A tragic wakeup call for taking control of our own story

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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 and addressing them with substance.

Then we’ll be OK.

Comments

  1. Garry Kanter says

    Yes, the PD does a horrible job.

    They need to be stopped not just at the local level, but at the regional level. I, too, have run into the brick wall that is the PD/clevelamnd.com/NEOMG reporters and editors all too often.

    However, Bob, I read your analysis as not unlike Martin Niemöller’s famous piece, “First they came …”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_they_came_

    I have raised many of these same issues, perhaps in reverse, with FutureHeights, The Observer, and Reaching Heights.

    I have brought my concerns up to you, personally, Bob. Remember my e-mails and our discussion at Phoenix on Coventry regarding The Civic Commons banning me from the school district’s forum due to insufficient “optimisim”?

    You, nor anyone else, was willing to give me the time of day. Mark Chupp said he would, then disappeared.

    Yes. There is a problem. No. You and your pals are not part of the solution.

    And until we all work TOGETHER in this community, we *won’t* “be OK”.

  2. says

    Garry you always bring up the same complaints. Do you remember the time that I asked you to help rebuild a discussion forum – setting you up with administrative access, uploading and configuring the technology, and providing written documentation of what I thought your next steps should be – and you never followed through? Do you remember my setting you up as a contributor on THIS website and you never bothered to log in? Do you remember my inviting you multiple times to put your thoughts in writing as contributions to the Observer?
    The reason I don’t give you the time of day anymore is because I already tried, and you showed me you aren’t actually going to do anything except hold court at the coffee shop and try to turn my own words against me (Internet Troll Playbook, Ch. 1). Dealing with you is uniquely unpleasant and unproductive, and I’m not required to do it.
    I can’t speak for all the others who don’t give you the time of day.
    If you actually want to comment on the substance of what I’ve written, please go ahead. If your only objective is to make yourself feel better by running me down, I’m calling you out on it.

  3. Garry Kanter says

    I provided a thoughtful response to your blog, Bob. It wasn’t all about me at all. You ignored that.

    And I have polenty of e-mails that refute each of your BS allegations. They are not worth contemplating.

    So, keep on attacking and being devicive, Bob. That’s good for the community, right?

    I guess that’s what we call “Civility”.

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