Monday, May 30, 2005

Spats and Anthrax

anthrax molecule
a lethal anthrax molecule

Two events last week, and the way they were covered in the Portsmouth Daily Times, may be examples of the way in which that newspaper occasionally reverts to its previous practice of manipulating the news and controlling the way its readers perceive local events. The Daily Times was not quite the official organ of the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce and the SOGP porkers, but it was close to it. Without their advertising revenue, the steadily shrinking newspaper could not survive. If a Daily Times reporter dared to try to do the kind of investigative reporting that led the Toledo Blade to expose the scheme by which a prominent political fundraiser and rare coin collector allegedly swindled the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation of millions,* that reporter would soon be looking for another job. Instead of uncovering corruption or incompetence in Scioto County, the Daily Times is more likely to gloss it over, if not cover it up.

Which gets me back to the Daily Times reporting on two events last week, at both of which I was present and therefore know something about firsthand. The first was the Portsmouth City Council meeting, last Monday evening. In recent weeks, councilman Marty Mohr has attempted to change the existing format of council meetings so that citizens cannot speak on items not on the agenda. Instead of focusing on this unusual and even extraordinary effort to restrict free speech, and on Mohr’s earlier dissing of citizens in the council chamber as “crap,” the Daily Times has focused on the protests that Mohr’s insult and his attempt to restrict free speech has prompted. In other words, the Daily Times has made the protests, and not what provoked them, the story.

The May 25th front-page story on the May 23rd council meeting was headlined, “Spats Disrupt Council.” The opening paragraph reads, “Even though it’s hard to find common ground for City Council members and some vocal citizens, they agree that recent disturbances during meetings are not conducive to business.” Jeff Barron closes his report by quoting Mohr and Baughman. Mohr said, “We have an extremely small group of people who enjoy bashing people at meetings, on the Internet and in their newspaper (Shawnee Sentinel).” Barron gives Baughman the last word in the story. “I think the atmosphere discourages outside investment,” Baughman said, “because there has to be an atmosphere of trust.”

Baughman repeats one of the favorite Chamber of Commerce myths of the last quarter of a century, which is that a few people “discourage outside investment [in Portsmouth],” to use his phrase. Twenty-five years ago, according to this myth, three malicious councilmen condemned Portsmouth to another quarter century of economic stagnation by opposing the building of a downtown mall. Two of those councilmen are no longer alive to defend themselves, but one of them, Harold Daub is, and not coincidentally Daub is being cast as the chief culprit of the city council disturbances that are allegedly discouraging outside investment. Daub is being cast as the Darth Vader of Spat Wars. Daub’s behavior at the May 23rd council meeting was not disruptive. I was there. I saw and heard. Daub spoke to the council at the appropriate time, and calmly, but he dared to mention a council member by name, which has become an ejectionable offense according to the imperious standards of deportment set by the dictatorial Baughman and Mohr. Daub was commanded to leave the Municipal Building, and I’ve heard of people who were not there circulating stories he was out of control. The Mauling of Harold Daub continues.

The other event that may have been slanted by the Daily Times occurred on March 24th, the night after the council meeting. It occurred on the Shawnee State campus.

Massie Hall
SSU's Massie Hall: Scene of the "Anthrax" Evacuation

Unlike the “spat” at the council meeting, at which there were a Daily Times reporter and an editor, and about thirty-five citizens, there was no one from the newspaper at what I will call the "Anthrax" Evacuation, judging by the way the Daily Times reported the story. Having been part of it, I thought that the Anthrax Evacuation was the biggest local story of the day, if not the week, and maybe the month, but the Daily Times put the story on page 3 of the same May 25th paper that had the “Spats Disrupt Council” story on the front page. The small story on page 3 is an Associated Press, not a Daily Times story, and the unrevealing and possibly obfuscating headline for it was “White Substance Found at SSU.” White substance? Snow? Cocaine? Why the reluctance to mention in the headline the "A" word, which is what the whole panic was about?

white substance
Associated Press story on page 3 of Daily Times (5/25/05)

Well, of course, how can finding a white substance on campus possibly compete for front-page coverage with a spat at city council? That headline – “White Substance Found at SSU” – may speak volumes for what the Daily Times, and possibly SSU, did not want to publicize about the Anthrax Evacuation, which involved hundreds of students and faculty, as well as more police and police cruisers than I have ever seen at one Portsmouth scene. The potentially tragic Anthrax Evacuation has such possibly revealing and important elements, as well as curious and embarrassing sidelights, that most reporters at most newspapers (certainly those at the Toledo Blade) would love to be assigned to it. But I think no Daily Times reporter has yet written one word on the Anthrax Evacuation. Why not? Writing about council spats apparently has a higher priority.

But I don't think the Anthrax Evacuation story will be buried. Somebody, either because of negligence or misplaced public relations priorities, may have risked the lives of hundreds of people. However, rather than speculate further, I will wait until SSU or public authorities release more facts, facts that Daily Times reporters should be digging up. But in order to do that they need at least temporarily to devote less time to perpetuating the myth that a very small number of citizens, by speaking out at council meetings and writing in the Shawnee Sentinel, are maliciously preventing the economic revival of Portsmouth, and more time to exposing the incompetence and corruption that give Portsmouth a bad name and impede its economic recovery.

*For more on the Toledo Blade story, click on: