YMCA: CYA or C-YAWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief | firstname.lastname@example.org
“There ain’t no good guy/There ain’t no bad guy
There’s only you and me/And we just disagree.”
— Dave Mason
Former Blade editor Tom Walton published an opinion piece Aug. 17 titled, “Think of newspapers as flashlights shining in darkness.” That’s a humble take on it, as many people in this community think of The Blade specifically as a giant halogen spotlight strapped to the front of a hell-bent machine akin to Stephen King’s murderous Christine; most people scurry in fear to hide in the darkness, leaving the unfortunate souls caught in the glare to burn to a crisp in the unrelenting, focused heat.
The Blade’s current obsession is with the closing of the South Toledo YMCA, a story that provides a convenient vehicle for its decades-long feud with YMCA leadership. No one in this situation looks clean. The Y is not opening all of its financials and there are legitimate questions about its operations. The critics are a blend of well-meaning activists and political opportunists who bluster and fight about everything, except the true priority — the young people being affected by the imminent loss of the South Y (one can legitimately wonder where some of these headline-chasing politicians were when the Connecting Point was shuttered). The Blade’s news coverage is so intertwined with its editorial slant that it warrants extreme scrutiny.
As day after day of front page YMCA coverage induces outrage in some quarters and yawns in others, it is more difficult to keep track of the various players’ motivations. Here is a scorecard to help you keep the players straight.
Robert Alexander is president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Toledo. He helped oversee the merger of the Y and the Jewish Community Center, an effort that resulted in a national award from the Lodestar Foundation earlier this year. In 20 years, he has grown the Y’s budget from $4.8 million to $33 million. As The Blade will tell you every chance it gets, Alexander 1) makes more money than any YMCA chief in Ohio and 2) works with a number of his family members. The Blade hammers home his salary as if it should shame our community to have the highest-paid YMCA exec in Ohio. I suppose if you know exactly what Alexander’s job entails and exactly what his worth is to the Y, you would be qualified to judge how much compensation is “too much,” but outside of the Y’s board of directors, who is qualified to decide that?
As for the family issue, understand that Alexander did not take his position in 1992 and then bring his family — or “clan” as The Blade calls them — into the Y like Jed Clampett loading up the truck and moving to Beverly. Hills, that is. Stephanie Dames, who is now Alexander’s wife, already worked at the Y when Alexander assumed the presidency. Does it look odd that three other members of Alexander’s family work at the Y? How many Andersons work at The Andersons? How many Blocks work at The Blade? What is the threshold for judgment? Who is qualified to judge? I understand the argument that the Y is a nonprofit organization, but these days, so is The Blade.
Alexander is also apparently a hothead, and I don’t use that term disparagingly; as a fellow member of the “Subtle as a Cornered Wolverine Club,” I empathize with the impulse to speak loudly and carry a big stick. This trait, however admirable for its honesty, hasn’t helped Alexander, who was noticably absent from an Aug. 26 public rally. A cooling-off period is smart; when The Blade is shining its Unblinking Eye of Righteous Vendetta on you, it’s best to not give it anything to make that light brighter.
Cooper Suter has become — with support from fellow neighborhood activists Gary Batts and Mark Hertzfeld — the face of the community movement to keep the South Y open. Suter and I have spoken directly three or four times, and I believe he is sincere in his original quest to keep the South Y open because it greatly benefits his neighborhood. He is to be applauded for standing up and fighting for a cause he believes in. But I also believe he has been caught up in the rush of the media attention and has internalized the way Y leadership has, until Aug. 26, failed to communicate to his group. I agree with Suter that the Y has been clumsy in dealing with its critics, especially if you boil it down to a basic customer service level. Suter and his friends feel slighted and disrespected, and I do not argue that point.
So, Suter and I have a handshake deal: He will understand that my criticism of The Blade’s tactics is not an indictment of his cause, and I will not judge his efforts based on his involvement with The Blade’s gamesmanship.
Teresa Fedor, Anita Lopez and Mike Bell (and Ben “Task Force” Konop and Jim Moody and on and on and on) have jumped into the debate, demanding things they have a right, albeit no authority, to demand. The Blade has successfully mashed the South Y closing with its quest to oust Alexander, and these public officials have taken up the cause with lemming-like fervor. Many observers have been waiting for Bell to take a substantial stand, and when he finally does, it’s to smack a business in the mouth. That is disappointing.
