As part of Cleveland Magazine's 30th anniversary celebration, the editors have chosen 52 of their favorite stories from the magazine's archives, and wish to share them with you.
A new story will appear every week at Clevelandmagazine.com. It might be controversial, comical, nostalgic or nonplussing. But it will be Cleveland.
From Cleveland Magazine, March 1984
Late last fall, a university professor from Fairfax, Virginia laid waste to three of the top editorial executives at The Plain Dealer, Cleveland's sole surviving daily paper.
It happened in the rarefied air of Publisher and Editor Tom Vail's office, which patterns itself, perhaps, as one of the loftiest Ivory Towers in American journalism. The Virginia professor, Walter Williams, really stunk up the place that morning.
Williams teaches economics at George Mason University. He also writes a syndicated newspaper column, dabbles in physics as a hobby, and was a civil rights activist in the south 20 years ago. Williams is black, yet he runs in right-of-center political circles in Washington - a leaning for which he was vilified on The Plain Dealer's editorial page by a PD reporter named George Jordan, also a black man.
Now, in retaliation for being mugged by Jordan, a furious Williams had come to Cleveland to play a bit of psychological poker with the PD brass, including Vail, editorial page editor William Woestendiek, and managing editor Bob McGruder. But, unbeknownst to the PlainDealer men, Williams was carrying an ace up his sleeve calculated to bring the paper to its knees.
Everyone sat quietly in Vail's aerie that morning as Williams showed Vail a copy of George Jordan's column, which carried the headline "Williams speaks for the oppressors. " Vail read: "At times I wish the Lord would deliver me back to the days of Stepin Fetchit, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom. The oldstyle black, illiterate 'handkerchief heads' were an embarrassment, but they were harmless in comparison with 'educated' blacks like economist Walter E. Williams, a darling of the far right. "
Ten vitriolic paragraphs later, Tom Vail became solicitous. He told Williams that he had not laid eyes on the column until that very moment, even though it had run on his own OpEd page the month before. Then Vail made a pronouncement. "This is semilibelous," hemmed and hawed the editor-publisher of the town's only newspaper.
Williams did not fidget ar waiting to discuss exactly what "semi-libelous" meant. Instead, he whipped out his ace. It was a column written two years earlier by Washington Post syndicated columnist Carl Rowan. Here is what the PD brass read in Rowan's column of two years previous: "These are tims when I want to ask the Lord to deliver us back to the days of Stepin Fetchit, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom. The old-style black, illeterate, obsequious 'handkerchief heads' were an embarrassment, but they were harmless compared with the 'educated' blacks who are now the darlings of the far right."
It was a rowayl flush all right, and the PD executives choked with astonishment. George Jordan, an obscure 27-year-old reporter from Chicago, was not only a plagiarist, he was not even very clever about it word for word from the Washington Post, one of the most conspicuous newspapers in the world. Could he really have expected not to get caught? The Plain Dealer brass folded their cards in collective anguish. What did Williams want?
"I'll forget the whole thing on three conditions," Williams recalls saying. "First, fire the reporter. Second, I want an apology published in a prominent place in the paper, and third, I want you to publish five or six hundred words I'll write in response to the Jordan piece."
Williams says he never heard another word from Vail or anyone else at The Plain Dealer. George Jordan was suspended without pay for three days, not fired, even though he had been reprimanded for plagiarism once before in his career, when he was an intern at the Minneapolis Star. And only when columnist William F. Buckley Jr., the Arch Conservative Himself, exposed the Plain Dealer plagiarism to the world a month after the fateful meeting, did the PD tender an apology to its readers. Jordan himself does not offer any defense or explanation for the plagiarism. "Look, I wrote an apology to all my colleagues that was posted on the board," he says. "Now I would appreciate it if I could get on with my work and my life." But he is not slow to show his bitterness over getting caught. Here is what the revealed plagiarist said: "I was caught up by the conservative mafia in this country. I have the right to go after Williams, and he can go after me. This time, he got me. "
Such shocking arrogance in the face of legitimate critical appraisal has become standard operating procedure at The Plain Dealer. It is notjust an attitude on the part of a staffer; it starts at the very top, Tom Vail's office. "In fact, I don't blame the reporters at all, " says one Greater Cleveland newspaper executive. "There is simply no direction from management." The Jordan incident is just one example in a long line of horror stories about Me Plain Dealer that have surfaced in the last 20 months, since the demise of the afternoon Press in June 1982, when the PD became the only game in town. Other tales that come to the minds of media watchers: The PD's basing a scathing lead editorial and an accompanying editorial cartoon on factual errors after Congressman Louis Stokes was arrested last year on drunken driving charges, then not having the courtesy to apologize to its readers, much less Stokes, after the errors had been discovered; causing an outrage among staff reporters over the handling of a story about Teamster chief Jackie Presser, a story that amounted to an apology for writing critically about Presser; entering the Press Club of Cleveland's awards contest for overall excellence, being beaten by both the Akron Beacon Journal and the Cincinnati Post, then denying in print the next day that it had even entered the contest.
