Opinion: Columbus’ identity crisis and its media
Columbus is a city in search of itself. “Cap City” lacks an identifying and unifying identity. Neither the state capital site nor the Ohio state football headquarters carry that weight. Nor is the ranking in the 20-25 largest US cities. A sign of its insecurity comes from its institutions’ habit of pretending to be the “best” in the state or nation, and not admitting whether this comes from popularity contests or expert evaluations. As a rule, the ranking is a more nebulous “one of the best”. The mayor’s promotion of the city’s “equity agenda” remains largely rhetorical. At best, only COSI and the corrupt Columbus Zoo have legitimate claims.
A “big city” requires great local media. Its newspapers, television and radio stations must engage in more than booster or cheerleading. They must develop and practice excellence in constructive, thoughtful and responsible criticism of city institutions, important groups and leaders. In this, the Columbus media fail.
None of the main city media consistently focus on the city and its needs. Although they are revolutionary at times, their investigative reporting is limited and inconsistent. No one has established a tradition of constructive social, political or cultural criticism. Especially in the current difficult time, Columbus is urgently screaming for this.
Consider, first, the Columbus Dispatch, which is now part of the USA Today / Gannett network. On the one hand, in my 17 years as a daily reader (and occasional contributor), the Dispatch has seen significant drops and a few recent increases. He shattered the story of the Columbus Zoo’s corruption among other triumphs, has good political columnists, and has an improved opinion service. On the other hand, it is often badly written and hardly ever reports corrections. He no longer has a copy office. He has no tradition of self-criticism or community criticism. He touts “corporate journalism”. The signs are that he fears a backlash if he heads in that direction. Its advertising pages swell but not its reports. La Dépêche is callous to questions and defensive in response to constructive criticism.
NBC4 is the best daily TV news broadcaster in town. He has an investigative reporter who did important work on the Columbus Police Department. His main scoops come from anchor Colleen Marshall on the sexual abuse of OSU’s Dr. Richard Strauss and the Moritz College of Law staffing scandals. Its overall reports are inconsistent, as is its focus on the city itself. Journalists appear on the air at crime scenes with nothing to report or show. Too many anchors stumble over pronunciation and grammar. Several gush while reading their scripts.
WOSU, the national public radio affiliate, is problematic at best. He fills a large number of hours a day rebroadcasting his own programs and those of NPR, sometimes several times a day, week and month. It touts its “biggest” and “best” local news team, overstating its rankings. But he does very little investigative journalism and on-air reporting, almost none on weekends. He struggles to stay on the air and broadcast clearly. His flagship program, “All Sides with Ann Fisher,” which is repeated over and over again, in my opinion and that of others, is inadequate, from Fisher’s own limitations as a cohesive and knowledgeable host to his unequal choice of guests. (I’m talking about years of experience working with NPR stations in a number of cities.) The station is now experiencing an exodus of journalists due to the work environment. WOSU is loath to criticize Columbus. He rejects all the criticisms and serious questions I have learned.
Finally, there’s Columbus Monthly, the quality of which has declined during my years in the city. Filled with photos and full pages of advertising, it is poorly written and edited. Boosterism dominates both descriptive and critical journalism. Minor topics fill many pages. Its highly publicized special issue on “Black Columbus” (May) proved to be disappointing in its subject matter, reporting and writing. He made no effort to mold his pieces into a cohesive whole. The city’s fundamental racial problems, past and present, have not been addressed in a sustained manner.
Columbus is best served by its alternative online media: Columbus Underground, Columbus Alive, and Ohio Capital Journal. They offer the widest range of coverage and opinions. Unfortunately, they have limited resources and audiences.
Together, Columbus’ mainstream media does not provide the active, responsible reporting and criticism that a self-seeking city, seeking to advance and working to meet its challenges, needs. In the opinion of all and direct and indirect indicators, they all fear a backlash if they move in these directions and directly tackle the city’s most pressing problems. Columbus’ political and institutional leaders too often share these hesitations. I call on them to take up the challenges now.
Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at Ohio State University. He is the author of numerous works on social history.