“Tamir Rice's father has a history of violence against women.”
That was the opening sentence of a November 26 news article posted at Cleveland.com, the web portal that outlet shares with its sister company the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Together, the storied newspaper and its more recent offshoot comprise one of the largest news organizations in Ohio.
Tamir Rice was the 12-year-old African-American boy who days earlier had been shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer outside of a city recreation center. Rice had been brandishing an air gun, reportedly waving it around, when a neighbor called the cops. The caller described Rice as a “probably a juvenile,” and repeatedly suggested the gun was “probably fake.” But that information was never relayed to the Cleveland officers who responded to the call. One of them immediately exited his patrol car upon arriving at the park and shot Rice in the stomach from close range.
Question: What does Tamir's father's criminal record have to do with the boy's tragic killing at the hands of a police officer? And why was Tamir's father's mug shot included in a news article about Tamir being shot by the police while playing in the park? (The site's reporting was meant to “illuminate,” according to one newsroom executive.)
Baffled critics, readers and even some Cleveland Plain Dealer staffers are still searching for answers to newsroom questions, such as why, in the days right after the killing, did Cleveland.com provide more critical reporting about Tamir's parents than it did about the rookie officer who killed the 12 year old?
“Depicting black/brown boys and men as violent criminals from poor upbringing is an established media narrative that Tamir didn't quite fit. But Cleveland.com, the website of the city's former paper of record, tried to make him fit into the narrow narrative anyway, by reporting on the criminal misdeeds of his parents instead,” wrote former Plain Dealer reporter and columnist Afi Scruggs. “It's an old, but tired trick used by the news media, especially when it comes to a black or brown person being killed by law enforcement.”
In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent grand jury decision to not indict the white police officer who shot the unarmed teen, Tamir Rice's death has taken on national interest. And Cleveland.com's reporting has come under intense national scrutiny.
The outrage arrived just a few weeks after the news outlet became embroiled in controversy when the site suddenly yanked the video of an unflattering interview the state's Republican governor, John Kasich, gave to Plain Dealer editors in the final days of his re-election campaign. Not only was the video of the Q&A taken down without explanation, but the news site threatened to sue anyone who posted it for voters to see online. (You can watch portions of it here.)
So yes, it's been a troubling month for people concerned about newsgathering in Cleveland.
Here's more from the Northeast Ohio Media Group's October 24 reporting on Tamir's mother, who at the time hadn't yet buried her son (emphasis added):
Samaria Rice was sentenced in February 2013 to two years of probation after she pleaded guilty to the trafficking charge. Charges for drug possession and having criminal tools were dropped when she pleaded, court records show.
Tamir's mother was forced to surrender three cell phones, some cash and a digital scale upon the conviction. At a March 2014 probation hearing, Rice was ordered to undergo monthly drug testing, attend three addiction meetings per week and obtain a GED, records show.
How is any of that pertinent to the killing?
Two days later came the report about Tamir's father and his criminal record. The baffling justification for that news angle? "People from across the region have been asking whether Rice grew up around violence. The Northeast Ohio Media Group investigated the backgrounds of the parents and found the mother and father both have violent pasts," according to the Cleveland.com report (emphasis added).
That article also included information about how Tamir's mother been abused by his father and also by a live-in boyfriend. Question: Wouldn't the upbringing of the police officer who almost instantaneously shot and killed the boy be of more significance to news consumers?
Plain Dealer reader representative Ted Diadiun defended the Rice reporting, insisting that “looking into the background and home life of a kid who meets a violent, tragic end” is the newsroom norm. But Diadum provided no recent examples of when, after a Cleveland police officer killed a young boy, the victim's parents' criminal records were immediately treated as news.
Note that in 2012, when in the mostly-white town of Chardon, Ohio, 30 miles east of Cleveland, high school student T.J. Lane opened fired on classmates and killed five of them, the Plain Dealer did examine the criminal past of the shooter's father. (“It appears that T.J. Lane had violence in his life from the beginning.”) But the publication did not suggest that the lives of the victims could be put into context by reporting any run-ins with the law that their parents might have had.
Nor should they have done so because the idea seems patently absurd. But when a black child from a poor neighborhood is the victim of gun violence, his parents' police records are dredged up and treated as if they provide defining context to the boy's life.
Meanwhile, in defending its reporting, Chris Quinn, Northeast Ohio Media Group's vice president of content, seemed to perpetuate the idea that Rice and his parents were to to blame for his own death by claiming the reports on his parents “may shed further light on why this 12 year old was waving a weapon around a public park.” But as Cleveland.com reported elsewhere, the “novelty gun” Rice had that day wasn't “designed to kill or seriously injure.”
That's the same Chris Quinn who was in the news in late October when he ordered the video of the Plain Dealer's editorial board interview with Kasich, as well as two other gubernatorial candidates, be taken down from the Cleveland.com website. Before it was yanked, another site described Kasich's odd, disdainful appearance in the video as being “slumped in his chair, refus[ing] to acknowledge the other candidates and ignor[ing] repeated attempts by PD staff to answer even basic questions about his policies and programs.”
At the time, Quinn refused to explain the move, and the paper's ombudsman was stonewalled. (So much for the "duty to illuminate.") A belated and somewhat bewildering explanation was given only after Kasich had been re-elected.
Here's how New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen critiqued the strange episode last month:
The leading news organization in the state sponsors the only event of the campaign when the two major candidates for governor meet face-to-face to discuss the issues. The candidate it endorses behaves contemptuously toward his opponent and tries not to acknowledge his existence. These events are captured on video. The video is posted at the news organization's own site, then abruptly removed without explanation. Lawsuits are threatened if others post clips. Calls to explain these actions are ignored. National media attention is given to the missing video. The readers representative is prevented from commenting. The editor in charge of the debate goes silent. The election is three days away.
That, of course, does not represent journalism in any healthy form. And neither does the reporting on Tamir Rice's parents.