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Dennis Kucinich's Media Fight

by John Nichols

Ohio voters head to the polls for a primary election Tuesday, and that can mean only one thing: The Cleveland Plain Dealer is griping about Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

There is nothing new, nor anything wrong, with newspapers holding members of Congress to account.

In fact, it would be good if more did so.

But the Plain Dealer, the uber-dominant daily newspaper in the city and its suburbs since the folding a quarter century ago of the feisty Cleveland Press, is not exactly holding the congressman to account. Rather, it is looking for every opportunity to put a former mayor, with whom it has sparred for decades, in his place.

The Plain Dealer's penchant for pounding on Kucinich has little to do with the congressman's failed presidential bids or his current advocacy on behalf of changing U.S. foreign policy, restoring a measure of balance to our trade policies or impeaching members of the Bush-Cheney administration for high crimes and misdemeanors.

While there is no question that Kucinich has put himself at odds with party leaders and pundits in Washington and Ohio - some of whom disagree with him ideologically and many of whom think his Democratic presidential campaigns of 2004 and 2008 gave new meaning to the word "quixotic" -- Kucinich is hardly the only Cleveland-area House member who stretches the boundaries of the political etiquette. (Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who represents a neighboring district, mounted an necessary but controversial challenge to Congressional approval of the results of the 2004 presidential election because of unresolved issues with the vote count in her state.)

Nor is the newspaper's gripe a personal one rooted in bad blood between individuals on the staff and a particularly-independent local official. While a few old timers remain from the days when Kucinich and the paper clashed on an almost daily basis, the penchant of the paper's writers to pound on Kucinich knows no generational limitation.

The Plain Dealer's distaste for Kucinich is institutional. Since the 1970s, when he was the 31-year-old "boy mayor" of Cleveland, Kucinich has rubbed the city's economic elites - for whom the Plain Dealer has often served as a friendly newspaper of record - wrong. Kucinich never behaved as the Plain Dealer's editors expected a mayor to behave. He refused to bend to the demands of the downtown bankers and the corporate CEOs who had gotten used to local officials - Democrats and Republicans - making populist noises but doing as they were told when it came time to choose between the boardrooms of the city's office towers and the ethnic neighborhoods of the city and its working-class suburbs.

Kucinich's refusal to permit the privatization of Cleveland's municipal power plant was a classic battle between a city's economic, political and media elites on one side and an almost unimaginably principled official on the other. The business community and its media mouthpieces tossed every charge they could at the mayor and most of them stuck. He was ultimately driven from office with a reputation so smeared that, when I arrived in Ohio as a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, one of the first things I "learned" was that Kucinich was probably a bit unbalanced and certainly "finished forever" in politics.

Only after meeting and interviewing the former mayor did I come to the conclusion that what the Plain Dealer and many other Ohio media outlets saw as instability was a rare commodity in that state's stilted politics: a principled determination to stand against entrenched power, even at great political expense.

As a political writer and later an editor for The Toledo Blade, I became a regular reader of the Plain Dealer. I came to respect much about the newspaper, and I retain high regard for many of its writers. (Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz's latest column on the media's mistreatment of Hillary Clinton is smarter and deeper than anything else I've read on what is rapidly emerging as a serious issue in this campaign.)

But I was always struck by the energy Ohio's largest newspaper -- and other media outlets that followed its lead - always expended when it came to going after Kucinich.

To be sure, the congressman's brought scrutiny and criticism on himself; even when he's right, he can be more rigid and righteous than is politically smart. But, the thing is, Kucinich does have a tendency to be right - on the war in Iraq, on civil liberties, on trade policy, on health care reform and even the media-ownership issues that most unsettle the managers of chain newspapers.

Unfortunately, being proven right scores an Ohio politico few points from the state's major media outlets. In fact, the most consistently correct political players in the state - folks like Senator Sherrod Brown and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur - have for years taken media hits for their steady criticism of trade pacts and economic policies that have turned out to be disasters for Ohio.

