OHIO — In August 2011, The Blade of Toledo published an eyebrow-raising report: 16 employees of a Canton-based direct marketing firm, had made the maximum legal donation—$5,000—to two Republican congressional candidates, Senate hopeful (and state treasurer) Josh Mandel and incumbent Rep. Jim Renacci. Six of the employees’ spouses had also given maximum donations, bringing their household contribution to $20,000.
As the detailed, well-crafted article by Tony Cook pointed out, the donations were unusual because many of the employees at the Suarez Corporation had never before contributed to federal campaigns. Furthermore, several lived in modest homes and did not appear to work in high-paying jobs. But the company’s owner, Benjamin Suarez, is wealthy, and, as The Blade reported, has a history of giving to Republicans. Those circumstances raised suspicions—denied by the company—that the workers’ donations had been reimbursed by their employer, which would be a violation of campaign finance laws.
Cook followed up his original report a day later with an interview with Suarez, who said his employees “make enough money that they can easily pay $10,000.” Other than that, though, his coverage seemingly did little to spark the curiosity of the Ohio press.
Then, nine months later, the story was advanced by a national reporter, Alec MacGillis of The New Republic. Deep into a lengthy, in-depth cover story about political upheaval in the Buckeye State, MacGillis revealed that federal investigators have been looking into the Suarez employees’ donations. He explained that he had gotten tipped off to the story by the original Blade article, writing:
This sort of pattern raises red flags: Federal law bars employers from reimbursing employees for giving to a certain candidate - a method employers could use to evade limits on their own giving. To find out whether that had happened in this instance, I set off to ask the employees themselves.”
By the second interview, MacGillis had a hint of “an investigation.” His third employee interview revealed that the FBI had initiated a probe.
The New Republic piece roused Ohio’s media, which within days jumped on the story with articles from The Associated Press, The Blade, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, the Dayton Daily News, the Canton Repository, and The Columbus Dispatch. A few days after the local follow-up, Mandel’s campaign returned the donations from the Suarez employees, saying the move was taken out of an abundance of caution until the FBI probe was finished.
Several days after his TNR story hit the Web, MacGillis weighed in again with a blog post titled, “Who Will Tell the People?” He patted Ohio’s press corps on the back for quickly following his story and for getting Mandel’s campaign to acknowledge the investigation. But MacGillis also lamented the fact that no local reporters had unearthed the federal investigation before him:
But one also can’t help but look at this episode as another example of the public cost of the woes of local journalism. Consider: the questionable donations have been public knowledge since last August, when they were brought to light in an article by Tony Cook of The Blade. Yet as far as I can tell, that initial report did not lead to any follow-up pieces, least of all by the papers that cover the corner of northeast Ohio where the company, Suarez Industries, is based—the Canton Repository and the [Akron] Beacon Journal. Glad as I am to take credit for uncovering the FBI investigation, it did not exactly require Watergate-level reporting—while in Ohio, I simply visited the homes of some of the Suarez employees and asked them about their contributions, which prompted a couple of them to mention the FBI inquiry.
The cost of this journalistic contraction cannot be overstated—it helps explain, for one thing, how lobbyists targeting state legislatures, like the conservative ALEC network, can have such under-the-radar success on issues like the stand-your-ground laws, which can be passed all across the country without anyone really noticing until the Trayvon Martin case.
MacGillis—who closed his post by “urg[ing] everyone to read and support their local papers, wherever they are”—raises some valid points. While the presence of only two reporters in the Statehouse press room isn’t actually all that unusual—most papers with Columbus bureaus have their own offices, and with sessions ongoing, reporters may have been attending hearings—Ohio is no exception to the bleeding the newspaper industry has seen nationwide. When I worked at The Plain Dealer’s Statehouse Bureau, we had six reporters and a secretary. Today, that bureau has shrunk to three reporters. The Columbus bureau for the Akron Beacon Journal once had four reporters and two interns. Today, that bureau is closed.