The List: Reasons that Columbus Underground opinion piece is trash

There are definitely valid criticisms to be made of local media, but this recently published broadside misses the mark by a wide margin

The Columbus Dispatch sign has illuminated downtown Columbus for decades. The newspaper is celebrating 150 years of publication on July 1, 2021.

“A ‘great city’ requires excellent local media,” writes Harvey J. Graff in a recent column for Columbus Underground titled “Opinion: Columbus’ Identity Crisis and its Media.” We couldn’t agree more. But our agreement mostly ends there, and we write this as a publication that was singled out for praise. Here’s why we’re not on board.

Follow the money

Graff makes no mention of the crippling funding issues within the media, which are far and away the biggest problems facing the industry. Years of massive cuts, steady layoffs and constant talk of doing more with less has left everyone across the board with just that: less. Any media criticism that doesn’t address that reality ignores the cause while amplifying the effects.

Consider the source

There's some deep irony in a piece critical of boosterism being published by an outlet that's as guilty of that as anyone. Part of Underground’s mission, taken directly from its “About Us” page, is to “tell the stories of Columbus by showcasing the best reasons why it is great to live here and why you should build your life here.” Does that sound like the mission statement of an outlet that exposes injustices and holds city leaders’ feet to the fire?

We’re struggling to recall the last time we read a deeply reported piece from CU that broke any new ground. Rather, it seems like the site uses op-eds to fill in the blanks in its coverage, which isn't the same thing as actually reporting. We’d rather see it expand that energy to create what it clearly thinks the city lacks.

Sure, this is an opinion piece, and opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. But it just so happens that this opinion piece goes on to praise Underground — and Ohio Capital Journal and Alive (thanks, I guess?) — for its “alternative” viewpoint, claiming that Underground and its so-called brethren “provide the widest range of coverage and opinion.” For one, it’s not a great look to publish a piece claiming you are awesome and most everybody else is the worst. (At Alive, for instance, we wouldn’t run an opinion piece by someone who claims our site does the best job at covering the Statehouse. We do not, though our coverage of Ted Nugent remains unparalleled.) Secondly, independent ownership doesn't equal “alternative,” which is a word few in the city would use to describe CU. (Honestly, it’s even a stretch to call Alive “alternative” in 2021, though we do strive to continue the alt-weekly tradition as a Gannett-owned digital daily with a staff of two.)

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Cheap shots aren’t the same as real criticism

“WOSU, the National Public Radio affiliate, is problematic at best,” Graff writes. “It fills a great many hours daily rebroadcasting its own and NPR programs, sometimes multiple times a day, week, and month.” WOSU certainly has some issues, which we’ve recently written about. But the description here of WOSU merely defines what a public radio station is and does. It creates its own programs and broadcasts national programs, often at different times. Plus, to say the station is “loath to criticize Columbus” nullifies the important work done by Nick Evans and other reporters who recently left, such as Paige Pfleger and Adora Namigadde.

Graff goes on to describe Columbus Monthly (a sister publication of Alive) as “filled with photos and full pages of advertising,” which is pretty much every magazine, ever. He also claims it is “poorly written and edited,” which dismisses award-winning stories by people like Suzanne Goldsmith, who is one of the better writers in the state, and the masterful editing of Dave Ghose. For five consecutive years, under the leadership of Ghose and previous editor Eric Lyttle, Columbus Monthly has been a finalist for the City and Regional Magazine Association’s general excellence award for its circulation size, a nationwide honor the magazine won in 2018.

Graff saves some of his harshest words for The Dispatch, calling it “often poorly written” (which ignores the stellar writing being done by folks such as Holly Zachariah, Mike Wagner, Erica Thompson, Theodore Decker, Ceili Doyle and many others) and writing that the paper has “no tradition of self- and community criticism.” But even amid continual staff cuts, it’s inarguable that The Dispatch still has the most available reporting muscle in the city, which it regularly focuses on areas of Columbus that could otherwise be overlooked. Witness the terrific 2019 series “Suffering on Sullivant,” or the paper’s more recent reporting on Colonial Village, an East Side apartment complex where residents live in squalid conditions under indifferent management.

Counter to what Graff writes, The Dispatch also regularly engages in self-criticism, most recently in a column from editor Alan Miller, who addressed a headline that ran in last week’s Metro section. The headline used a word to describe immigrants that had entered the country illegally that Miller termed “insensitive and inappropriate,” and he described the circumstances surrounding its publication as a reminder of the essential nature of further diversity training for all staff members. These types of self-critical missives aren’t rare, either, and to ignore their existence further undercuts Graff’s argument.

Unfounded claims of motive

Graff concludes the column by writing, “Columbus’ leading media do not provide the active, responsible reporting and criticism that a city in search of itself, seeking to advance, and working to meet its challenges, requires. By all accounts and both direct and indirect indicators, they all fear backlash if they move in these directions.” Again, we at Alive agree with the importance of responsible reporting and criticism in Columbus; those things are actually happening, despite Graff’s claims. We could always use more of it, and each publication mentioned would surely agree there is room for improvement. But to claim that good journalism isn’t happening at these outlets because they “fear backlash” is an overly broad, spurious allegation. Most journalists in Columbus are dogged, not fearful.