These were some of the most visible distortions and blunderings. There was an invisible one, too, which The Plain Dealer finally chose to air in the middle of January: a report issued in December by the General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, that indirectly - but forcefully - calls into question the credibility of a series of stories Me Plain Dealer ran on the incompetency of certain international charities. The series garnered several industry awards for The Plain Dealer, including the prestigious Overseas Press Club award, compounding the embarrassment.
All of these perversities have befallen the starcrossed newspaper only in the short time since the Press folded under increasingly suspect circumstances that are being explored in anti-trust suits in Cleveland federal court. The folding of the Press wiped out any system of checks and balances in Cleveland newspapers the bottom-line catastrophic effect of a one-newspaper situation. Not that the Press particularly distinguished itself in the recent years before it folded, regardless of a last-minute change in ownership. But it offered competition - the incentive to take extra care and work a little harder.
Now that Cleveland is a one-paper city, the same incentive should apply. The Plain Dealer's responsibility to be a good newspaper, responsive to its readers and advertisers, is double - a point about which Tom Vail himself pontificates when he addresses the public. Yet, The Plain Dealer's mistakes, and its attitude of being too good for its own home town, is quickly catching up to it. "The mistakes and the arrogance have always been there," says one staffer. "But now that the Press is gone, they are more glaring. " While the PD's circulation has increased and its ad rates have soared since the Press folded, so has the paper's vulnerabifity intensified. Ultimately, its weaknesses become more visible.
That statement is telling. The Plain Dealer postures as a national
paper rather than a metropolitan paper, and it certainly does not take a William
Randolph Hearst to see that. The gap between paper and public is automatically
built in. Over the last two years, Plain Dealer reporters have written
thousands of column inches about subjects that have nothing to do with the city.
The PD has spent tens of thousands of dollars and countless man hours sending
reporters to Russia, South America, and civil defense warehouses in Los Angeles
to write story after story about people and issues as remote as the moon to
the average Plain Dealer reader, and just about as relevant.
This focusing of the paper's manpower and money toward issues outside of the pale of Greater Cleveland can be traced directly to Vail. That Vail wants to win a Pulitzer Prize is, as one PD staffer says, the worst kept secret in town.
The Plain Dealer's lack of local coverage in such a news-rich city is arrogant enough. But the paper's neglect goes even deeper than that. It vic-' timizes the very bones of the town, right down to the man on the street. Perhaps the best illustration of the public's growing attitude toward the paper was reflected in a resolution passed by the Rocky River Board of Education in November. The board, in a move that was primarily symbolic, resolved to do no more legal advertising in the PD and urged every other school board in the county likewise to withhold advertising. Instigated by Rocky River businessman and school board president Norm Case, the resolution had nothing to do with any major political or educational issues. Case simply felt that The Plain Dealer was doing a deplorable job of reporting on the activities of Rocky River public high school students specifically, and high school students in Greater Cleveland in general.
A small enough matter, seemingly. But for Case, the advertising sanction was purely a means to gain entry into ThePlainDealer for a tete-a-tete with management about the paper's shortcomings. "Speaking as a citizen who has been buying The Plain Dealer for 30 years, " Case says, "it is my opinion that the paper doesn't meet the needs of the suburbs and, for that matter, Cleveland. This has been going on for quite a while, but it seems to have gotten worse since we've become a onenewspaper town. "
Case had tried before to get into a discussion with the paper's management. He had always made his request through PD correspondents covering Rocky River school board meetings - a useless exercise in shuttle diplomacy. But when he hit the paper where it hurt, in its purse, he got its attention. After an exchange of letters with executive editor David Hopcraft, Case and five other members of the Rocky River public school system in January met with Hopcraft to discuss ways of forming a better working relationship."It was a good meeting," Case says. "Hopcraft didn't deny any of it. He did deny that the problem was an off-shoot of a one-newspaper city. He said it was a people problem, not a problem with the paper." Case had the opportunity to gaze out over the Plain Dealer newsroom, which even PD staffers admit is bloated. "There were so many bodies out there. It's easy to understand how it can be a people problem. Things just get lost in the shuffle, and there's no one to hold accountable."
