Today I was terminated from my engagement as a freelance blogger at the Cleveland.com blog "Wide Open" as a direct result of intervention of Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Bainbridge Township) of the 14th Ohio Congressional District, in retaliation for my previous blogging about his re-election campaign and my financial support for two of his election opponents.
In August, the Cleveland Plain Dealer hired four Ohio political bloggers to contribute to a daily political group blog called "Wide Open". In order to assure balance, two bloggers with liberal leanings were chosen, and two with conservative leanings. The other participants are Jill Miller Zimon of Writes Like She Talks, Tom Blumer of BizzyBlog, and Dave of Nixguy.
My participation in the project soon came to the attention of Rep. LaTourette. More after the flip.
I had written extensively about LaTourette's 2006 re-election contest and I explicitly supported his challenger, law professor Lew Katz (D-Pepper Pike). I also wrote about what I regard as the suspicious connection between large amounts of campaign cash LaTourette received from the Ratner family of Cleveland, of the Forest City real estate empire, and their receiving an enormous contract to develop 44 acres of the Southeast Federal Center in Washington DC. LaTourette was a member of the powerful Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and Chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, which oversees the agency that awarded the contract (the General Services Administration). (That writing is here and was picked up here.) My wife and I also contributed a modest amount to the Katz campaign.
I was told by Cleveland Plain Dealer Online Editor Jean DuBail that Rep. LaTourette complained about my involvement in "Wide Open" to Cleveland Plain Dealer Editorial Page Editor Brent Larkin. I was also informed that LaTourette brought the matter of my participation up during an interview with Cleveland Plain Dealer political reporter Sabrina Eaton, when she talked to LaTourette about the retirement of Rep. Dave Hobson (R-Springfield). LaTourette mentioned that I had contributed the sum of $100 to the campaign of LaTourette's current opponent, Bill O'Neill (D-South Russell). Eaton suggested that he raise his concerns with more senior people at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. As a result of the conversation, Eaton reported my contribution in her story about third quarter campaign fund-raising by various Ohio Congressional candidates.
Cleveland Plain Dealer Online Editor Jean DuBail raised the matter of LaTourette's displeasure with my participation in "Wide Open" in discussion with the four bloggeres on at least two occasions. We discussed the possibility of my making a disclosure of my support for LaTourette's opponents whenever I wrote anything about LaTourette.
Today Dubail called me and asked if I would agree to never write about LaTourette on "Wide Open," as a condition of my continued participation. He said that the arrangement was sought by Susan Goldberg, Editor of the Plain Dealer. When I declined to agree that I would never write about LaTourette on "Wide Open," I was terminated by DuBail.
As a political blogger, I am a partisan. My political orientation as a progressive Democrat is an integral part of what I do and is completely transparent to my readers. This is a crucial component of being a political blogger/activist, and sets us apart from journalists in the classic sense. It was understood among the four participants in "Wide Open" that we are political partisans and that we would engage in political debate from our respective political points of view.
I am extremely disappointed that the Cleveland Plain Dealer bowed to pressure from an elected official, to the extent of attempting to limit what a freelance political blogger could write on a hosted group blog and of terminating the services of the blogger to please the offical. To me, this sad episode strikes a heavy blow at freedom of expression and the purported journalistic independence of a once proud newspaper.
Of course, I am appalled at this petty exercise of political power by Rep. LaTourette to retaliate agianst even so insignificant an enemy as me. I do not believe that a Congressman who stoops to the level of manipulating a newspaper to strike back at a critic deserves to remain in office. Fortunately, LaTourette has a strong opponent in 2008 challenger Bill O'Neill.
UPDATE: Tonight Cleveland Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg has sent out emails about the situation that contains a critical factual error. Goldberg says that the Plain Dealer "didn't bow to any political pressure" because "had we known that he had contributed to the opponent of a person he was writing about, we wouldn't have hired him in the first place." She also has asserted that I've "slammed" LaTourette while the newspaper was paying me.
First, I have never written about Rep. Steve LaTourette at the Plain Dealer blog "Wide Open," not even once. My only writing about LaTourette was on my own blog long before "Wide Open" started in September 2007.
Second, at least two of the other bloggers involved in Wide Open have contributed to candidates - for confirmation as to one see here. They have not been fired.
Third, I have contributed to other candidates, but only my contribution to LaTourette's opponent seems to be an issue.
This event was clearly, unequivocally caused by LaTourette's pressure.
2nd UPDATE It seems like the Plain Dealer hopes to make this story go away by making it seem complicated. It's simple. Here's what happened:
- Four bloggers were hired to be bloggers, NOT reporters. The whole idea was for us to vigorously advocate our respective positions. We were carefully balanced between liberals and conservatives. Nobody asked if we had made poitical contributions or supported candidates, which would have seemed silly anyway.
- LaTourette complained to the Plain Dealer about me participating. He talked to Editorial Page Editor Brent Larkin at least once and to reporter Sabrina Eaton once. Eaton told him to take his concerns to senior levels, which I assume he did. He did not raise any issue about the other liberal blogger, who has made contributions to Democrats, just me.
- I was fired because LaTourette complained. It would not have happened if LaTourette did not exert pressure. My fellow blogger Jill has made donations and did not get fired. Online Editor Jean DuBail brought up LaTourette's complaints at least three times in talking to one or all of us. He told me the day I got fired that Editor Susan Goldberg told him to fire me two weeks before, but DuBail held her off.
Ms. Goldberg doesn't deny that LaTourette exerted pressure, she is trying to deny that the Plain Dealer bowed to it. She now says that they would not have hired me if they had known that I had made contributions to LaTourette's opponents.
This is simply not credible. No pressure, no firing. There was no policy against paid bloggers making contributions until they needed it. Now that they say it is their policy, they have to deal with the fact that it was selectively applied (nobody else got fired) and that it doesn't make any sense (unlike reporters, I was paid to express my partisan views).