Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Be careful whom you call an irrelevant billionaire

I certainly didn’t start out to be a media critic, but lately it seems to be my calling.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer removed sportswriter Tony Grossi from his Browns beat last week because of an inadvertent tweet (a tweet is sent from a social media Twitter account) that went nuts on the Internet (viral) with his name attached.

The tweet said that Browns owner Randy Lerner is a “pathetic figure, the most irrelevant billionaire in the world.”

Grossi meant the tweet for one friend and instead it went to all of his followers – all 15,000 of them.


He deleted the tweet from his account feed but by that time it was too late. It’s like the inappropriate photo the teenager posts on Facebook. Once it’s out there, it’s out there.

In the aftermath of the inadvertent tweet, Grossi informed his editors and attempted to call both Lerner and Browns president Mike Holmgren but was unable to connect with either.

Subsequently, editor Debra Adams Simmons, managing editor Thom Fladung and sports editor Roy Hewett decided to remove Grossi from the beat on the grounds that Grossi had compromised his objectivity.

PD reader representative Ted Diadiun, whom I consider a friend from our days as colleagues at Horvitz Newspapers, wrote the company line in a follow-up column, which was published Jan. 28, and received more than 800 online comments. (I didn’t count to see how many of those comments agreed, or disagreed, with the PD’s decision. There were plenty on both sides.)

The Plain Dealer, Diadiun explained, apologized to the Browns organization for Grossi’s tweet.

“But Fladung was still left with a problem: His Browns reporter had revealed to the world his utter disdain for the owner of the team he was covering,” Diadiun wrote. “How would the paper's readers be able to have faith in the objectivity in his reports following that?”

Diadiun quoted Fladung as saying, “In another area, it would be an obvious call. What if the reporter covering City Hall called the mayor pathetic and irrelevant? What if a reporter in the Columbus bureau said that about the governor? They would be removed from the beat immediately. It’s the same with this situation.”

Well, let’s dissect all that. A lot of reporters have disdain for the people they have to cover. And usually they don’t keep that fact well hidden – colleagues know it, friends know it and, in the case of the mayor or governor, political opponents know it. And so do editors. (If they don’t, they’re not paying attention.)

Did Lerner already sense that Grossi had little use for him? Probably. Did he care? Probably not.

Up until this season, Grossi appeared during the fall on a Channel 3 program that focused on the previous weekend’s Browns game. The show also featured former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano and former Browns guard Doug Dieken and was hosted by anchor Jim Donovan. Dieken and Donovan are the radio voices of the Browns and are employed by the team.

Rutigliano and Grossi offered the most honest criticism because, perhaps, they were not bound by the limits of biting the hand that fed them. Dieken and Donovan, meanwhile, seemed like apologists at times.
I’m not sure fans benefit from apologists.

In addition, it is the media outlets, such as the Plain Dealer, that are encouraging their reporters to become social media users and for new hires it’s a requirement. Twitter is fraught with danger, yet reporters – especially sports writers – are not only supposed to write their stories, they’re supposed to tweet, post to Facebook, shoot their own videos, appear on podcasts and so on.

The dullest story on the sports page is the “gamer” – the quarter-by-quarter, objective regurgitation of yesterday’s game. In the era of DVRs and You Tube, “gamers” are the dinosaur on the sports page. But, what the heck, they’re primarily objective.

I’m certain the PD isn’t paying Grossi to write such pabulum or tweet that quarterback Colt McCoy had a good statistical performance on Sunday. That kind of stuff doesn’t sell newspapers. Fans want the inside story. They want the opinions of the writers who cover their teams.

So, Grossi screws up and tweets to the world that the Browns owner, who ultimately is responsible for the team on the field and who charges fans millions of dollars every year to watch mediocrity in action, is a “pathetic figure” and “irrelevant billionaire” and it gets him a reassignment.

Lerner, meanwhile, gets to charge the city of Cleveland for millions of dollars worth of improvements to Cleveland Browns Stadium.

I think that’s pathetic.

OK, Plain Dealer, if you want to reassign Grossi, maybe you do it when it becomes apparent that he is unable to cover the team because no one – the owner, the management, the coaches, the players, the support staff – will talk to him and therefore his reporting abilities are rendered useless.

But I’ve got a feeling that Grossi could have repaired the damage the tweet caused. He didn’t, after all, say anything about Lerner’s mother.

I’m just trying to be objective here.

Also see Sports Illustrated's Peter King's take on the issue here (item No. 4).

Also see Jim Donovan's interview with PD managing editor Thom Faldung here.

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter (dfarrell_dover). This commentary also is scheduled to appear in the Feb. 3 edition of the Bargain Hunter.


ryanstraits said...

I tend to think the PD's editors had it in for Grossi for a while and that this errant tweet was just the final straw. I, personally, wasn't a big fan of his writing or the way he handled the Brown's beat. I feel like he abused his power as the top beat writer in town and had a major part in getting Eric Mangini ostracized in the Cleveland media just because Mangini didn't care to share as much info with Grossi as maybe previous coaches had. I, like many people of my generation, have moved away from reading beat writers of major newspapers and have turned to blogs (such as yours) to get opinions on the news. Maybe Grossi will do the same now and I'll actually start paying attention to what he has to say.

Anonymous said...

Another nail in the casket of local news content (and production)......more feel good stories please?