Trashing DashingWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s long, disjointed and boring in parts. It’s poorly written, awkwardly edited and collapses under the weight of its miscarried ambition. It fails to deliver what it promises and it is unintentionally hilarious in many places.
Yes, “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” is back in theaters, but that’s not the saga in question. The Feb. 19-21 “special report” in The Blade, “Toledo’s China Connection,” is a menace to journalism, Toledo’s global outreach efforts and the development of Downtown property.
The three-day series, primarily attributed to Blade staff writer Ignazio Messina, is an epic misfire riddled with assumptions, speculation, editorializing and an arrogant amount of unverifiable information.
But the most striking thing is, all that effort, may not — should not — make an iota of difference.
Attack of the drones
On Feb. 22, 1784, the Empress of China became the first American ship to sail from the United States to China seeking commerce. Nearly 228 years later to the day, the Toledo business community finds itself wondering if another ship to China has sailed.
The thesis and execution of The Blade’s “Toledo’s China Connection” series are equally suspect. The name of the series evokes the ’70s novel and film “The French Connection,” which implies crime, drug trafficking and unsavory behavior. Such a title demolishes any pretense of objectivity, but that’s a minor concern as the logic behind the series strains credibility.
“With the mayor deciding to sell some of Toledo’s most important real estate and the city’s most valuable assets without researching the backgrounds of the buyers, The Blade decided to take on that task, hiring an investigative firm with offices in China to provide background information on Wu Kin Hung, 55, and Yuan Xiaohong, age unknown — the two behind Dashing Pacific Group Ltd,” Messina wrote. “The investigative firm — which the newspaper has agreed not to name because of concern about possible reprisals against its owners and employees by the Chinese government — uncovered a long and successful history of business development by the two investors in China. This success appeared to have been garnered within a system that does not align with American norms and business practices.”
It is important to examine the questionable statements that form the foundation of this series.
- “With the mayor deciding to sell some of Toledo’s most important real estate and the city’s most valuable assets without researching the backgrounds of the buyers.”
Says who? In the same story, Messina reports, “While [Bell] dined with [the investors], attended the wedding of one of their children, and traveled [sic] China with them, he did not order his staff to investigate them in the same way former Toledo mayors have scrutinized other potential developers of the Marina District … ”
The key is the phrase, “in the same way former Toledo mayors have scrutinized … ” which can be translated as “in the same way former Toledo mayors who were more inclined to kowtow to The Blade have scrutinized … ”
- “The Blade decided to take on that task, hiring an investigative firm with offices in China.”
The Blade, self-appointed moral compass of Toledo that it is, has every right and duty to ask questions, research the important issues of the day and to hold elected officials accountable for public transactions. It is the method of research and reporting that undermines the execution of that right and duty.
In other words, they have a job to do, but do they have to be such jerks about it?
- “The investigative firm — which the newspaper has agreed not to name because of concern about possible reprisals against its owners and employees by the Chinese government … ”
So, a series based on a desk-pounding demand for transparency is based on the work of a foreign “investigative firm” whose name is kept a secret? That’s not irony, that’s an act of hypocrisy and arrogance. The shield of anonymity is an invitation for questionable reporting and reprisal-free action. Not to mention that The Blade is apparently more concerned about the health and welfare of the “investigative firm” it invested in than it is with the health and welfare of the Dashing Pacific people who have invested in the city.
- “The investigative firm … uncovered a long and successful history of business development by the two investors in China.”
Well, that’s good news, right? Whew! Bell’s instincts were correct, right? Or is there a “but?”
- “This success appeared to have been garnered within a system that does not align with American norms and business practices.”
Uh-oh! It doesn’t align with “American norms”! Is that xenophobia? Or jingoism? And what, exactly, are “American norms and business practices”? Why doesn’t The Blade define that? If The Blade’s ideas of “American norms and business practices” are the way it does business, Toledoans have a right to question exactly what kinds of thuggery are being attributed to the good ol’ USA. Is it an American norm to disrupt a competitor’s delivery system? Is it an American norm to garner business through threats and subterfuge? If so, what could the Chinese add to the mix that would be out of alignment with The Blade’s norm?
The empire strikes out
The series devotes a lot of words to defending itself and trying to anticipate and deflect criticism.