Case, however, says he will continue to hold the paper accountable now that the issue of unresponsiveness has been formally addressed. "If I don't see results, I'll make noise again, " he says. "The squeaky wheel."
As Case demonstrated, nothing squeaks so loudly in the ear of The Plain Dealer as the threat of advertising losses. This die-hard bottom-line mentality is a legacy of the late Samuel Newhouse, founder of the New York publishing empire that owns The Plain Dealer. In his biography of Newhouse, Newspaperman, Richard Meeker spends more than-1200 pages building a case that culminates in a frightening indictment. "For Newhouse," Meeker says, "a newspaper was not a newspaper at all. It was a package whose purpose was to carry advertising ... He succeeded so well that his model of newspapering as a business, and little more, has become the dominant theme of modernjournalism ... The result is a journalism as bland and uninspired and unhelpful as the huge, faceless corporations that produce it. It is little wonder that today Newhouse's newspapers fail to serve their readers with distinction."
Meeker is speaking directly to, among others, The Plain Dealer. For the moment, never mind the strangle-hold that The Plain Dealer has on information. Since the closing of the Press, advertisers as well as readers have been cheated of options. One advertising agency executive in Cleveland said that The Plain Dealer even lied to them about ad rates after the Press folded. In a letter signed by PD ad chief Alan Dant, dated June 23, 1982, a week after the Press closed, advertisers and their agencies were apprised of the following: "You know that Plain Dealer circulation and penetration will increase by many thousands of readers beyond the figures upon which our advertising rates are currently based. For the next two months, until we learn the full extent of our new circulation, The Plain Dealer will maintain present advertising rates. At the end of that time, our rates will be adjusted no higher than the present 'cost per thousand' (CPM) basis now in effect."
What that meant was that the average cost of reaching a thousand readers would not increase, though the overall rates for advertising in the PD no doubt would. This is in line with a simple formula in the publishing business: If your circulation increases, your ad rates can go up - but, keeping the circulation increase in mind, the average cost of reaching a thousand readers should stay the same. However, an independent analysis of The Plain Dealer's rates since the Press folded, done for in-house use by ar advertising agency, shows an increas( for the advertiser not only in rates, bu in the average cost of reaching a thousand readers - contrary to the state ment made by The Plain Dealer.
The Plain Dealer not only apparently misled its advertisers about the cost of reaching its readers; the paper's daily circulation after the Press folded was problematic to begin with. The PD lists its daily circulation at 493,329. However, that is a daily average for the editions published from Monday through Saturday. Publishing sources in Cleveland speculate that the PD's alleged 23 percent daily circulation increase is largely due to the popularity of the Friday edition's weekly television supplement. Since the Press also published its TV guide on Friday, it is not unreasonable to think that large numbers of Press readers would turn to The Plain Dealer for a source of weekly TV listings. The Plain Dealer prints its TV guide in Dover and New Philadelphia on presses owned by the Horvitz newspaper chain, and well over half a million copies run off the presses each week. It is likely, industry sources say, that The Plain Dealer circulates about 565,000 papers on Friday, due to the TV section, and somewhere around an average of 465,000 papers on other weekdays and Saturday - a difference of about 100, 000 papers. So, discounting the Friday edition, which is apparently so successful only because of the TV guide, The Plain Dealer's circulation increases since the Press folded averages out at about 14 percent - or about 65,000 new subscribers - rather than the 23 percent boasted by the paper.
The question asked in the industry is obvious. Does the Monday edition advertiser get the benefit of as many readers as the Friday advertisers? Apparently not. If not, then how could the PD justify raising its ad rates 33 percent across the board? This is not even considering the cost of newsprint, which has gone down $25 a ton over the last two years. The cost of newsprint - at least when it goes up - is usually reflected in the cost of advertising at most newspapers.
These are questions and issues that go to the heart of the way the Newhouse empire and The Plain Dealer do business.
Yet the whole question about advertising rates is notjust some private issue grumbled over by advertisers and their agencies. There is a civil anti-trust lawsuit in federal court, filed by former Press advertisers Jackshaw Pontiac and Willis Appliance and TV Inc., which alleges that the Press, through its owner, Joe Cole, and ThePlainDealer, through Newhouse executives, conspired to fold the Press. The suit contends that the conspiracy created a monopoly that allows The Plain Dealer to implement ad rate hikes at will.
The Akron BeaconJournal recently published a front-page story claiming the Newhouse people paid Cole $14.5 million to purchase the Press's subscription list, a sum of money that the paper implied amounted to a buy-off . Cole paid only a million dollars for the paper in 1980, yet the building and strategically located land were estimated to be worth about $12 million. These numbers are in the middle of the alleged conspiracy to fold the Press.
