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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

To Sen. Sherrod's Brown's Spouse: Here's The Story's Other Side

CINCINNATI (TDB) -- The Cleveland Plain Dealer's feature section columnist Connie Schultz sounds cranked off in this item published by the alt/weekly Cleveland Scene. Three journalists on the PeeDee's staff in 2006, including the author of this blog, are scored for "breaking the basic rules of journalism."

What pap. In my case, I sent an e-mail from the Plain Dealer's bureau in Cincinnati -- where I was based before retiring last December -- to then editor Doug Clifton. The e-mail went out in January or February 2006. I cc'ed Connie and noted that newspaper stories appearing in Southern Ohio in early 2006 were pointing out she was the wife of Sherrod Brown, who was on a trip around the state announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. Some of those stories identified her as a journalist employed by the Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper.

Now, I was not aware of her marriage. I live in Cincinnati and learned of it around the time the campaigning started. Downstate, Sherrod and Connie were not widely known. I also heard suspicions/complaints/snark from Dems in the Paul Hackett camp, and from some Repubs who liked then-incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine, that the PD's coverage would be biased for Brown. After all, they said, his wife worked in the newsroom. She was a columnist. She had recently won a Pulitzer. And she could influence how the campaign was covered.

Hackett was still in the primary and things were growing bitter on the Democratic side. The Republicans expected a tough fight ahead for DeWine. And, the PD was in the bag.

I composed the e-mail to Clifton, the gist of it saying that things were tough for reporters in the field. They should not have to be under a cloud. Connie probably should get out of the way. She should be at her husband's side for the race. My view expressed in the note: Her activity as a columnist/candidate's wife looked like a conflict. I did not want to have to defend myself or any stories I wrote against allegations they were crafted to carry water for Sherrod Brown.

Connie reportedly met with Clifton as a result of my e-mail. She implies that I should have known about her marriage because it was reported in the paper. "Does he not read the paper he writes for?" she says she asked Clifton.

Yes, I read the paper. Somehow I missed her marriage announcement. Perhaps I was in West Virginia covering a flood that day. Or I was in court, or out trailing a candidate around, or wandering around Appalachian Ohio. Perhaps I was drilling down into the baseball box scores. Or reading Phillip Morris. I missed the announcement.

I must add that I was never an avid reader of the features section where Connie toils, a part of the paper that grizzled old newsroom hands like myself called the "toy department." That's a journo term predating myself or Connie, and comes from the era when the City Room was the heart of a newspaper and the "toy department" produced mostly fluff.

So, the "basic rule of journalism" that I broke was to express concern in writing to the editor in chief that the Plain Dealer's coverage of the Senate campaign was being perceived as less than even-handed, to contend that there should be no possible way for Brown's opponents to assert an insider controlled coverage and tilted it toward the insider's husband. To this day, I am convinced I did the right thing to urge that she be eased aside while the campaign unfolded.

That said, I will add this: She probably ought to find a job outside Ohio journalism now that Sherrod is a Senator. I think active newspapering and a political marriage don't mix, and there is an inference that no bright line exists to stop Connie from promoting her husband's agenda. She may not be doing any promotion -- but too many people will always think she is. And it damages the journalists who are dedicated to playing things straight.


  1. Bill,

    The first thing that I notice about this article is that you're attacking Connie Schultz for something that Cleveland Scene's Joe P. Tone says. He's the one that includes you in a paragraph about PD reporters "breaking basic rules of journalism." Those who have read the book might note that she makes sure to add that PD editor Doug Clifton thought that it was a good point.

    It seems like a rookie blogging mistake to blame the subject of an article for conclusions made by the article's author. Isn't it ironic that this weak counter-attack against Connie proves the point that she never made.

    What's really strange is that you're attacking her for pointing out something that you admit to be true. You compound things by trying to justify your ignorance by denegrating her writing as coming from the "toy department". Can you honestly tell us that you consider her articles on Michael Green to be "fluff". The Plain Dealer certainly doesn't since they feature it on their website to this day.

    I'd bet you the cost of a LexisNexis search that their marriage was covered in more than the "toy department" of the Plain Dealer.

    A smarter way of writing this article would be to instead of attacking her, point out that a major theme of the book was that you were in fact right, no matter how questionably you made your point.

    For the record, I am not just saying all this because of the nice things she says about me in the book nor because we've become friends. ;-)

    I would recommend it to your readers as a fun summer read with a guaranteed happy ending.

    As for her resigning... that's silly. If anyone should resign it should be Sherrod. He is, after all, only been employed at his current position for a few months, and he hasn't won any distinguished awards like the Pulitzer. :-) Honestly, Washington is littered with power politician/journalist couples. What's your real motivation for singling out Connie Schultz?

  2. Hi Chris --

    I sure did not mean to attack Connie. I just wanted to point out that I do not believe I broke any rules of journalism, and still don't believe that I did.

    Sorry that I had no clue she and Sherrod were married when the campaign began. The "toy department" comment was over the top. My wife wife told me that when she read it. She was right, of course. I should have erased it immediately.

    I guess my larger point was: I think that professional newspaper writers need to be careful about conflicts, real or potential. I consider Connie a gifted writer and a very, very extraordinary person, But I still think her presence at the Plain Dealer puts the staff in a hard place. I hope I am wrong. But if Sherrod backs Hillary, and the newspaper endorses Hillary (this is conjecture), then the PD's staff will catch crap from the opposing side because of the supposed inside connection.

    Anyhow, your comment is wise and appreciated.

  3. good god.....for a profession that makes a habit out of complaining that bloggers are so immature, inside-basebally, cat-fighting and petty, this sure is....well.....all of the above. on all counts. from all parties.

  4. Tim --

    Thanks for commenting. And I think you are far more correct than you know. However, a slight disagreement about the "profession" that considers bloggers so petty etc. Maybe some in the profession hold such views. Not everyone does or did. In fact, plenty relish the blogs and bloggers, and many participate.