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Mike White Vs. The Plain Dealer

Friday, May 25, 2001 at 2:36 PM

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This week has been full of surprises at Cleveland City Hall. The biggest is that 3-term mayor, Michael White, will not run for re-election. While some speculate that the pressures of public life have taken their toll on the mayor, Cleveland's longest serving top official is showing no sign of fatigue in his long simmering fight with Cleveland's daily newspaper. The dispute between the mayor and the Plain Dealer remains strong, even with the end of White's tenure in sight. 90.3's April Baer reports.

April Baer- When Mike White got up to speak Wednesday before a crowd of friends, staff, and reporters at Miles Standish Elementary School, everyone knew he was about to make an important announcement. But few expected the city’s 54th mayor to relinquish the power the voters have given him in three successive elections.

Mike White- I have decided to place their power in trust. To turn their power they have given me back to them, so they may decide who the 55th person shall be to be the custodian of their power. Ladies and gentlemen I will not seek re-election to a fourth term.

AB- At this moment, the shock sweeping through the audience in the room was matched by the astonishment of three people, standing just beyond the camera’s reach. Plain Dealer Editor Doug Clifton says just before the mayor began speaking, his staff asked PD political reporter Mark Naymik to leave the room.

Doug Clifton- In fact he was asked three times, because he couldn’t believe that he was being evicted from a press conference that there had been an invitation issued to the general public on the radio. In addition, a second reporter was denied access, and the Metro Editor who arrived later was also barred from entering. So I guess it’s a clean sweep.

AB- Mayor White declined to comment himself for this story, but it’s no secret he’s unhappy with the Plain Dealer’s coverage of his administration. Ever since Editor Doug Clifton was lured away from the Miami Herald two years ago, the Plain Dealer’s coverage of City Hall has become considerably more aggressive and independent. With the PD’s increased scrutiny and the effort of an increasingly independent city council, the mayor’s been fighting a Public Relations war on two fronts. The day the Plain Dealer reporters were ousted, the mayor’s spokesman, Brian Rothenberg, told 90.3 WCPN® there have been a number of recent events in which the mayor felt the paper was slighting him.

Brian Rothenberg- There were hundreds of column inches written about airport expansion and about the delay—“this issue’s going to delay it, this lawsuit might delay it”. We broke ground just yesterday. And this morning I pick up the paper, saw no article, just a picture of a bulldozer-with a tag line.

AB- In short, Rothenberg says, Mike White feels the Plain Dealer’s coverage of his administration has been unfair and biased. He considered Wednesday announcement a private event, and didn’t want the paper’s reporters there. This flies in the face of the way news advisories usually travel; for example, this radio station learned of the mayor’s upcoming announcement when contacted by the City Hall press office. For the past two years, the PD’s city hall reporters have been denied one-on-one interviews with the mayor that are standard fare for most city beat reporters. It’s common for the paper to be passed over when press releases and advisories are sent out.

In previous interviews PD editor Doug Clifton has downplayed the effects of the snub. He points out that Thursday morning’s paper still covered the story, comprehensively. He insists that no newsroom worth it’s salt, would rely solely on news conferences to explore the public’s business. However, Clifton’s clear about one thing.

DC- Well, we’re preparing to take him to court if he does it again.

AB- Doug Clifton defends the Plain Dealer’s coverage of City Hall issues. He says the increasingly unfriendly climate at city hall requires his reporters to act as independently as possible. The stakes he says, are simply higher these days.

Mayoral spokesman Brian Rothenberg takes exception to the suggestion that tactics on either side of the dispute have become excessive. But if you ask him why the Plain Dealer is sometimes treated differently than other news outlets, he hints at a fundamental change in the relationship between the mayor and the city’ s largest news gatherer.

BR- We live in a society right now where journalism’s changing. People get news from all kinds of sources. They may get news from their pager, from the radio, they may see it scrolling down a board on Playhouse Square. The day of newspaper competition isn’t there. And sometimes I think that lack of competition actually hurts news reporting.

AB- While Mayor White’s days in office may be numbered, his story is still far from over. The dispute with the Plain Dealer has at times spilled into city business. Several months ago when the Plain Dealer asked permission to re-name the street in front of its new headquarters, the mayor worked hard to try to foil the effort. Mayor White still has seven months left to serve, with several major projects and issues yet to be settled. Neither side in this dispute, though, seems poised to bury the hatchet, just because the mayor’s term will soon end. April Baer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

Additional Information

* The Plain Dealer
* Center For Privacy and 1st Amendment

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