Though the Cleveland Plain Dealer still has not acknowledged the move on its website (other than to finally remove his name and face from the roster), Tony Grossi no longer covers the Browns as a beat writer, following the accidental publication of a private Twitter message that called Browns owner Randy Lerner (pictured) “pathetic” and an “irrelevant billionaire.”
Browns spokesman Neal Gulkis tells PFT that the Browns have no comment on the situation.
There’s still no evidence that the Browns pressured the Plain Dealer to make the move. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, however, both Lerner and president Mike Holmgren refused to accept calls from Grossi after the message was posted and deleted. We’re also told that a meeting occurred Wednesday between Plain Dealer publisher Terry Eggar and Holmgren.
The Plain Dealer has been nearly as silent as the Browns. Managing editor Thom Fladung called the Kiley & Booms radio show on 92.3 The Fan this morning to explain the decision, and Fladung’s explanation was less than persuasive, in our opinion.
The decision to remove Grossi from the beat was driven by this “determining factor” articulated by Fladung: “Don’t do something that affects your value as a journalist or the value of your newspaper or affects the perception of your value and the perception of that newspaper’s value.”
That’s a pretty broad — and vague — rule. And that’s the kind of standard that gives a news organization the ability to do pretty much whatever it wants whenever it wants, because there’s pretty much always something to which someone can point as proof of “something that affects your value as a journalist or the value of your newspaper or affects the perception of your value and the perception of that newspaper’s value.”
Making Fladung’s “determining factor” even more confusing is the fact that he admitted that Grossi could have deliberately expressed a strong opinion about Lerner in a column published and printed in the Plain Dealer without conseqeuence. “Let’s say Tony had written that Randy Lerner’s lack of involvement with the Browns and their resulting disappointing records over the years has made him irrelevant as an owner, that’s defensible,” Fladung said. “That’s absolutely defensible.”
What’s indefensible is the failure of the Plain Dealer to acknowledge the fact that Grossi never intended to make the statements available for public view. He fell victim to the subtle but significant differences between a “direct message” (which is private) and a “reply” (which is public) on Twitter. It was an accident. A mistake.
Let’s go back to the days of typewriters and shorthand, and let’s say that Grossi’s editor has two boxes on his desk. One is for article submissions and one is for proposed topics. And let’s say that Grossi scribbled out a scathing column about Lerner as a proposed topic, but Grossi accidentally put it in the box of actual submissions for print.
That’s the low-tech version of what happened here. Grossi accidentally put his message in the wrong box.
So when Fladung says he “felt very strongly” that the Twitter message “was inappropriate and unprofessional and . . . it’s not the kind of opinion a journalist covering a beat can express,” Fladung presumes that Grossi actually intended to articulate that opinion to the world. He didn’t. It was inadvertently blurted out, like a temporary case of Twitter Tourette’s.
Some have suggested that the Twitter blunder provided the Plain Dealer with a vehicle for addressing pre-existing concerns regarding Grossi’s overall job performance. Undercutting that theory was Fladung’s assertion during the radio interview that Grossi is a “very good” and “very successful” beat writer.
I’m continuing to write about this because it’s the kind of mistake that could happen to anyone, and everyone should be entitled to the benefit of the doubt in a case like this, especially when newspapers and other media companies want their writers to engage with the audience through various new technologies and platforms. It also just “feels” like an unjust result, whether because the Plain Dealer is being obtuse or because the Plain Dealer is cowering to the Browns or because the Browns are remaining deliberately silent in order to secure the preferred outcome of having Grossi removed from the beat.
Regardless, we’re disappointed in the Plain Dealer, in Fladung, in the Browns, in Lerner, and in Holmgren. And we hope that one or more of them will snap out of it and do the right thing, or at least let the rest of us know in far more convincing fashion why they believe the right thing was done.