articles are published without ever being reviewed by an editor – a combination that incites carelessness and sensationalism.

The convenient narrative

After the shooting occurred last week, Ferrise quickly filed an initial report – a brief recitation of the few known facts with a needlessly snide reference to the fact that Police Chief Jeffrey Robertson hadn’t yet returned his call while a crime scene was being secured and a gunman run down. [This was, perhaps, part of Ferrise's ongoing payback for a spat last year involving a dispute over public police records. Ferrise never bothered to report on the city's position on the issue, which was only published after being put into a letter to the editor by Cleveland Heights City Manager Tanisha Briley.]

Soon after filing his first report on the Colony shooting, before it was known whether Brennan would survive – Ferrise or someone else at PD/NEOMG augmented the online report with a poll – a feature for the specific purpose of boosting online page views. It asked readers if the shooting would discourage them from visiting the Lee Road business district in the future. It was eventually taken offline and can no longer be accessed for your entertainment.

Plain Dealer columnist Phillip Morris furthered the narrative in his July 2 column. He started by saying the horrific crime isn’t typical of Cleveland Heights, but then contradicted himself, writing “The once idyllic suburb now finds itself locked in a pitched battle to determine its identity, security, and, ultimately, its future.”

An editorial in The Plain Dealer  on July 1, the day of the vigil, provided the same contradiction. Under the headline A senseless murder in Cleveland Heights is far from the last word on this wonderful city the editorial stated: “This city of mansions, affordable homes, restaurants and neighborhood block parties is well worth saving.” The opinions of PD/NEOMG staff were not likely to have been formed through independent reporting; typically, columnists and editorial writers inform themselves through the published work of their own news staff – that is Adam Ferrise.

An organic response

So a mourning community found itself responding to what felt like another assault. That night many Lee Road merchants had their best Tuesday of business ever, as the aggrieved took comfort in food, drink and good company.

The next day a T-shirt featuring the Brennan’s tavern logo was offered for sale to support ongoing business-development efforts of the Lee Road merchants. Orders came in for more than 700 before the sale expired.

Nobody at PD/NEOMG has, to my knowledge, published information about any of these activities in follow-up stories to the murder. While declaring our city in need of saving, have these extraordinary demonstrations of a strong community been overlooked? Or do they conflict with the PD/NEOMG’s now-institutionalized narrative?

Morris’ column refers generically to such responses as “unabashed boosterism” – as though a strong reaction is somehow misdirected when a community feels the region’s largest news organization is repeatedly getting the story wrong.

Time to take control

PD/NEOMG doesn’t exist to benefit Cleveland Heights or any other community; it never has. But as it responds clumsily to the new economics of publishing, there are fewer and fewer people there to even consider how its money-saving, click-generating game plan may be hurting the communities it claims to serve. That’s their worry.

Our worry is that we can’t allow careless employees of a struggling business to define our city.

I’m not alone in thinking about this. In a beautiful and thoughtful essay for Belt Magazine, Greg Donley writes:

But, really, if this was a “wake-up call,” a wake-up call for what? That a few despicable hoods could decide to rob a given bar on a Monday afternoon? We already knew that. That Cleveland is close to Cleveland Heights? Check, knew it. That cops should do foot patrols and there should be surveillance cameras? Check, check; both already there on that street. No, the real wake-up call to me is how this incident threw into the light of day how ready-made narratives about “how things are” and “how things used to be” continue to undermine the strength of the region.

I’ve tried to engage with PD/NEOMG to discuss the destructive nature of their strategy to cover suburbs by emphasizing low-cost excerpting of the police blotter. I didn’t get far.

More locally, I’ve written in the past about my belief that the biggest challenges Cleveland Heights faces are a perception that it isn’t a safe place to live or visit, and that – despite a well-deserved reputation for catching bad guys after the crime has been committed – the preventive focus is on the wrong things: speeding and overtime parking.

This isn’t the whole truth. Since taking over as police chief a few years ago, Jeff Robertson has implemented programs that seek to proactively reduce crime – from putting more police offers on a walking beat to developing an intervention program for at-risk youth.

But when a big, isolated crime occurs, like the one that took Jim Brennan’s life last week, these activities fade into the background. Big media like PD/NEOMG reach into their bag of clichés to find an appropriate narrative.

It defines us. It limits us. It hurts us.

If we don’t like it, complaining isn’t going to help. It’s our job to rewrite it – by facing down the real issues we face and addressing them with substance.

Then we’ll be OK.

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Posted in Bob Rosenbaum, Cleveland Heights, Development, Government, Quality of Life | 3 Comments

Film Festival 38 is in the record books

Film Festival 38 ended Sunday night around 10PM.  Amid a crowd of thousands, fans cheered everyone who came to the stage for recognition.  Films that I either saw or made an impression:

  • Joe Siebert’s documentary, “The Sax Man” garnered the local filmmaker award. Of course, it wouldn’t have seemed right without the subject of his film,  Marice Reedus, Jr., stepping into the spotlight in a bright red suit.
  • Life Feels Good, a Polish drama about a paraplegic who is misunderstood through much of his childhood is a film that resonates with me 24 hours later.  It won the Eastern-Central European award and deserved it.
  • The Activist award went to the Starfish Throwers, a moving documentary about people dedicating their lives to feeding the hungry.  There was never a dry eye in the house.
  • The “what were they thinking” award went to the “The Birder’s Guide to Everything” as part of the American Independent series. The movie was adequate and it makes me wonder what the other films were that were apparently inferior to this one.  (See my review in a previous post.)
  • The most poignant moment came when director Michelle Josue picked up an award for her highly acclaimed documentary “Matthew Shepard was a Friend of Mine”.  Accompanying her were the parents of Shepard who appeared grateful for the recognition while at the same time, had to be a little sad.  That said, neither of those three people will ever forget the Cleveland support and solidarity shown to them throughout the festival.