Kucinich's successful battle to preserve municipal power in Cleveland may have protected working families from spikes in their utility rates. The former mayor's warnings that the bankers and the CEOs would abandon Cleveland in its hours of need may have proven to be prescient. But, still, the savaging by the Plain Dealer has continued.

Even when the voters of Cleveland and neighboring communities restored the former mayor to public life in the 1990s, first as a state senator and then as their representative to Congress - in each case, choosing him over Republican incumbents in "Reagan Democrat" swing districts - there would be no forgiveness and no forgetting by the local newspaper.

Kucinich, it is said in Cleveland, could walk on the waters of Lake Erie and still the Plain Dealer headline would read "Dennis Can't Swim." Uninspired primary challengers have still enjoyed friendly coverage - and sometimes enthusiastic endorsements -- from the Plain Dealer.

This year, as Kucinich seeks reelection in a March 4 primary where he faces a reasonably well-financed challenge from a Cleveland councilman who has made a rough peace with the local elites - as well as several less fiscally-endowed contenders -- the Plain Dealer is campaigning as hard to defeat the congressman as are his foes.

The newspaper has not merely endorsed Kucinich's most prominent opponent, a one-time fan of the congressman named Joe Cimperman, it has taken every opportunity to portray Kucinich - whose passion for all things Cleveland, from polka music to kielbasa to steel factories is legendary -- as a flaky foreigner who neither understands nor cares about the city and its suburbs. The paper spills almost as much ink recounting actor Sean Penn's support of Kucinich than it does on the Hollywood lefty's movies.

Never mind that challenger Cimperman does not live in Kucinich's 10th District - the councilman is a resident of Congresswoman Jones' neighboring district but is Constitutionally permitted to run where he chooses - Kucinich is portrayed as the interloper. "Cimperman cannot vote for himself March 4," the Plain Dealer admitted in a February 21 editorial that may go down in history as one of the more bizarre arguments ever made by a newspaper on behalf of its endorsed candidate. "But people in the 10th District who want real leadership can vote - for Joe Cimperman."

What is "real leadership" in the eyes of the editors of the Plain Dealer? In Cimperman's case, it is best defined as a willingness to work with the community's business elites. Yes, the councilman objected at first to a Wal-Mart being located in a neighborhood where it was expected to threaten locally-owned shops. But when the chain store prevailed, chirps the PD, Cimperman accepted his lemons and "made lemonade." Translation: He made peace with the developers. That, the paper says, is the measure of "a smart leader."

Kucinich, on the other hand, is condemned for standing too firmly for living-wage jobs, local shopkeepers and real health-care reform. And it's not just Kucinich who is attacked. When local labor leaders stand up for the congressman who has fought with them to block bad trade deals and protect good jobs, they are accused of giving Kucinich "too much credit" for standing up for workers.

The editorials, the columns, the news analysis articles dismissing the assertions made by labor leaders in Kucinich's television ads, the constant references to Cimperman as a "workhorse" and the congressman as a "show horse" will continue through Tuesday. Then the voters of Cleveland, Lakewood, North Olmsted, Parma and neighboring communities will have their say. If they believe the Plain Dealer, they will reject Kucinich and get themselves a congressman who is skilled in the art of compromise. On the other hand, it they listen to Harriet Applegate, the executive secretary of the Cleveland-based North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, who says that Kucinich's edgy critique of corporate power - and even of corporate media -- is what's needed in Washington.

"It doesn't help to have all 435 members of the House be compromisers and negotiators," argues Applegate. Despite the Plain Dealer's preaching, the veteran union leader says, "Dennis Kucinich has worked tirelessly for working people, and that is why labor supports him." Conversely, it is Kucinich's refusal to compromise that guarantees the Cleveland Plain Dealer will continue to criticize this congressman for so long his name remains on the ballot.

John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press and the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of TRAGEDY & FARCE: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy — The New Press.

© 2008 The Nation

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