Fedor, who may seek Konop’s Lucas County commissioner seat next year, seems to have taken great personal offense at her rocky public interaction with Alexander. She described him, in a moment of semantic eloquence that rivals Abraham Lincoln, as “off the hook.” Business leaders and voters in general should take note of Fedor’s eagerness to impose her will on the Y, and her subsequent behavior as she does so.
JC Reindl has been reporting this story for The Blade. In a clean journalistic environment, that would not — should not — make him a player in this story, but anyone taking his reporting as Gospel needs to pay closer attention.
Reindl was The Blade reporter who so badly botched a March “story” about my interaction with Jon Stainbrook at Maumee Valley Country Day School that the students in the class felt compelled to come forward and correct the record. Even unbiased observers should carefully consider his (and his editors’) word choices and understand there is an over-eagerness to serve the editorial stance being layered on the news coverage. Here are just a few quick examples of opinionated words and comments Reindl has not attributed in his news reports:
“… neighborhood residents voiced skepticism of the membership challenge imposed on their community …” (Aug. 21)
“… the $100,000 yearly deficit at the South Toledo branch amounts to a mere 0.3 percent of the organization’s $33.3 million budget …” (Aug. 9)
“The YMCA and Jewish Community Center of Greater Toledo confirmed Friday the ties of yet another member of its chief executive’s family to the nonprofit organization.” (Aug. 15)
“This is not the first time Mr. Alexander has exhibited threatening and erratic behavior when he’s been criticized.” (Aug. 22)
Such words pale in comparison to a Reindl sentence such as:
“Working at the Y has become a family affair for the Alexander clan, which pulls down nearly $560,000 a year in salary …” (Aug. 9).
Would an intelligent reader deny that “family affair” “clan” and “pulls down” make the Alexanders sound like the Sopranos?
Reindl’s stories have quoted as sources or referenced attorneys Fritz Byers (working with Suter) and Justice Johnson (working with the Y), without identifying both men as longtime representatives of The Blade and Block Communications. I guess that demand for transparency only works one way.
Reindl’s most egregious breach in judgment was Aug. 19, when, after the announcement that the South Y needed 500 memberships, Reindl followed Alexander (who called out Reindl) into the Y and purchased a membership. That purchase, from a journalist who is supposed to observe and report, illustrates an inappropriate (and unreported by The Blade) action that discredits any pretense of objectivity.
Reindl, who operates a blog, “Let’s Get Critical. Critical,” [NOTE: Reindl's blog was changed to "invited readers only" after publication of this column] says he is a graduate of Yale University, so I contacted Mark Oppenheimer, director of the Yale Journalism Initiative, and asked him what he thought of Reindl’s Aug. 19 action. I expected quick condemnation of Reindl’s judgment, but Oppenheimer directs the internship program that sends two Yale students to The Blade each summer, so it was apparently in his best interest to remain neutral.
“The biggest question is, how much does he disclose in subsequent articles,” Oppenheimer said Aug. 26. “What this reporter did doesn’t strike me as problematic, as long as it is not affecting his coverage. Unless exactly 500 people end up buying memberships, his action leaves a very light footprint on the story. It’s not an ethical issue, but a question of judgment; is it a good idea after a heated rally to take such an action with other media watching? I do not see an ethical conflict.”
[Note: In an Aug. 28 phone conversation after this column was published, Oppenheimer expressed concern that his disclosure of his relationship with The Blade was not placed in fair and nuanced context, and maintained that the relationship had no bearing on his opinion and comments. He maintained I framed his connection with The Blade to illustrate that his differing opinion could only be linked to that context, not to any option that my opinion was wrong, and that I should have queried him further on the details of the relationship. I appreciate Oppenheimer's point of view and injection of gray into my black-and-white opinion. ]
Ask yourself if you want your news reporters leaving any footprint on a story, and remember your answer as you read future YMCA stories written by Reindl.
The best solution for the community is for the Y to open its books to an independent audit, but, assuming nothing untoward is found, to retain Alexander. This gives the public what it needs, while denying The Blade what it wants.
One of the Y’s critics says, “Just because The Blade is on a vendetta doesn’t mean it has its facts wrong.”
As long as you’re on the right side of the approaching headlights, that end-justifies-the-means philosophy probably lets you sleep at night.
But if you ever look up and see those red-rimmed orbs bearing down on you, you’ll feel differently.
Michael S. Miller is Editor in Chief of Toledo Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com.