My problem with media criticism

by Gregory Korte on March 7, 2010

Cincinnati Empowerment Zone map

Cincinnati Empowerment Zone

The cynical definition of a critic is “one who knows the way but can’t drive the car.” Generally speaking, critics of the arts are better at criticism than they are at the endeavor they’re criticizing. Otherwise, they’d be artists and not critics.

But media criticism is a unique undertaking. Critical writing about journalism is itself an act of journalism, and ought to be held to the same standards as the work it trains its eye on.

Unfortunately, too much media criticism fails to do some basic fact-checking. Like, if you’re going to criticize a news outlet for failing to cover something, check to make sure it has indeed neglected to cover it.

Take the recent criticism by two former Cincinnati Enquirer staffers — Peter Bronson and Ben L. Kaufman — of the Enquirer’s coverage of the Cincinnati Empowerment Corporation.

Bronson, who was editorial page editor and a conservative op-ed columnist for the Enquirer before being laid off last year, would have readers believe that the Enquirer didn’t write a single critical story about the Cincinnati Empowerment Corporation from 2002 through 2010.

Kaufman, who left the paper in 2002 and is now the Citybeat media critic, passes along Bronson’s criticism approvingly: “Bronson excoriates The Enquirer — for which he was a columnist and editorial page editor — for its cowardice, suggesting fear of being accused of racism often restrains any sense of duty as a public watch dog. The Empowerment Zone is not the first fiasco of its kind involving years of willful ignorance and timidity.”

The problem here is that the basic premise — that Enquirer editors imposed a news blackout on any coverage critical of the Cincinnati Empowerment Corporation — is just plain wrong. (Full disclosure: As the City Hall reporter for the Enquirer from 2001 to 2005, I was partly responsible for coverage of the Empowerment Zone.)

So here, as a public service, I present a partial accounting of stories by the Cincinnati Enquirer over the years documenting problems with the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp.:

