What’s the story in Cleveland? Don’t ask national media covering the RNC

July 21, 2016
Photo by Nina Berman

Cleveland, as David Giffels describes it, has often felt like Charlie Brown when Lucy pulls the football away: He whiffs on his kick, hurtles through the air, and lands on his back in a pile of dust. “That’s something that we’ve always identified with,” adds the author and University of Akron professor, who’s covering the Republican National Convention for the Cleveland-based Belt Magazine.

“Now, to win a [NBA] championship just weeks before we get this convention—of all conventions—which one defines us?” Giffels says. “Or which one should we allow to define us? Hope and loss are both parts of who we are.”

As with Detroit and other Rust Belt centers, Cleveland’s seemingly contradictory storylines have confused national and international media in recent years. Decline continues in many residential neighborhoods just as the beginnings of a turnaround are evident downtown and in other select pockets of the city. With thousands of journalists descending on the city for the RNC, the past few weeks would seem like a golden opportunity to parse concurrent trends that mirror those seen in many parts of the country.

But the threat of convention mayhem largely drowned out any deep explorations of the state of Cleveland, arousing local trepidation over whether political violence might be framed within the city’s broader, simplistic narrative of decline. Three days in, the protests outside of the convention have been remarkably quiet. And national media’s laser-like focus on political pageantry has instead fit into the city’s simplistic narrative of renewal.

“Let’s face it,” says Julie E. Washington, a pop-culture writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “the conventioneers are going to see the best of Cleveland.”

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Perhaps it’s too much to ask political media to tell the broader story outside of the convention’s downtown confines. But that limitation speaks volumes to what political journalism has devolved into this election season. In Cleveland, meanwhile, residents and local media alike continue holding their breath as the potential for chaos looms on the convention’s final day.

Now, to win a [NBA] championship just weeks before we get this convention—of all conventions—which one defines us? Or which one should we allow to define us? Hope and loss are both parts of who we are.”

“Clevelanders have a real chip on their shoulder,” Washington says. “We’re really sensitive—so used to being kicked while we’re down. And we’re all sort of watching and waiting….With everything going on in the world, we hope we can get through these four days without another tragedy.”

Many commentators in recent weeks have hyperbolically compared and contrasted this year with 1968, when protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago erupted into riots. That’s the fear in Cleveland, accentuated by the reach of digital media.

Despite such risks, cities have long hosted large, staged events in the hope of rebranding themselves as a destination for tourism and investment. While their economic tradeoffs are highly debatable, conventions or sporting tournaments certainly raise a city’s or country’s media profile. During the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China essentially introduced itself as an emerging superpower. In Rio de Janeiro, however, scrutiny of troubled preparations for the this year’s Olympic Games has served to highlight local issues of inequality, pollution, and government inefficiency and corruption.

In Cleveland, powerbrokers spruced up the city, particularly downtown, as the horde of national and international media approached. The 2016 Cleveland Host Committee, the nonprofit organizing the event, also put out a 27,000-word tome of “Stories Worth Telling” about the city and region. 

The host committee’s biblical-length news release included 68 one-page, bullet-pointed summaries of local angles and press contacts for out-of-town journalists. “What Cleveland can show the world besides a historic convention,” the subhead explains. Thematically grouped sections seem designed to counter the typical narratives of post-industrial decline: “Transforming an Economy,” “Reinvestment and Revitalization,” “Remake on the Lake.” 

“We know that we have a great product,” David Gilbert, CEO of the organization, says in a statement. “The convention provides an opportunity to bridge the communication gap so visitors can recognize that Cleveland is an ideal city to live and work in and do business, too.” 

Coverage of Cleveland so far has largely followed many of these positive themes, says Washington, who’s been tasked with covering this week’s media circus for the Plain Dealer. National and international outlets have complimented the local art scene and dining options, in addition to highlighting reinvestment and repopulation downtown.

In one of the more in-depth dives into the city, however, the Associated Press framed Cleveland as “a fractured city, an apt place for a GOP convention.” “It was the usual Cleveland set-piece,” Washington says. But, she adds, “It’s all true.” Poverty, population loss, segregation, and a deep divide over police tactics continue to plague the metropolis. 

“It was like when a guest comes to your house, and you’ve cleaned, but they go into the one room that you didn’t clean,” Washington says of the widely distributed AP article.

That may sting residents who hope their city puts on a good show. But it’s for the benefit of countless Americans struggling to understand—both with Cleveland and the country—what’s going right and wrong.

Local media provides the best chance for the city’s complexities to bubble up to the national consciousness, though in some cases they reverted more toward the role of Cleveland booster as the convention approached. It’s hard to blame them, especially after years of national media fetishization of industrial decline and ruin porn. 

Some non-journalists have also taken it upon themselves to push a more nuanced story as the RNC approached. A collaborative film project called The Fixers has attempted to showcase the state of the city—particularly its neighborhoods—in a series of screenings and meetups in recent weeks. Named after the local journalists on whom foreign correspondents so often rely, The Fixers showcases residents’ views on paltry public transit, reactions to gang violence, and distrust of the police department.

“A tremendous amount of effort has been put into using the convention to rebrand the city,” says Kate Sopko, who spearheaded the project. “Knowing there was going to be such a large amount media attention—whether we wanted it or not—it felt apt to try to move the narrative toward something that’s deeper and more engaging.” 

Despite such efforts, the overwhelming majority of out-of-town journalists have seemed to remain inside the compact event area downtown. “These people from around the country, who really should understand Cleveland, aren’t mixing in with the neighborhoods and seeing real life,” says Giffels, the local author writing for Belt Magazine. “The conversation that we would hope would take place, beyond those [conversations] in the convention hall, don’t really have a great forum.”

To be fair to political media, their ultimate purpose in Cleveland is to cover a political convention. But it bears asking in a campaign in which the surreal candidacy of Donald Trump blindsided nearly every news organization: Should journalists zero in on what’s happening inside or outside of the convention hall to find out what’s really going on?

American political media salivate over intrigue within the halls of power. If Trump’s surprise campaign has taught us anything, however, it’s that political change often happens far outside the Beltway. 

“In Ohio, man, every four years it’s like, here it comes,” Giffels says. “They’re going to jump in and pick the easy narratives, and then the day after Election Day they’re going to pack up and be gone. Flyover country. Now, to be the hyper-epicenter of it this week, it sort of amplifies that feeling.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.