It’s official. In Saturday’s edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “reader representative” Ted Diadiun addressed at length the decision to remove long-time Browns writer Tony Grossi from the team’s beat. Diadiun’s article is well-written, superficially persuasive, and apparently effective, given the number of emails we’ve received from folks who believe based on Diadiun’s article that the newspaper did the right thing.
But it doesn’t change our opinion that the Plain Dealer cowered to the Browns. In fact, it strengthens it.
When scrutinizing an employment decision, inconsistencies in the reasons and rationalizations from the employer become extremely important. The thinking is that, if the employer can’t tell a unified story in support of a supposedly legitimate decision, it’s possible that the employer is trying to conceal potentially illegitimate motives. Circumstantial evidence also takes on a critical role, since the employer rarely will admit to ordering the Code Red. Or, perhaps for these purposes, a Code Orange.
And that’s really the ultimate question. Did the Browns order a Code Orange on Grossi? Or, more accurately, did the Plain Dealer reassign Grossi because it believed the Browns wanted Grossi out?
Let’s consider the facts, the circumstances, and the inconsistencies.
First, the facts. Grossi posted on his Twitter page a message that he had intended to keep private. In the message, Grossi called Browns owner Randy Lerner a “pathetic figure” and “the most irrelevant billionaire in the world.” (Of all the billionaires in the world, technically one of them must be the most irrelevant.) Grossi immediately deleted the tweet once he realized his mistake. By then, however, his words had been copied and repeated across the Internet, and it was impossible to unring the bell.
Grossi apologized publicly, the Plain Dealer apologized publicly, and Plain Dealer publisher Terrance C.Z. Egger sent a written apology to the Browns and to Lerner.
Though not addressed in Diadiun’s column, the Browns responded with silence. Apart from declining to comment in response to inquiries from PFT, the Browns and Lerner refused to take calls from Grossi, and possibly from other officials of the Plain Dealer. Indeed, Diadiun admits that “[n]one of the editors involved talked with anyone connected with the team” before making the decision to reassign Grossi.
Diadiun omits reference to the key question of whether the Plain Dealer tried to have such discussions.
Second, the circumstances. Most significantly, Diadiun admits that Egger personally met with Lerner and team president Mike Holmgren on Wednesday, after the decision was made to reassign Grossi. The fact that a meeting occurred invites speculation that the Browns cared — or at a minimum that the Plain Dealer believed the Browns cared — about the manner in which this situation was handled.
Third, the inconsistencies. On Thursday, Plain Dealer managing editor Thom Fladung told 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland that the “determining factor” for the decision was the following standard: “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.” Fladung also said that Grossi’s opinions would have been permissible if he had posted them not on his Twitter page, but in the pages of the Plain Dealer. “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.”
But Diadiun’s item contains a contradictory quote from Plain Dealer editor Adam Simmons, who thinks that Grossi’s role as a beat writer precluded him from making the statements about Lerner in any context. “If it had been a columnist who wrote that, we might cringe, but that role is different,” Simmons said. “They’re paid to offer up opinions, however prickly. But we’re not asking them to go out and cover a team in a fair and balanced and objective way, like we are with a reporter.” (Presumably, Simmons also believes that a columnist could have offered those opinions on his Twitter page, since opinions are fair game for a columnist.)
Complicating matters is Diadiun’s attempt to reconcile the action against Grossi with his First Amendment rights. Rather that relying on the simple — and accurate — notion that employees of a private, for-profit enterprise have no First Amendment rights, Diadiun draws a clumsy line between personal and professional social media. “Anyone who works at the paper has the right to say, write or Tweet anything they wish,” Diadiun writes. “But they do not have a corresponding right to say it in the newspaper or on the website or on their newspaper Twitter account. If they do, the editors who are in charge of maintaining the credibility of the newspaper have the right to change their assignment.”
So Fladung says that Grossi could have said what he said in the paper, Simmons says that Grossi couldn’t have said what he said anywhere unless he was a columnist, and Diadiun says that Grossi could have said what he said on his own, personal Twitter page. And no one says it’s impermissible for Grossi to secretly possess those views, even if those views (as Diadiun writes) undermine his credibility. Under the newspaper’s view of journalistic ethics, it only becomes a problem when those views are disclosed — which actually should make Grossi even more credible, since he has openly acknowledged his bias.
The end result is a stew of mixed messages, which invites speculation that the real reason for the move was to maintain a good relationship with the Browns. Though there continues to be — and likely never will be — any evidence that the Browns told the Plain Dealer what the Browns wanted the Plain Dealer to do, some of the loudest and clearest messages can be sent through silence.
When Grossi or others from the Plain Dealer tried to call Lerner and/or Holmgren and they refused to speak, what should a reasonable person conclude? Moreover, why would a meeting with Lerner and Holmgren even be needed if the Plain Dealer didn’t care about the team’s response to the situation? If this decision was solely about journalistic standards and the integrity and credibility of Grossi’s coverage in the eyes of the audience given his personal views regarding Lerner, there was no reason to go to Berea and kiss rings and/or smooch butts.
That’s the fundamental disconnect. The Plain Dealer wants us to believe it engaged in a textbook exercise in ethics while at the same time doing things like writing letters of apology to Lerner and publicly calling Grossi’s words about Lerner insulting and personally meeting with Lerner and Holmgren.
Though the Browns may not have intended to order a Code Orange, we believe that the Plain Dealer believed that it needed to remove Grossi from the beat in order to remain in the good graces of the Browns. And we’d have far more (or, as the case may be, any) respect for this decision if the Plain Dealer would simply admit that which upon inspection of the facts, the circumstances, and the inconsistencies seems obvious.