Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Machaskee To Be Inducted
In Press Club Hall of Fame

In a development sure to give plenty of people a serious case of heartburn, the
Press Club of Cleveland will induct former PD Publisher Alex Machaskee into its hall of fame in October.

The decision comes after a vote of the membership, which will be announced at the group's annual meeting tomorrow, a lunch affair at Windows on the River in which Machaskee's successor, Terry Egger, ironically enough, will be the featured speaker.

Machaskee is a complicated figure, but one who's had an enormous--and I'm sad to say, mostly negative--imprint on the region for many years. One well-researched book on the Newhouse empire (the family that owns the PD) noted that the PD has had a reputation in journalism as one of the more corrupt newspapers in America, and Alex ("the Snake," as he was dubbed some years ago by his newsroom critics) deserves much of the blame for that.

When Teamster president Jackie Presser's FBI files were opened to scrutiny some years ago, my friend Ken Myers (a former journalist and now a prominent civil liberties attorney) wrote in Crain's that they revealed that Machaskee, then the general manager of the paper, had tried to encourage the Teamsters to make trouble for the arch-enemy (now defunct) Cleveland Press. He was perhaps lucky these allegations first arose during the Teamsters-friendly, ethics-challenged Reagan Administration, because they seemed to most experts to be clear violations of antitrust laws, for which he could well have been prosecuted. The Press was then teetering on the edge of viability, and he well knew that problems with the union representing its distribution arm (delivery drivers) could push it over the edge. The Newhouses later touched off a scandal by buying the readership list of its shuttered competitor for millions of dollars, which to some sounded suspiciously like an illegal inducement to close a newspaper. A federal investigation into that matter later ended with no indictments.

In any event, Machaskee's opportunities for mischief grew geometrically once he became publisher, after he cruelly humiliated his predecessor and one-time boss, Tom Vail. Machaskee routinely and improperly meddled in the newsroom, installing a network of spies whose legacy is a culture of internal intimidation and caution that still exists to this day (although editor Doug Clifton has done his best to minimize its vestiges). His close friendship with and protection of George Voinovich, one of the most corrupt public figures of the last quarter century in this town and state, in turn drove many other forms of smaller and more subtle corruption. But the cumulative effect was devastating.

I would argue that by protecting then-Governor Voinovich and his henchmen, and by cutting what he called "vanity circulation" of the PD in such outlying areas as Columbus (which lessened the paper's influence over state politics), Machaskee played a crucial, perhaps central, role in the multifaceted state government scandals that continue to play out to this day. They've unfortunately happened to blow up on the feckless, well-meaning Bob Taft's watch. Still, nearly all of the seeds were sown by his cruder, more streetwise predecessor, who learned his brand of smash-mouth politics in the gritty streets of post-war Collinwood, where one learned to take care of one's friends and really take care of one's enemies.

This controversial selection naturally sheds some light on the Press Club itself (of which I've been a member off and on for years, currently on), which has been a tad anemic in recent years. But then, it operates in a town where it's often said journalism needs an oxygen mask to keep it barely alive. The club (which despite its name draws perhaps half its membership from among the p.r. industry) largely exists in order to confer annual statewide awards (presented at a banquet each June) and install those whose career contributions were deemed worthy into its hall of fame. The latter choices have occasionally been steeped in cronyism--like the decision some years ago to induct a thoroughly mediocre but well-connected PD highway-beat reporter, who proceeded to give a telling glance into her thought process by asking a developer to introduce her at the banquet.

In all fairness, the membership's choices for the hall been getting better in recent years, I think. And whatever his other sins might be, Machaskee's long tenure atop the town's only daily and his universal name recognition probably made him a cinch from the beginning.


At 2:16 PM, Blogger The Full Cleveland said...

Another great review of Cleveland media event. Great insights.

I do, however, feel the need to remind you that PR folks are journalists, as they are significant contributors to any news supply chain. And, like any professional, if they're true to their craft they will uphold and defend its shared standards. I agree the Press Club needs to change. It could begin by updating its antiquated name.

Again, thanks for sharing your insights.

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Jerry said...

Rather than looking like one bad pick, to me it says I should never bother to look at anything else they pick for the hall in the future, either.

At 5:20 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jim (Mr. Full Clev), I think you know that I hold honorable professionals such as you and Chris Thompson and several others in this town with whom I've worked and whom I've gotten to know and come to trust in the highest esteem. I think you also know that the average p.r. person making their choices on a Press Club hall of fame ballot isn't thinking too much about anything other than popularity contests or issues not closely related to strong, independent journalism. Nuff said about that. I'm just glad you've stopped by to read.

And Jerry, as I alluded to in their defense, the club has helped their reputation by making a number of great choices in recent years (due in part to the efforts of one particularly conscientious person on the inside who shall remain nameless). Two years ago, they included a couple of certifiable legends, who also happen to be former alt-weekly colleagues of mine, Roldo Bartimole and Fred McGunagle. I got the honor of introducing Roldo, which came along with the unique challenge of trying to find the right words to frame what he's meant to the town, all before an audience that had often been on the receiving end of his barbs. It was an unforgettable experience. I was just very happy that the club finally did the right thing and recognized a guy whom the Chicago Tribune once dubbed "the conscience of Cleveland."

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous Anne said...

Wow, so much for freedom of the press. I dare say many of us average citizens were clueless about Machaskee. Question is, were the Newhouses clueless also?

Would have loved to have heard your intro for Roldo. I appreciate courage and integrity.

Thanks for another great posting.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger The Full Cleveland said...

I agree enuff said, but please know your justification for indicting PR folks is more so a description of human nature and not of any one profession.

Likewise, I would have enjoyed hearing your introduction for Roldo and watching the reactions on faces in the Press Club crowd.

Last, I'm always better when I stop to read your writing. Thanks for offering it. Best wishes, Jim

At 1:30 PM, Anonymous JerryrITCEY said...

It's good to know they honoured Roldo as well, I find his columns a good way to catch up on a region I am fairly new to...

your intro of him would have been a good podcast, I bet!

At 3:55 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jim, sounds like we should bat this around some more over a beer soon. We probably don't disagree as much as you might think. And Jerry and Anne, I only wish I had taped it back then, because Roldo asked for my notes as a keepsake, but the reality is I only jotted down some rough ideas ahead of time. That was a subject on which I had lots to say, little of which needed to be rehearsed. And by the way, let me hasten to add that his comments as an inductee were far more interesting than any warm-up remarks I could have made.


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