  • Broadnax Pitched for Agency,” by Mark Curnutte, October 16, 1999: “Supporters of former Cincinnati Health Commissioner Stanley Broadnax, who served 28 months in prison for drug abuse and cocaine trafficking, want him to lead a public agency charged with rehabilitating nine of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.”
  • “Wrong Choice for Empowerment Zone,” editorial, October 30, 1999: “Mr. Broadnax is a terrible choice to handle millions in public money. And the controversy over his appointment is damaging an agency that will need public support and credibility.”
  • Empowerment Zone Going Nowhere, Winburn Charges,” by Dan Klepal, December 24, 1999. “Cincinnati’s new empowerment zone board has been powerless during its first year because of infighting, a lack of direction and an organizational structure that has rendered it lame, a city council member says.”
  • Blight Fighters Mired in Indecision,” by Dan Klepal, March 16, 2000: “Cincinnati’s empowerment zone has been ineffective and could be stripped of its designation if it doesn’t follow six recommendations made by City Council on Wednesday, council members said.”
  • Dueling Plans Target Inner City,” by Derrick DePledge, August 27, 2000: “Renee Crawford … said she is afraid some businesses and social service groups are acting in self-interest instead of for the good of the neighborhoods. ‘It’s a wonderful thing if it ever gets off the ground,’ she said. ‘But it looks like some organizations just want their piece of the pie.’
  • Leader Finally Takes Over City Empowerment Zone,” by Ken Alltucker, January 13, 2001: “It took two years and two failed candidates before the Cincinnati Empowerment Zone found a leader.”
  • “Empowerment Zone, Three Years Later: Few Results,” by Ken Alltucker, May 14, 2001: “Three years and one race riot later, the nine neighborhoods — most of them predominantly African-American — are still the city’s poorest, and the plan hasn’t been put into action.”
  • “MIA Empowerment Zone,” editorial, May 17, 2001. “Three years after Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. was formed to rebuild nine of our poorest neighborhoods, it has no results. Zero.”
  • “Cincinnati Empowerment Zone Targeted,” by Derrick Depledge, February 5, 2002: “The Bush administration determined there was ‘no convincing evidence’ that providing grant money along with the tax breaks available through empowerment zones makes the initiatives more effective.”
  • “Thumbs Down: No Empowerment,” editorial, February 9, 2002: “The Empowerment Zone board members caused needless delays when they tried to rig the bylaws to hire as director Stanley Broadnax, a former city health commissioner convicted of cocaine trafficking. … Faster action by the Empowerment Zone might even have reduced the turmoil.”
  • “Federal Grant Use Questioned,” by Derrick DePledge, February 10, 2002: “The Bush administration’s decision to strip federal money for some empowerment zones from next year’s budget was based in part on questionable results in cities like Cincinnati, federal officials said.”
  • Empower Whom?” by Peter Bronson, April 26, 2002: “A January financial report shows that Cincinnati’s Empowerment Zone spent nearly a dollar on administration for every dollar on programs — and those included hip-hop, crafts, karate and boxing for ‘anger management.'”
  • Audit Says Cincinnati Wasted Much of Empowerment Grant,” by Gregory Korte, February 4, 2003: “The agency responsible for running the Cincinnati Empowerment Zone misspent thousands of federal dollars and failed to produce results in key programs, according to a just-released federal audit”
  • “Sustainable Jobs,” editorial, February 5, 2003. “A federal audit of Cincinnati’s Empowerment Zone program further damages its credibility as a jobs creator for poor neighborhoods and strengthens the case for ending outright grants in favor of tax breaks.”
  • Empowerment Official Sought in Theft-ring Case,” by Howard Wilkinson, October 4, 2003. “One of the 23 people indicted as part of a theft ring that police say fenced stolen goods through corner markets is the staff accountant for the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp.”
  • “P&G Backing Out on Jobs Plan,” by Cliff Peale, September 2, 2004: “Higher costs and project delays have prompted Procter & Gamble Co. to pull out of a proposed $30 million investment in Cincinnati’s empowerment zone.”
  • Agency’s Spending Under Fire,” by Gregory Korte, October 26, 2004: “City auditors said Inner City Health Care Inc., a 30-year-old agency with an original mission to provide health care to minority communities, often submitted ‘false documentation’ for expenses it had not incurred. The agency sought reimbursement of $28,967 through the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. for a 15-passenger van it never bought.”
  • “Interlaced Lives: Dale Mallory Appointed Now-Suspect to Board,” by Dan Klepal, April 18, 2006. “Dale Mallory helped appoint the man who allegedly shot Kabaka Oba outside City Hall last week to a powerful board that handles millions of redevelopment dollars for poor areas of town.”
  • “Mayor’s Brother Scrutinized,” by Gregory Korte, June 14, 2006: “A federal anti-poverty program is reviewing its contract with the brother of Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory after discovering he billed the agency for working to bring a controversial social services center to the West End.”
  • “Mallory’s Bills ‘Troubling’: Mayor’s Brother Asked to Repay Some Money; He Says No,” by Gregory Korte, June 19, 2006: “Dale Mallory’s bills to a federally funded anti-poverty program ‘raise some troubling questions’ about how the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. hires and monitors its consultants, including possible conflicts of interest, lawyers for the agency said in a report.”
  • “Agency Director’s Purchase Questioned,” by Gregory Korte, June 27, 2006: “The executive director of the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. has obtained ownership of a West End building where an Empowerment board member is a tenant, raising more questions about conflicts of interest at the federally funded development agency.”
  • “Inner City Non-Profit’s Funds Frozen,” by Gregory Korte, June 29, 2006: “The city of Cincinnati has frozen its funding for a nonprofit organization that helps inner-city neighborhoods after questions arose about conflicts of interest involving its board and staff.”
  • “Activists Grill Empowerment Corp.” by Gregory Korte, July 11, 2006: “Neighborhood activists confronted the board of the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. on Monday, demanding to know why the agency used federal tax money to promote a controversial church-run social services center in the West End.”
  • “Empowerment Agency Faces Probe,” by Gregory Korte, July 19, 2006: “The Cincinnati Police Department and federal authorities will conduct a joint investigation into the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. after reports of conflicts of interest at the inner-city development agency, a top police official told the West End Community Council Tuesday night.”
  • “Cole, Empowerment Corp. Spar in Hearing,” by Gregory Korte, August 2, 2006: “In a sometimes contentious public hearing before Cole’s neighborhoods committee, the councilwoman challenged Empowerment Corp. officials on possible conflicts of interest, and about the administration of a $5 million loan program.”
  • “Empowerment Corp. Lawsuits Target Companies That Got Loans,” August 5, 2006: “The Cincinnati Empowerment Corp., under scrutiny from city and federal agencies for its business practices, has begun to take action against several businesses that received federally subsidized loans.”
  • “City Resuming Payments to Development Agency,” by Gregory Korte, September 1, 2006: “The city of Cincinnati will resume payments to its inner-city development agency following a two-month freeze to look into allegations of conflicts of interest.”
  • “Questions Raised Over Non-Profit,” by Jane Prendergast, February 2, 2010: “Cincinnati City Council members want to know more about why the city and a non-profit agency that’s supposed to help create jobs in Cincinnati’s most struggling neighborhoods did not take advantage of $130 million in federal bonds before they expired.”
  • Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. Has Little to Show for $25 Million,” by Jane Prendergast, February 21, 2010: “The Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. promised jobs and major development in Cincinnati’s poorest neighborhoods when it started 10 years ago. But now that the program is about to end, there’s almost universal agreement that it fell far short of expectations, leaving questions about who is to blame and who should have been monitoring the agency.”
  • City Could Investigate Revitalization Agency,” by Jane Prendergast, March 7, 2010: “Cincinnati City Council members this week will be asked to launch an investigation and audit of the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp., the nonprofit agency that was supposed to help revitalize nine of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.”

If this is the picture of a newspaper neglecting to write about an agency’s problems, I’d hate to be at the agency the newspaper decides to report on.

I e-mailed Messers Kaufman and Bronson (a courtesy neither one of them extended to anyone at the Enquirer) to ask them if they had read any of these stories. Mr. Kaufman said he had, and that he nonetheless stands by his criticism. (Though he clarified that his critique was institutional, and not personal.) Mr. Bronson responded, but asked that his e-mail be off-the-record. I’ve decided to honor that request.

Am I being thin-skinned? Maybe. Like a lot of reporters, I’ve taken my share of abuse from bloggers, and I’ve let it slide. But Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Bronson are former colleagues who used to be — and perhaps still are — professional journalists. Is it too much to expect them to do a basic web search before criticizing a news organization for not covering something?

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