The power of a publisher

Some consider the Cleveland Plain Dealer's decision to endorse no one for president a victory -- the paper almost gave the nod to Bush.

Published October 27, 2004 4:12PM (EDT)

Election Day hasn't yet arrived and already a few crucial votes won't be counted in Ohio. The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio's largest newspaper, published a nonendorsement Tuesday in the presidential election after a bitter feud erupted between the editorial board -- which voted to endorse John Kerry -- and the paper's publisher, Alex Machaskee, who favors George W. Bush.

In its editorial, the newspaper acknowledged that a majority of the board had voted to endorse Kerry. (The vote has been erroneously reported as 5-2 when there are 10 people on the board, including Machaskee, although he rarely takes part in day-to-day editorial decisions.) What the Plain Dealer didn't acknowledge, however, is the part its publisher played in squelching the majority vote. Even so it is no secret that Machaskee injected himself into one of the most important presidential elections in recent history, in one of the most important swing states in the nation.

After overruling its board, the Newhouse-owned paper was set to run an endorsement of Bush at Machaskee's behest last Sunday, written by deputy editorial director Kevin O'Brien, a staunch conservative. Immediately before the vice presidential debate in Cleveland on Oct. 5, O'Brien wrote a column giving Dick Cheney advice on how to win the debate: "The Democrats and their media sympathizers have spent four-plus years making you out to be a mean old sourpuss who hasn't cracked a smile since public hangings went out of fashion. Take this opportunity to remind America that you're a human being possessed of a wealth of knowledge and experience and a wry sense of humor."

But according to sources at the paper, longtime editorial page editor Brent Larkin stepped in to stop the Bush endorsement. As one reporter at the Plain Dealer put it, "Larkin made a Herculean effort to move it from a pro-Bush to a no endorsement. [It] must have taken a lot to back the publisher down. That's considered a huge victory."

In its non-endorsement, the Plain Dealer, internally deadlocked, made the case for ducking its own responsibility: "After nearly four years spent watching George W. Bush as president, and after a year of watching Sen. John Kerry campaign to oust him, we have decided not to add one more potentially polarizing voice to a poisoned debate. We make no endorsement for president this year. Our readers certainly should not take that as an invitation to walk away from the civic responsibility of casting a ballot for the man they believe best suited to facing the challenges of the Oval Office."

"It's not so much that the publisher overruled the editorial board," said Bill Reader, assistant professor of journalism at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. "That happens all the time. But it's important to pick a side and vote, not then say, 'Well, we can't decide, so we're not going to.' They in effect became the disinterested nonvoter, and in Ohio that just doesn't fly. The Philadelphia Inquirer weighed in with something like 25 editorials about why Kerry is the pick," Reader continued. "The Chicago Tribune has a big target on its chest for endorsing Bush. The paper in Crawford, Texas, endorsed Kerry. So some papers are being very brave."

(The Washington Post reported Wednesday that relative to 2000, 36 papers have switched from Bush to Democratic candidate Kerry; six have switched from the Democrat, Al Gore, to Bush; and nine have made no endorsement.)

Aly Colon, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, an independent school for journalists, is a little more generous in his interpretation of the brouhaha. "You're looking at a polarization that does mirror the division in the body politic itself. But it's not uncommon that when the newspaper's editorial board favors a particular candidate the publisher tends to have the final say on what takes place. The fact that the Cleveland Plain Dealer decided not to endorse a particular candidate officially is in many ways admirable, in that the publisher decided not to have one or the other take precedent. The endorsement issue is not the same as a vote."

The precedent of publishers having the final say in editorial endorsements dates back to a time when cities had more than one paper and each had a clear point of view. Publishers were journalists who also happened to be business owners. Now, many publishers are not journalists at all -- which is certainly the case with Machaskee.

Roldo Bartimole, a longtime critic of the Plain Dealer and an independent Cleveland journalist, has reported on Machaskee's perceived misdeeds for more than a decade in a self-published newsletter (no longer in circulation) and through his column that has appeared in local alternative publications over the years. Indeed, one of Bartimole's first pieces on Machaskee's rise to power chronicled a long list of complaints lodged against him by editors and reporters at the Plain Dealer. It also cited the nickname he earned for how he acted on his way up the corporate ladder: "The Snake."