The question raised by the lawsuit is this: Is a subscription list worth such a staggering price? Clearly, it was enough money to help Joe Cole recover much of his loss, and it certainly was not an unreasonable amount of money for the Newhouse chain to pay for a monopoly. If The Plain Dealer picked up 65,000 new subscribers when the Press folded, and if the names were culled from the Press's subscription list, it means The Plain Dealer paid $223 for each new subscriber. Industry figures indicate that the Press, during its last years, spent between $6.60 and $18 to acquire one new subscriber. The paper would have to hold on to these 65,000 subscribers for about four years to make back Newhouse's $14.5 million investment. On the other hand, advertising industry figures indicate that 7We Plain Dealer's advertising rate increases alone should recoup Newhouse's investment before another year goes by - a complete return on a $14.5 million investment in about two years, based solely on ad rate increases, never mind new subscribers.
The Jackshaw suit was filed by Cleveland lawyers Thomas Repicky and Frank Isaac in November. Repicky said he expected U.S. District Judge Ann Aldrich to certify it as a class action suit by the end of February. The point of the suit, Repicky said, goes directly to The Plain Dealer's monopolistic privilege of being able to set ad rates at whatever it feels the market can stand. And the stress on the market has already started with the paper's push to recover Newhouse's investment. While it is true that some major bread and butter advertisers, like the Higbee Company and the May Company, spent about a million dollars more on PD advertising in 1983 than they did in 1982, both department stores have reacted to the rate hikes in other ways.
Higbee's has put a freeze on its Plain Dealer advertising budget. Company spokesman Jerry Hoegner says it is common practice in the business to settle for less space in the face of drastic rate hikes. "But I can't say that the paper's increases are unjustified," he says. "I don't think any rate increases are justified, whether it's the PD, CLEVELAND MAGAZINE, radio, or television. We still get along well with The Plain Dealer. "
The May Company, however, has had to change its whole advertising strategy because of the increases. A spokesman says that the May Company is now funneling part of its ad budget into the outlying daily papers, like the Elyria Chronicle Telegram and the Lake County News-Herald. " When you have a one-newspaper town," says the spokesman, "it's obvious that there's not a whole lot else you can do."
Last month, The Plain Dealer's daily ad rates went up yet another seven
percent. The paper, however, did not use a circulation boost as justification
for this rate hike because the paper's circulation is static and even showing
signs of dropping a bit. The only justification for the hike was a glib statement
to advertisers that Alan Dant wrote. "Fortunately, The Plain Dealer delivers
66.7 % of the homes in the City Zone - a circulation achievement that ranks
among the highest in the nation." Reading between the lines, it also might be
interpreted as saying that advertisers have nowhere else to go, and no other
justification is needed for the rate hikes.
The Plain Dealer's credibility is straining on every front, from the legal problems Newhouse is having, to the readers'alienation, to the harnmerlock on advertisers. But a newspaper's most vulnerable spot lies in the stories it runs, and the credibility of those stories is sacrosanct at a good paper. By the time the folding of the Press reached the 18-month mark last December, the reliability of The Plain Dealer's news and editorial columns was also under siege, largely because of the off-handed way that management handled the Jordan plagiarism.
The first management affront was Jordan's three-day suspension. It was an affront mainly to the rest of the reporting staff-and particularly the older reporters-who treat their profession with dignity. Plain Dealer reporters get pained, exhausted looks on their faces when the subject comes up. One highly respected PD reporter says, "Judging from the conversations I've had, I would say that about 70 percent of the staff felt that Jordan should be fired. "
PlainDealer executive editor David Hopcraft, who personally hired Jordan at the PD, felt differently. "Had he made up - fabricated - a news story, I would have fired him," said Hopcraft. However, Hopcraft felt a three-day suspension without pay was a punishment consistent with the severity of Jordan's ethical breach. "What he did was plagiarize the writing style of an opinion," albeit, Hoperaft acknowledged, the plagiarism was word-for-word, which goes beyond a matter of mere style.
Hopcraft also said that some years back a PD writer was caught after plagiarizing a story for the paper's Sunday magazine supplement. That writer was not fired either, so, as Hopcraft sees it, it would have been unfair to let Jordan go. Hopcraft said the staffer was not allowed to write for the paper for about five years. He was assigned a copy editingjob. It is debatable in Hopcraft's mind whose punishment was worse - The other writer, Hopcraft said, did not have to go through the emotional beating that Jordan has taken.
