By Jon Cassidy | Ohio Watchdog
If the editors of the Cleveland Plain Dealer had any regard for their own principles, they would have reassigned reporter Tom Feran a long time ago.
But Editor-in-Chief Debra Adams Simmons and Managing Editor Thom Fladung are hypocrites who publicly espouse one principle while practicing something very different.
Earlier this year, they forced out their reporter covering the Cleveland Browns over an errant tweet, yet they ignore a steady stream of lefty tweets from the reporter sitting in judgment over Ohio’s political class.
Feran is the reporter assigned to PolitiFact Ohio, the Plain Dealer’s franchise of the national fact-checking operation from the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Fla. He produces one-sided hackwork, but so do most of the reporters who write for the site. What makes Feran unique is that he’s unembarrassed to use Twitter to offer support for President Obama, or call conservatives “yahoos” and “wingnuts” and compare them to Mephistopheles.
Mainstream news reporters don’t do that sort of thing; most closely guard a reputation for impartiality. Their employers generally hold to the ideal of objectivity, while acknowledging that true objectivity is impossible.
At Watchdog.org, we tend to think that all journalism is filled with subjective judgments about what matters and why, and that a reporter’s thinking suffuses even apparently straightforward news pieces. The question isn’t whether a reporter has opinions (we all do); it’s whether he gets the facts right, and organizes them in a way that tells you something true about the world.
Feran just gets the facts wrong. The man went to Harvard, yet something as simple as the concept of tax brackets escapes him entirely.
That’s why we think he should be replaced – not for bias. His cartoonish views may inhibit him from ever asking the questions that would lead him to a deeper understanding of the world, but that’s not a firing offense.
However, the editors of the Plain Dealer aren’t so lenient about harboring personal opinions.
Here’s how Simmons, the editor-in-chief, explained the newspaper’s decision to reassign Cleveland Browns beat writer Tony Grossi for accidentally tweeting that the team’s owner was “pathetic” and “irrelevant.”
“If in your most private moments you feel like the leader of the institution you cover is pathetic, that raises questions about how fair you can be,” Simmons said. “And once those opinions become public, it becomes a bigger problem. There’s the potential for readers to question the objectivity of everything you write.”
Is there one part of that quote that doesn’t apply to Feran?
Here’s Fladung, the managing editor, on the reason for reassigning Grossi (who, by the way, left the paper to work for ESPN, rather than accept reassignment):
“In another area, it would be an obvious call,” said Fladung. “What if the reporter covering City Hall called the mayor pathetic and irrelevant? What if a reporter in the Columbus bureau said that about the governor? They would be removed from the beat immediately. It’s the same with this situation.”
What if the man you appointed judge of politicians said that conservatives stand for “opposition to American working men and women, the channeling of trillions of dollars to the richest Americans, hatred of gays, hatred of immigrants, continued smoldering racism, opposition to desperately needed health care reforms, opposition to all environmental protections, spitting hatred for science, hatred for public schools, hatred of all those who are not fundamentalist Christians, support for torture, support for rendition, and support for the fantastically corrupt Bush-Cheney regime?”
Would you seriously offer that man to the public as a neutral judge?
We offered Simmons and Fladung a chance to explain themselves, but they did not respond.
Simmons and Fladung could argue that several of the tweets were sent while Feran was still working as a TV critic, but he was expressing support for the Occupy movement as late as last fall, more than a year after he started writing for PolitiFact.
They could argue that bias is a big problem in game stories but not political news, but that would be absurd.
They could argue Feran is like a columnist, paid to express his opinion. But PolitiFact won’t budge on that point. National editor Bill Adair has told the paper, “We are not putting our opinion in our work. We are doing solid, journalistic research, and then reaching a conclusion. That’s not the same as opinion.”
Or they could make the point that Plain Dealer Reader representative Ted Diadiun made about the Tony Grossi reassignment: “This was not an issue of First Amendment rights or of censorship. Anyone who works at the paper has the right to say, write or Tweet anything they wish. But they do not have a corresponding right to say it in the newspaper or on the website or on their newspaper Twitter account. If they do, the editors who are in charge of maintaining the credibility of the newspaper have the right to change their assignment.”
That wasn’t a consistent explanation even then. Is the problem what a reporter thinks in his “most private moments,” as Simmons put it? Or is it that one’s Twitter account doesn’t include a bunch of disclaimers and legalese emphasizing that it’s a personal account? One is a question of authenticity; the other, perception.
Fladung already has said that this sort of thing is an “obvious call,” and if that’s what he believes, he should act accordingly.
Why is the call any less obvious now?
Is it because Feran is kind of a big deal? He’s the former president of the Television Critics Association of North America and was named Best Ohio Columnist of 2007 by the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2011, he was even inducted into The Cleveland Press Club Hall of Fame, joining the company of great names like John W. Raper, Emerson L. Batdorff and Gordon Cobbledick.
We think the problem isn’t what goes through Feran’s head in private moments, or what hat he wears when he speaks his mind. He could still be fair.
A tweet doesn’t prove anything but the hypocrisy of those who said it does. The problem is this system of error, which says that conservatives are not just wrong, they’re liars.
As Fladung said of Grossi’s tweet, “That’s not an opinion. That’s an insult.”
Contact Jon Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org