There is something going on at the news organization formerly known as the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the world should know about.
It’s not hard to describe but it is hard to explain, especially because the guy who made the call has put up a stone wall since. That would be Chris Quinn, vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group, the digital arm of what used to be the Plain Dealer newsroom, and the operators of Cleveland.com (“covering northeast Ohio.”)
Quinn is the one who:
* A week before the election took down a newsworthy video that his own organization made, which shows Ohio Governor John Kasich behaving disdainfully toward his opponent during an endorsement interview— for example, by refusing to acknowledge Ed FitzGerald’s existence and acting like a question FitzGerald’s asked never happened until it was repeated by a Plain Dealer person. (An audio clip was substituted. Some of the video can be seen here.)
* Threatened with a lawsuit a six-person political blog, Plunderbund, that posted a clip from the interview. (UPDATE: Plunderbund reposted this clip.)
* Refused to answer any questions about his actions, or explain his reasoning when contacted by Jim Romenesko, the media reporter whom everyone in the business knows, by Cleveland scene, the local weekly, by the Sandusky Register, a small daily nearby, and by Crain’s, a local business publication, all of whom received no reply.
* Let stand as the campaign wound down the credibility-crushing embarrassment of removing a clip that reflected poorly on the candidate the Plain Dealer had endorsed for governor.
* Decreed that the Plain Dealer’s ombudsman and reader’s representative would also answer no questions about the take down, which involves video of the only face-to-face debate between the two candidates during the campaign. (I deduce this because Ted Diadiun told me: “I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to ask Chris Quinn for the answers.” I also emailed editorial page editor Elizabeth Sullivan and got no reply, as did Romenesko, as did a local newspaper. So Quinn’s the man and he ain’t talking.)
Steve Benen at the Rachel Maddow blog summarizes why this matters:
Keep in mind, Kasich refused to participate in any debates this year, so this editorial-board meeting was literally the only opportunity for Ohio voters to see their gubernatorial candidates talk about their ideas. It made the discussion, hosted by the Plain Dealer’s editors, arguably one of the more important political events in Ohio this campaign season.
And initially, the newspaper did publish the video of the gathering online. But then the paper pulled the clip, posted an audio-only version, and threatened legal action against an Ohio-based news site that offered readers a YouTube version of the discussion.
Tim Cushing at techdirt chimes in:
Why would it remove its own video? If PlunderBund’s account of the video’s content is accurate, John Kasich’s behavior during this session bordered on the insolently childish. Watching a politicial candidate exude boredom and disdain is hundreds of times more effective (and potentially damaging) than hearing it. An audio version of this “interview” is a defanged version.
Let me summarize it. The leading news organization in the state sponsors the only event of the campaign when the two major candidates for governor meet face-to-face to discuss the issues. The candidate it endorses behaves contemptuously toward his opponent and tries not to acknowledge his existence. These events are captured on video. The video is posted at the news organization’s own site, then abruptly removed without explanation. Lawsuits are threatened if others post clips. Calls to explain these actions are ignored. National media attention is given to the missing video. The readers representative is prevented from commenting. The editor in charge of the debate goes silent. The election is three days away.
Or think of it this way. Why is one of Ohio’s leading news organizations willing to sue to keep its own newsworthy video from voters, and how can it afford to let that question go unanswered during the final week of the campaign?
Nice job, Chris Quinn, vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group. Google page rank for PressThink.org: 7. Google page rank for http://www.neohiomediagroup.com: 6.
I like my chances. (Search.)
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
Nov. 5, morning after the election. The mystery is more or less solved in this column by readers rep Ted Diadiun. Here’s why Chris Quinn took down the interview video of John Kasich, Ed FitzGerald and Anita Rios.
The gist: No one told the candidates they would be video taped. “When the governor’s staff saw the video on cleveland.com later that day, they were chagrined, and contacted NEOMG to ask what happened.” Quinn then decided it was unfair to post the video. He wouldn’t explain any of that because:
“I thought that if I stated my reasons, the obvious next step would be people going to the candidates and asking them if they had any objection to putting the video back up,” Quinn said. “That would mean my error could put people into an uncomfortable situation. That’s not fair. I figured that if someone had to be uncomfortable because of my error, it should be me, so I stayed quiet and took the beating that ensued.”
And the ombudsman didn’t write about it because Quinn wouldn’t explain. “I would look ridiculous trying to read Quinn’s mind, and would look ridiculous writing about something else.” So Diadiun stayed silent too.
Some things worth pointing out about this explanation:
* Notice how the stoic, the man who took the heat and suffered for the good of… well, for fairness, is Chris Quinn.
* That would be fairness to a powerful governor, John Kasich, a possible presidential candidate in 2016. Fairness to readers and voters could wait. Until after the election, after their decision. Fairness to Plain Dealer and NEOMG journalists tainted by this: not a factor.
* Which is more persuasive to you? That a big league politician like Kasich is due deference because he truly didn’t expect the videotape to be posted (although the camera was staring him in the face…) Or, the Kasich campaign freaked when it saw what the video showed and Quinn backed down? Pick one.
