News executives need to explain why video of an Ohio campaign interview disappeared (UPDATED)

Footage of an interview with John Kasich and Ed FitzGerald was pulled, and Northeast Ohio Media Group won't say why

Update, 11/5: NEOMG boss Chris Quinn explains his decisions in a column by reader rep Ted Diadiun, who acknowledges: “This is a column I should have written a week ago.”

Update, 11/9: Quinn appeared Friday on WCPN’s Sound of Ideas program, where he is a regular panelist, and faced some good questions about the episode.

You can listen to the discussion via the embedded audio player, beginning around 12:45. Jay Rosen has a summary and some further thoughts here:

Original post below.

The higher-ups at the Northeast Ohio Media Group aren’t talking. Again.

You may have heard about this one: NEOMG, the digital cousin of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, invited Ohio’s gubernatorial candidates in for a joint editorial board interview on Oct. 23. Gov. John Kasich, the Republican incumbent, spent the interview slouching in his chair, refusing to acknowledge Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald, and generally radiating disdain for his opponent—you can read all about in the NEOMG news article about the interview, posted online that day. The next day, the NEOMG/Plain Dealer editorial board endorsed Kasich, who is cruising to re-election.

Then things got weird. The news article about the interview had featured video of the interview. Since Kasich has refused to debate, a recording of the candidates together was rare, and the video was promoted by NEOMG. But few days after the video was published, NEOMG removed it without notice and substituted an audio recording.

Ohio Democrats, who had been attacking Kasich over his behavior during the interview—particularly his non-response to questions about a “gag rule” for rape crisis counselors—were upset about this, and the lefty site Plunderbund posted a clip from the video. The next day, the site got an unpleasant cease-and-desist letter from Chris Quinn, NEOMG’s vice president for content. Plunderbund promptly took the video down (“temporarily,” it said), though clips have been floating around the internet, and a version is back up at Plunderbund.

Since then, at least six separate journalists or news organizations have approached NEOMG with questions about the episode, in some cases more than once. This is what’s been reported.

  • Jim Romenesko, Oct. 28: “I’ve asked Quinn and editorial pages editor Elizabeth Sullivan about the vanishing video. [Wednesday morning update: They never responded.]”
  • Tom Jackson of the Sandusky Register, Oct. 30: “We contacted Elizabeth Sullivan, the PD’s editorial page editor, by telephone and email to see if we could ask some questions about the decision. We didn’t get a reply, although the newspaper did answer a follow-up email and give us permission to reprint the photo that accompanies this blog post.”
  • Scott Suttell of Crain’s Cleveland Business, Oct. 31: “Chris Quinn, vice president of content, didn’t return a phone call from Crain’s seeking comment.”
  • Jay Rosen, Nov. 1: “[Reader representative] Ted Diadiun told me: ‘I’m sorry, but you’re going to need to ask Chris Quinn for the answers.’ I also emailed editorial page editor Elizabeth Sullivan and got no reply, as did Romenesko. So Quinn’s the man and he ain’t talking.” (Rosen added: “I’ve also called Quinn, of course.”)
  • Nick Castele of WCPN, the local public radio station, Nov. 2: “For those of you following at home, NEOMG’s Chris Quinn politely declined to me to elaborate on decision to pull the Kasich/Fitz/Rios video.”
  • Matt Westerhold of the Sandusky Register, Nov. 2: “Quinn declined to offer an explanation in response to an inquiry from the Register.”
  • Finally, CJR’s Anna Clark emailed Quinn and Sullivan Oct. 31. She has not received a reply. I emailed Diadiun Saturday evening, after seeing Rosen’s post, and had not heard back by Monday morning.

Of all the separate inquiries, the only reported response of any significance was a note from Diadiun to Rosen in which the reader rep wrote that Quinn, the NEOMG vice president, is “the one who has made the decisions on this matter.”

Then there’s the coverage of this episode on other websites, many of them with national audiences: Cleveland’s Scene alt-weekly (and also, and also), TechDirt, Wonkette, MSNBC, Talking Points Memo, WAKR. This is not an obscure story. (I’m probably missing examples in both categories—please email me if you know of more).

It’s not unusual for management at NEOMG and The Plain Dealer to decline to address criticism. CJR has published several stories about labor disputes or declining morale at The Plain Dealer, related to the rise of NEOMG. Each time, management has declined to comment. (Quinn did talk, though, when we asked about the outlets’ new in-house factchecking feature.)

That’s frustrating. But those stories are also largely inside-baseball, and NEOMG and The Plain Dealer are part of Advance Publications, which, in general, don’t talk much about internal operations.

This case is different. Removing the video was a public editorial decision, and the decision has drawn a lot of public discussion. Give NEOMG the benefit of the doubt, and assume for the sake of argument that the video was removed for good reason, like one of the scenarios mooted here. Or, even, the scenario outlined by Rosen here. It should be a straightforward thing for a news organization—especially one that prides itself on engagement!—to offer an explanation.

Instead, the top editor is ignoring calls and emails, the reader rep will apparently not be writing about any of this, and the original article doesn’t even carry an update to note the video’s disappearance. As former former Plain Dealer columnist Connie Schultz writes on Facebook: “The lack of disclosure raises questions and fuels speculation.” It becomes harder to give the benefit of the doubt.

This is how Jill Miller Zimon, a freelance writer and political advocate in Ohio, described the consequences of the silence:

…NEOMG’s failure to provide a public explanation, let alone leave the video up, goes beyond a kick in the collective gut. Absent even the lamest of public explanations, this behavior lends itself to an interpretation that they don’t care how their behavior jeopardizes the community’s striving toward high expectations, high standards and high achievement, particularly in the areas of openness, transparency or public engagement. And, it would seem, again absent their public explaining, that they don’t care that we care. How ironic that this mirrors the very behavior we would see on display in the video we cannot currently access in its entirety.

“They don’t care that we care.” That’s a dangerous place.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.