Jordan says, "I've talked about all this already, and I'm not going into it anymore. My name has been spread all over the country. I've been likened to Janet Cooke, which is total BS. " Cooke was the WashingtonPost reporter who won, then lost, the Pulitzer Prize several years ago when it was discovered that her prize-winning efforts should have been entered in the fiction category. She was summarily dismissed, and her name in the industry became Mudd. She, like Jordan, is black - not a matter of irrelevance to Walter Williams.
"It's a slap in the face to black reporters," Williams says. "What people like George Jordan and Janet Cooke are doing is creating two standards of accountability in journalism - a low one for blacks and a high one for whites. Yes, I tried to get Jordan fired. It was a matter of personal pride, and racial pride. I was sitting at lunchcounters illegally in Georgia before Jordan knew where his asshole was."
Jordon came to The Plain Dealer from a job as a feature writer at the Minneapolis Tribune. He says his first newspaperjob was also in Minneapolis, at the defunct Star, where in 1978 he worked as a summer intern while still an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota.
The Star at the time was in competition with the Minneapolis Tribune. Former Tribune reporter John Kostouras remembers Jordan well.Jordan plagiarized one of his stories.
It was a story Kostouras had written about the condominium boom in Minneapolis. "It wasn't hard to spot, since the papers were in competition," Kostouras says. Kostouras remembers when Jordan came to him to apologize - Jordan's punishment. "As he stood there saying he was sorry, I recall thinking, 'This guy is standing here apologizing, but he feels absolutely no remorse at all.' "
Hopcraft says he was unaware of this or any other such incident in Jordan's career.
Jordan says that first incident was the result of two things: his being young and working at his firstjob, and his use of Kostouras's story as a source of information for his own story. His notes were not in good order when he sat down to write, and, he says, some of Kostouras's work slipped in through the mess. "It was only a statistic," Jordan says. Actually, it was three paragraphs - word for word. But the plagiarism did not seem to bother the Minneapolis Tribune that much. The paper gave Jordan a job three years later.
Almost a month after Walter Williams upset Tom Vail with the news of Jordan's second plagiarism, the paper finally got around to running a public apology - December 14 last year. It was also the day William Buckley broke the story. With the Jordan incident out in the air, the Cleveland public showed its gratitude for its only newspaper. "I am not as disturbed by the act of plagiarism as I am by the fact the The Plain Dealer's public regret and soul-searching probably came out because William Buckley's column left you no choice,'" Michael Kuharcik of Brook Park wrote to the paper. His comments reflectedwhat many PD readers felt.
At just about the same time, but outside the public eye, Congressman Dennis Eckart's office in Washington D.C. was dating the receipt of a General Accounting Office survey that was about to backfire in the face of one of the PD's most ambitious investigative series in years. December was indeed a baneful month for The Plain Dealer.
The investigative series, called "In the Name of Charity, " ran in the paper during November 1982. Three reporters spent six months looking into the whys and wherefores of how tainted food, outdated medicine, and faulty medical supplies reach Third World countries through international charity organizations in the U.S. There were two dozen stories in all, and they ran over a week's time.
Shortly after the series appeared, Congressmen Dennis Eckart of Mentor and Edward Feighan of Lakewood signed a letter that Eckart's office sent to the General Accounting Office. The letter asked for a GAO investigation into the series's allegations, especially those that questioned the effectiveness of the laws governing the Food and Drug Administration's responsibilities in the matter.
"We believe the allegations are serious enough to warrant a thorough inquiry by the General Accounting Office and a determination whether Congress needs to consider enacting some legislative remedies," the letter asserted.
The GAO complied. When its report came back in late 1983, it summed up its findings on the first page. "Our review disclosed no evidence to indicate that the type of problems discussed in the Plain Dealer articles were wide-spread, thereby requiring legislative action by the Congress."
The rest of the report is damning by faint praise. It credits 77ie Plain Dealer with effecting a change here and there, but finds that the paper overreacted on the general issue of inappropriate and/or impure food and faulty medical supplies being sent overseas.
Given their time and manpower limitations, the GAO says that it was impossible to cover every allegation contained in The Plain Dealer's two dozen stories. "We did not attempt to take 7We Plain Dealer point by point, " says the project's chief, Carl Fenstermaker. "We tried to look at the big picture, to see whether any more controls were needed."
The crux of the GAO investigation was simple: to determine if the Food and Drug Administration, whose primary concern is food and drug purity within in the U.S., should be restrucured to have more power over food and drugs exports.
But while the crux may have been
simple, the ramifications boggled the minds of even the most serene Washington bureaucrats. "We're talking about structuring another giant bureaucracy within a giant bureaucracy, " says GAO spokeswoman Pat Moran - a restructuring that would cost countless millions of taxpayers' dollars.
That was what the GAO investigato