“More than a year ago, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell enticed two Chinese investors to buy The Docks restaurant complex and the Marina District,” reads a summary box at the top of each day’s stories (“enticed,” as if Bell were showing his leg like Mae West in a saloon). “The backgrounds of the investors were not a concern for the mayor, but The Blade decided to look deeper and hired an investigative firm based in China.”
That defense is repeated on each front page, in each lead story, in a Feb. 19 Page One “Message from the publisher and editor-in-chief” and in a Feb. 19 unsigned editorial, “Due Diligence.” That’s a lot of energy devoted to justifying and rationalizing the series, as opposed to letting the series stand on its own merit.
In his “Message,” John Robinson Block compares the “Connection” series to his newspaper’s “legacy … and experience handling coverage from abroad,” which includes Blade editor Grover Patterson “interviewing Prime Minister Winston Churchill in blacked-out London during World War II.”
I defer to Block’s expertise in this area, but I am not sure how the honorable process of sitting across from a man and interviewing him equates to hiring and reporting the work of an anonymous “investigative firm.” But that’s the evolution of journalism, Blade-style.
Again, why are we supposed to trust the unverified reports from this anonymous “investigative firm?” Because, according to the Feb. 19 unsigned editorial, “Its credibility and expertise are evident in the reports emerged from its review.”
How’s that for circular logic? “We won’t name the people who gave us the info but you can trust us when we say they are credible because we say their report (which we paid for but you can’t see) is credible!”
Even the few remaining Toledoans who defend The Blade (how’s it hangin’, Carty?) should recognize how far The Blade is dropping the standards of journalistic integrity. The new rules, according to The Blade: If you refuse to cooperate on its terms, a newspaper can hire an investigative firm to check your background, accept that firm’s findings as truth and report them without telling you who did the digging.
Does that meet any definition of “ethical”?
The most amusing defense of the indefensible is a Feb. 19 story by Blade staff writer Tony Cook, “Many foreign firms in area opt for transparency.” With that headline, one should expect a story about relevant examples that bolster the case for the series’ existence, right? OK, let’s read what Cook has to report.
- “When English glass manufacturer Pilkington Brothers PLC took over Toledo’s homegrown Libbey-Owens-Ford in 1986, a spokesman for the new owner explained the terms of the deal. Within a year, Pilkington’s chairman, Sir Antony Pilkington, had addressed 800 members of the Chamber of Commerce and sat down with The Blade for a Q&A.”
How does a pre-Internet-era, English spokesperson’s actions 26 years ago compare to the choices of modern-day Chinese-speaking business owners? Surely there must be better modern examples to bolster The Blade’s case, right?
- “In 1980, when French automaker Renault S.A. took a 46.4 percent interest in American Motors Corp., Renault executive Jose Dedeurwaerder was an occasional visitor to Toledo and AMC’s flagship Jeep plant. Mr. Dedeurwaerder met with reporters and state officials …”
That’s going even further back in history. Again, how is that relevant? Let’s give Cook one more try.
- “The closest comparison to Dashing Pacific’s ventures here might be Mazda Motor Manufacturing Corp.’s $450 million investment in a new assembly plant to build Mazda and Ford Motor Co. vehicles in nearby Flat Rock, Mich. … The president of the Japanese automaker, Osamu Nobuto, had a fairly open relationship with the media, providing The Blade with job projections and an update on union negotiations during a religious groundbreaking ceremony in May, 1985.”
Cook’s closest comparison is a 27-year-old “fairly open relationship”? Is providing business projections the same thing as being asked about one’s parents’ political affiliations?
I wonder if Blade reporters ever asked German DaimlerChrysler executives to expound on speculated family connections to the Nazi Party.
Not the droids you’re looking for
The Blade series makes it a point to tie the Dashing Pacific investors to the Chinese Communist Party, which is like endeavoring to link a “Jersey Shore” cast member to alcohol and tanning salons. The Feb. 20 story focusing on Wu Kin Hung is summed up in the headline, “Connections in China help pave way to wealth.”
What? Those cheatin’ Chinese use family and political connections to make money? Who do they think they are, newspaper publishers?
There are other mundane details, such as Mr. Wu’s affinity for poetry and the fact that he made “massive profits.”
Note: One of the ads on The Blade’s website that often popped up on the pages for the Dashing Pacific series was for “Dating Asian Women.” Classy way to make massive profits, Blade!
The Feb. 21 story, “Dashing Pacific’s Yuan succeeded in tech field,” contained the teaser sentence, “A China-based company hired by The Blade to look into the investors’ backgrounds discovered intriguing information about Ms. Yuan and Mr. Wu.”