Machaskee began at the paper as a "promotions department flack," as Bartimole put it. His lack of journalism experience prompted him to seek membership in the journalism fraternity Sigma Delta Chi -- unsuccessfully. And he may even have played a role in turning Cleveland into a one-paper town. In a book by Jim Neff titled "Mobbed Up," Machaskee is reported to have asked Teamster boss Jackie Presser to make trouble at the rival paper, the Cleveland Press, which folded in 1982. Machaskee has denied the allegation.

A former executive editor at the paper who was pushed out by Machaskee told Bartimole in February 1990 that Machaskee's assent to publisher "means the continuation of the encroachment into the newsroom from the business side." Although the comment may just be the sentiment of a disgruntled former employee, Machaskee's meddling on the editorial side has been constant, from spiking columns that reported unpleasant things about advertisers to demoting editors who shifted the placement of ads to accommodate editorial content.

In an outline of a speech he was to deliver years ago, obtained by Bartimole, Machaskee wrote, "[Reporters] seem all too ready to accept the line of various consumer activists, many of whom are acting to fulfill various personal agendas which often have nothing to do with the public good. These reporters too often fail to adequately report the utility industry's side of a rate hike request, for example. Nuclear power's long range benefits and its total acceptance in other countries, for example, are often overshadowed in reporting by the uninformed fears foisted on the public."

Notably, the very utility he was defending has a long and sordid history in Cleveland. Most recently, in August 2003, it was the cause of the largest blackout in U.S. history. It also is the owner of the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant, which has been repeatedly shut down by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for major safety violations.

It's not just on internal matters that Machaskee has breached accepted ethical boundaries. When Cleveland Mayor Michael White (who finished his third term in office in 2001) was feuding bitterly with the Cleveland City Council, Maschaskee took it upon himself to go down to City Hall and offer his personal services as a peacemaker. That nobody had invited him seemed a matter of little concern.

In another incident, Machaskee flexed his muscle with the local National Public Radio station, WCPN, by demanding that it provide more ethnic programming. His heritage is Serbian, and some have speculated -- oddly enough -- that this had something to do with the endorsement meltdown. Markos Moulitsas Zúniga wrote in his weblog Daily Kos last Saturday that Machaskee was put off by the fact that former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, whom Machaskee considers an enemy of Serbia because of the Kosovo war, was dispatched by the Kerry campaign to press for an endorsement.

Zúniga wrote: "Word has it that after Holbrooke met with the editorial board and left the room, Machaskee looked around the room, crinkled up his nose, and said, 'Now we're gonna have to fumigate this place.'"

But one Plain Dealer reporter says that Machaskee and Holbrooke were never in the building at the same time. Besides, Machaskee has a history of overruling his editorial board for reasons having nothing to do with his Serbian heritage. Two years ago, the board voted to endorse Republican Gov. Bob Taft's Democratic opponent, but Machaskee stepped in and Taft got the nod instead.

Aside from that incident, Machaskee's meddling with editorial had receded a bit since Editor Doug Clifton took over in 1999. Clifton has largely been credited with turning a beleaguered newspaper into a mediocre one -- no small feat, given the declining state of northeast Ohio's business climate and a continuing loss of college-educated people from the region. "It's my understanding that Alex and Clifton are feuding over this endorsement," noted another Plain Dealer reporter. "Since Alex has had problems with editors in the past, Newhouse told him when Clifton came on board that he better not have a problem with this one. So it looks like Clifton got a partial victory with the non-endorsement."

Over 65, Machaskee is already past retirement age and perhaps isn't as powerful as he once was. "Machaskee has obviously lost some stature because [the editorial board] is not doing what he wanted them to do," says Bartimole. "There's been a combination of resistance from within and bad publicity from without that caused them to try to cut their losses to come up with this silly no-endorsement editorial."

The paper may have cut its losses, but many reporters were left wondering why it didn't just write an endorsement of Kerry and give Machaskee space to make his case for Bush. After all, if readers are capable of making up their own minds, as the Plain Dealer said in its non-endorsement, then why not give a full airing of the debate? What's more, because most readers don't necessarily understand the relationship between a publisher and its editorial board -- which could have been explained -- the non-endorsement has left some with the impression that it might become a metaphor for another stolen election.

"I think the endorsement was stolen from Kerry," said Ellie Sullivan, a task force chairwoman for Ohio Women for Kerry. "I think that it's illustrative of the despotic management style that exists at the Plain Dealer. But they had to backpedal. That was a minor victory. I think that it's better not to have an endorsement than to endorse Bush, but still it was a robbery."

This story has been corrected since it was published.

By Lisa Chamberlain

Lisa Chamberlain is a writer and editor in New York City.

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2004 Elections