The festival once again broke attendance records increasing attendance by another 5% to 97,804.

It’s been a pleasure blogging about the festival.  I look forward to seeing you at Festival 39.  In the meantime, feel free to join my movie group.  We head over to the Cedar Lee, Cinematheque, Art Museum and other venues on a regular basis.

meetup.com/clevelandfilm

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Bye-bye CIFF 38

Standing in line at the 38th Cleveland International Film Festival, waiting for the theater to clear so the passholders could enter and take up the precious aisle seats, I began talking with the smartly dressed, middle-aged woman next to me. She was, at that moment, a total stranger, but we obviously had something in common—a love of movies.

Talking with strangers at the festival is not unusual. Some even become friends—festival friends, that is. In the years since we moved here and began attending the film festival, many faces have become familiar to me—and mine to them—and we’re happy to see one another each year.

My new friend, looking around at the crowd, said, “This is the single best thing about Cleveland!” And I had to agree. The opportunity to see an extraordinary variety of films, travel around the world through them, engage with filmmakers, participate in film forums just minutes from my home in Cleveland Heights is to be treasured.

CIFF 38 ended last night with the announcement of the winners. “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” was the two-time winner of the Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice award and the Greg Gund Memorial Standing Up Competition. “The Sax Man” won the Local Heroes Competition. And I can’t believe that I saw only one of the winning films (“Sax Man”). But I did see 35 other feature films and documentaries and 19 shorts, as well.

Among my special favorites are: “Waltz for Monica,”which EK described as “the Judy Garland story with a happy ending; “The Ferry,” a beautiful and touching father-son story from China; “Code Black,” an inside look at the emergency room at L.A. County Hospital; “Ivory Tower,” higher education in the U.S. from Harvard to MOOCs; and “Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia,” entertaining in the extreme. And here I add my fervent hope that “The Longest Distance” and “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” will show up at the Cedar Lee or the Cinemathèque.

Audience numbers were up again this year, by about 5 percent, and there are lots of people responsible for the success of CIFF 38. Thank you Marcie, Bill, Patrick and Co. for another excellent 12 days. (Please bring back the T-shirts. Mugs and coasters just don’t cut it for wearability, publicity or a show of pride in what Cleveland has to offer.)

Thanks to all the wonderful, friendly, helpful, hardworking and always cheerful volunteers; to the sponsors and providers of food, drink and ice cream; and to The City Club of Cleveland for the stimulating and informative film forums.

As the festival ends each year, I am reminded of Jon Forman, whose foresight and youthful determination led him to found the Cleveland International Film Festival nearly four decades ago. Thanks, Jon.

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Waltz to an Excellent start to the 38th CIFF

Frankly, the first movie of the 38th Cleveland International Film Festival was an ominous start. Crack, Back and Sack had a lot going for it.  Norwegian, Irreverent, Sexual tension and an attractive cast.   But all those ingredients couldn’t save it from being overly vulgar (discussing private parts really got old) and listless.  The characters were neither believable and frankly I didn’t really care about them.   Plus the scenery, wasn’t all that great. 1 1/2 * out of 4

I didn’t have time to contemplate my section when I ended up sitting next my counterpart Jewel to drink in the wonderful Waltz for Monica.  This unknown jazz singer on this side of the Atlantic took some major risks by singing jazz greats in Swedish, her country of origin.  While the film didn’t break much ground in terms of movie making, the story was first rate and lead actress Edda Magnason was simply amazing singing and acting in this movie.  If the world were a fairer place, she would have a Oscar nomination under her belt.  It shows again on Saturday March 22 at 11:30AM and at the Cedar Lee on Wednesday March 26 at 9:15 PM.  ****

Umma Among Friends was both a feel good movie and dealt with racial profiling better than I have seen in any film.  Daniel is an undercover secret service man who is temporarily relieved of his duties after a questionable shootout.  He is moved to a heavily Arab location where he begins to become friends with the locals.  When he witnesses how his new friends are treated, primarily based on their ethnicity, he begins to see his role in a different perspective.  ***1/2 Saturday March 22: at 9:30 PM and Sunday 9:15 AM

See you at the movies.  We have 10 more days to go!

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The Movies Are Coming! The Movies Are Coming!

Yes! CIFF 38 is only two days away . . . and I’m almost ready. I’ve been through the catalog, checked all the films that interest me (85), and plotted them on the schedule pages. Even seeing six a day, which is only barely possible, would not get me in to all 85.

Having a director’s pass, however, will enable me to change plans at the last minute. And although I’m a relative newcomer to the festival (attending only since CIFF 32), I’ve made several once-a-year friends who seem to like the same films I do. They will, no doubt, influence some of those last-minute switches.

Perhaps as the result of an especially long and nasty winter, my intent is to see more upbeat films and fewer downers this year. Although the following list may not reflect that goal, here are the 10 films I absolutely—at this moment—plan to see:

The Ferry
Club Sandwich
Le Week-End
Ernest & Celestine
War Story
Code Black
Ivory Tower
Peace after Marriage
Continental
GriGris

While we’re contemplating CIFF 38, here’re some questions to ponder:

Will attendance at 38 surpass 37’s record-setting attendance of 93,235? (I expect so.)
Will the festival make its matching goal of $100,000? (Probably)
Is CIFF 38 The Place for Stories? (You bet it is!)

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