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 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.
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.