* If Chris Quinn is a man who can take the heat for the protection of principle, which is how he is painting this, then what about the principle that voters deserve to see their governor in action during the only face-to-face meeting of candidates? Quinn could have stood his ground and taken the heat from the Kasich camp. Instead, he chose different ground – less information for voters, fair warning to candidates – and took the heat from readers, local journalists and national media critics over that. Why did he make this choice of heats? We don’t know why. “I knew this would get some buzz but I didn’t expect it to get this much,” Quinn said.
* Choosing silence over transparency injures trust, but it also begets more silence, which hurts trust even more. Thus, Quinn’s stonewalling also injured the reputation of the ombudsman, who also failed in the clutch.
* As Jill Miller Zimon, a former candidate for public office, said on her Facebook page: “Every endorsement interview starts with the editorial board telling us that we’re being recorded. Did they omit mentioning that during this unique, rare and newsworthy gathering?”
Nov. 5, afternoon. Reading the hundreds of comments at Connie Schultz’s Facebook page convinces you: readers get it, they care, they are angry. I think the problem with NEOMG’s explanation is this: Neither Chris Quinn nor Ted Diadiun is saying: As a news organization serving the public, our fundamental compact is with the readers, not the candidates, even though we strive always to be fair to candidates and others who figure in the news. NEOMG lost track of a very basic fact about community journalism. So in my view, this is what Chris Quinn should have said:
“…We made a mistake. We lost sight of that fundamental compact, and then we compounded the error by refusing to explain ourselves. Today I am ordering that the video be re-posted and I apologize to our readers for taking it down in the first place. It was an error in judgment because it gambled with something fundamental — your trust. The good terms we hope to maintain with candidates and governors are not fundamental to what we’re about. Your confidence in us as a news provder is. I hope the NEOMG can learn from this because I certainly have.”
Nov. 7. Chris Quinn appeared on WCPN this morning and faced questions from the host, other journalists and listeners. Jump to 12:45 and listen:
Here is some of what he said:
* They had not mentioned video in negotiations with the candidates for fear that one — obviously Governor Kasich — would drop out.
* After the video was posted the Kasich campaign called Quinn and asked, “What are you going to do if others use this for political purposes?” (In other words: they saw the video, and freaked about the possibility of it going viral or becoming an attack ad in 2016. The Kasich camp didn’t have to ask for it to be taken down. “What are you going to do…?” served the same end. And it worked.)
* The host, Rick Jackson, asked about my point above: that Quinn was more concerned about being fair to the Governor than being fair to readers and voters. To this he said the issue was “how you collect your information.” Q. But aren’t you supposed to put readers first? A. “You put your ethics first.”
* So why the week of silence about the reasons for the take down? Quinn said he was hugely concerned that if he publicly explained the screw-up in not notifying the campaigns about video taping, unspecified “people” would ask the candidates if they had any objection to releasing the video— and that would be unfair. (Because Kasich would have to say NO, even though he felt YES.) “It puts the incumbent in a difficult position,” Quinn said. He didn’t explain himself when asked “because the consequences of that decision would have added to the injury.”
* The WCPN host said: well, now you’ve lost the respect of the community. Talk about consequences! Quinn: “I don’t agree we’ve lost that respect.” Here, he launched a classic maneuver more common to politicians. Facing widespread criticism, he framed it as the views of an overheated minority. The name given to this tiny, screeching group: the bloggers. Quinn said they were “shrill,” partisan, plus “humorless” and “over-reacting.” Quinn: “I don’t think the bloggers are the audience we are appealing to.” The incident had been blown “way out of proportion.”
* Quinn denied that the case of the missing video had done any serious harm to the reputation of his news organization. He portrayed himself as a stoic, willing to take the heat. And also slightly bemused that “people” had made such a big deal out of this.
* His fellow panelists were mildly skeptical, the host more doubtful and the callers mostly expressed disbelief, except one. Turned out she knew Quinn before as a source and PR person, and press aide to a former mayor.
UPDATES, NOV. 1-4.
In the comments, I have a hypothesis about what happened. It’s just speculation, probably not worth much.
Monday, 11:15 am. I was just interviewed by WCPN about this story and learned one thing. A Kasich campaign spokesman told WCPN that the Governor did not expect to be video taped. Here’s the story WCPN produced, with some of my comments.
I originally called Plunderbund a “tiny” site but it has six bloggers writing for it, so I changed it.
Plunderbund is not backing down.
Cleveland Scene, a local weekly, covers the story and posts the video. This is now officially another instance of the Streisand effect.
The Sandusky Register takes aim at the ombudsman’s performance in this messs. “Diadiun has some explaining to do.”
In the comments a reporter with state house credentials tells of being ruthlessly cut off from access to Kasich, which is relevant only because some threat like that might be behind Chris Quinn’s panicked decision to remove the video clip and stone wall from then on.