- “Investigators said Ms. Yuan, like many successful business leaders in China, used her connections with government officials to win contracts for the information technology company she runs.”
- “Over the past year, Ms. Yuan, an Inner Mongolia native and Shenzhen business executive, developed close ties with Mr. Bell.”
- “Ms. Yuan has a harsher reputation — more like that of an ‘Iron Lady,’ as one of her employees called her.”
An anonymous employee, of course.
Revenge of the Sith
Was The Blade’s attack series aimed more at Bell, who is increasingly vocal about not being willing to bow and scrape to an antiquated media company? If Bell had crawled to Pittsburgh to ask permission for his deal and invited Blade owners along for the ride, would he and the investors be facing this spiteful opposition? For the first time under the strong mayor form of government, Toledo has a strong mayor who isn’t subservient.
How much of this has to do with Blade leadership looking around and sensing a changing Toledo landscape in which The Blade is no longer a necessary fixture? The media technology revolution and decreasing circulation have slashed The Blade’s dominance. There is also the looming ascent of Penn National Gaming’s Hollywood Casino Toledo, which will unquestionably be one of the city’s major cultural and philanthropic forces by the time it opens, rendering The Blade even less relevant.
A wounded dog will howl, won’t it?
Back to ‘Phantom Menace’
Not all of Toledo resembles the barren wastelands of the “Star Wars” desert planet Tatooine, but it’s not a stretch to picture the undeveloped Downtown riverfront as a place desperate for capital and life. Along comes Dashing Pacific, our stoic Jedi, to take a look around, help the locals and maybe make some money along the way.
Do the locals accept that help or do they say, “We’ll take your money, but we demand to know everything about Jedi culture and what you believe in and how you got your money and what your future plans are after you help us. And if you won’t tell us, we’ll pay for some unnamed snoops to collect information, which, verified or not, we will spread throughout the galaxy to make you look bad.”
Who would blame the Jedi for saying, “Forget this,” and jumping in their space cruisers to help people somewhere with an atmosphere friendlier to business and less xenophobic?
There has been no indication that Dashing Pacific should be held to any different standard than an investor group from, say, Milwaukee. If anything, there should be an effort to understand and respect their culture as we would like them to understand and respect ours, without rancor and delusional notions of “American norms and business practices.”
Remember, this is no longer public property. As of May 31 last year, the formerly city-owned land became the private property of Dashing Pacific. All this investigative fervor might have been a public service before the sale, but we’re nine months down the road. What’s the point now?
Why couldn’t The Blade seek a balance between doing its journalistic duty and showing some civility? Does being a good journalist mean being a bad neighbor?
The questions The Blade admits to having asked Mr. Wu and Ms. Yuan were particularly telling in their emphasis on personal information rather than business accomplishments. Would those questions have been asked if The Blade were interviewing even a Toledo business leader? Can you imagine the response if Blade reporters (who fancy themselves as Darth Maul but come across more like Jar Jar Binks) asked the president of Fiat such personal questions rather than queries about Fiat’s business and plans for Toledo and Chrysler?
A new hope
So here we are, with another opportunity for Toledo growth jeopardized by what amounts to a Blade hissy fit for not being included in an effort it had no business being included in during the negotiation stage. The attack veiled as a “news series” did not reveal anything that should change anyone’s mind about Dashing Pacific.
It’s worth noting that seven stories, an editorial and a few cartoons, eating up nearly seven full pages of newsprint and roughly 17,000 words, will be remembered — if at all — not for anything it actually revealed, but for the spitefulness of its inception and the shoddiness of its execution.
Nearly two dozen Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce members sent letters of support to Dashing Pacific after the series ran. There is hope in the fact that some of the people in the city’s highest government and development roles will continue to welcome these accomplished investors to our region and hope to learn from their expansive view of our future.
How odd — the view of Toledo, from people on the other side of the planet, is more optimistic and positive than the view fomented by those at yesterday’s newspaper. Unlike the phantom menace phoning it in from Pittsburgh, Dashing Pacific investors are coming here to invest and plant the seeds of growth.
In the long run, the harvest of those seeds will mean more to Toledo than 17 million more words from The Blade. As far as more and more Toledoans are concerned, those who run The Blade can catch a slow boat to China.
But that “gift” wouldn’t be a very neighborly gesture on our part, would it?
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.