Probably Cleveland journalism’s biggest name:
Jill Miller Zimon alerted me to this story. At her blog she writes:
Whether we like it or not, NEOMG is the only news outlet of its size covering Northeast Ohio. We have numerous other, excellent sources – WCPN, State Impact Ohio, Ohio Statehouse News Bureau, Crain’s Cleveland Business, Cleveland Scene. And nearly all of them have indicated their interest in learning why NEOMG removed the video. So it’s not just us – it’s numerous other relevant players in the NE Ohio media ecosystem.
We want to trust and believe. Just as no one wakes up asking to be poor, no one wakes up hoping that their news provider will fail to be transparent or less than editorially honest with us.
WCPN, the NPR affiliate in Cleveland, does a weekly radio show on which Chris Quinn is a regular guest. The upcoming election was the first topic on October 31, and several low-level campaign controversies were mentioned, including this one involving the Governor’s race, but host Rick Jackson did not ask Quinn about the missing video, although it had been an issue for three days by then.
Of anyone in the local or national media, Jackson had the best chance to get an answer from Quinn but he chose not to. Maybe there were other, more important issues. But that’s not the end of it. WCPN can still get answers. It has reporters. They know about the issue. It obviously had a working relationship with Chris Quinn. I would be shocked if they don’t have his cell phone number. WCP could do the news ecosystem a favor by asking its frequent on-air guest why the video was taken down. They’re in the best position to enforce some basic accountability here. Will they?
This must be some secret:
WAKR, a local radio station out of Akron, editorializes about the mystery of the vanished video. “The editorial decision to post, then remove, content such as this video within the space of days without explanation does require an explanation. If not as a courtesy to readers, then at least as a best practice from a company living by the value of transparent public discourse.”
Columbia Journalism Review: “It should be a straightforward thing for a news organization—especially one that prides itself on engagement!—to offer an explanation.”
John Kasich: The GOP’s Hobbled 2016 Dark Horse. Profile in the Daily Beast.
Here is the email exchange I had with Ted Diadiun, the readers representative for the Plain Dealer and NEOMG.
From: Jay Rosen
Sent: Friday, October 31, 2014 11:17 AM
To: Ted Diadiun
Subject: The Plain Dealer looks really bad here
Hi, Ted. Questions for you in your capacity as a reader’s rep.
I’d like to write about this.
What is going on with un-publishing a newsworthy video, and refusing to comment on why?
You’re getting national attention in the political sphere and in journalism:
My questions are:
1. Why did the company take down the video?
2. Who made the decision?
3. What was the logic of refusing to explain as national attention came to the Plain Dealer and NEOMG for the decision?
Thanks for your e-mail.
I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to ask Chris Quinn for the answers to questions 1 and 3.
Chris is the vice president for content at the Northeast Ohio Media Group, and the one who has made the decisions on this matter.
For context in understanding this reply, the normal task of an ombudsman or readers representative is to field questions from readers and then navigate the newsroom or company bureaucracy to get answers. Ted Diadiun certainly understands the job the way. He’s done it before. Here’s a good example:
…Editors at the Northeast Ohio Media Group agreed that showing the video might help identify the rapist, and were in the process of posting it on cleveland.com, but then quickly pulled it back. Chris Quinn, NEOMG vice president for content, had seen in the blurry image what looked like the attacker pulling up his pants, and was horrified to think that he might be linking to a video of the actual rape.
“You don’t see her, you don’t see the actual act, or anything other than him being down and standing back up and pulling up his pants,” said Quinn. “But no matter how hazy it is, if you really have a video of a rape, that’s something we’ve never had or dealt with before. Even though you can’t really see it, you know what’s happening, you know there’s a woman on the ground there.”
See what I mean? There are questions about journalistic practice. The readers rep finds the person in the company who has responsibility and gets answers. Posting video? Let’s ask Chris Quinn. That’s the normal situation. But it didn’t happen here. Ted Diadiun didn’t go and get answers. He said I will have to go to Quinn myself and get answers. That’s not how the readers rep functions. Diadiun normally writes a Sunday column. No column this week. Diadiun declined to write about an issue that has been covered extensively in the local ecosystem.
I’ve contacted the Kasich campaign to see if they know anything about the take down. I’ve also called Quinn, of course.
UPDATE, Nov. 4. Election Day. Tensions in the Cleveland newsroom are bursting into public view. At Jim Romenesko’s site, Plain Dealer Newspaper Guild unit chair Wendy McManamon criticizes reader representative Ted Diadiun for not getting answers about the video’s removal, when that is what he is supposed to do as readers rep. Diadiun works for both the Plain Dealer and the Northeast Ohio Media Group.
Incredibly (to me, at least) Diadiun says in reply, “I have not written about this or given out quotes because I felt I was in an untenable position and could do nothing to help the situation.” Really, why is that? Sunlight disinfects. Isn’t that a core belief in newsrooms? Then he adds — mysteriously! — “Stay tuned however, if you continue to be interested in this issue.”
What’s he saying? I wasn’t able to do my job before, but soon I will be? Like… after the election, maybe? New York to Cleveland: Adding to the mystery, making things more opaque when it is within your power to explain them, is pretty much the opposite of journalism.
Chris Quinn, September, 2014: “Once we publish something, we’ve got to have a real good reason to remove it.”