Harvey Graff

As I have written in these and other publications, Columbus is poorly served by its major media, from its no-longer-daily Columbus Dispatch, owned and operated by the USA Today/Gannett chain, to its three network TV affiliates and its NPR affiliate. None actively and reliably serve their publics or fulfill the press’s and media’s historical and democratic mission. (See my columns, “Columbus’ identity crisis and its media”; “Response to Columbus Alive, ‘The list: Reasons that Columbus Underground opinion piece is trash,’ by Andy Downing and Joel Oliphint, Columbus Alive, July 26: A visit to journalism fantasy land”; “The Columbus Dispatch – The decline of a metropolitan daily newspaper”; and “WOSU, the nation’s worst NPR affiliate? The challenge of criticizing a self-parody of a ‘news and information’ station,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, forthcoming.)

What passes for daily broadcast news in a city nearing one million people resembles a tragic comedy. Newscasters and talk show hosts on NPR WOSU, NBC Channel 4, ABC/Fox Channel 6, and CBS Channel 10 struggle with proper English grammar and pronunciation. Redundant pronouns, double negatives, and incomplete or contradictory sentences abound, spreading from one broadcaster to another. They stumble over times, dates, and even their own names. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, broadcast news and print media committed to setting a standard for their viewing and reading audiences. Never-corrected inaccuracies, including onscreen news crawls, are now common. Incoherent gushing and giggling are frequent.

Corrections from viewers are never acknowledged or made on the air. WOSU touts its “largest” news staff somewhere (it varies regularly)and a State House News Bureau but does relatively little news reporting, repeats the same stories hour after hour, does no investigative journalism, and broadcasts no local news on weekends. Its “news talk show” hosts struggle to ask coherent questions. All the outlets regularly commit howlers.

The failures are greatest when it comes to state and local politics. The harm to the public is most threatening.

True to its heritage as the Wolfe family’s city-boosting and aggressively pro-developer mouthpiece (including the Wolfes themselves), the Columbus Dispatch functions as an unpaid (or paid?) agent for Gov. DeWine and his administration. The most recent example is coverage of their secretive, almost eight-month effort to lure Intel to New Albany/Licking County. (For background, see Kevin Cox, Boomtown Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2021.)

Without acknowledging the state’s expenditure of at least $2 billion dollars so far (of an aspirational $20 billion project) until well after the public announcement, or the glaring absence of any environmental impact review, the Dispatch devoted a substantial portion of its Saturday, Jan. 22, front page and much of the first section to presenting without fact-checking or documentation a literal press release for Mike DeWine’s and Jon Husted’s reelection campaign. This continued in the Sunday, Jan. 23, edition and has not stopped.

No transparency, public information or public input, or respect for democratic values, norms, and practices accompanied the bargaining with Intel that began in May 2021, according to the Dispatch’s transcript of an “hours-long” private press conference with the DeWines and Husted. This write-up masquerades as three front-page “news” articles by one reporter: Mark Williams, “Intel in Ohio: How the deal was done.”

The Intel project is completely wishful with no concrete plans, budget, or timetable. Its predictions of high average salaries and hiring 13,000 construction workers bear no relationship to any recognizable reality. (See my columns, “The Columbus Dispatch – The decline of a metropolitan daily newspaper” and “Columbus, Ohio, searches to be a city: The myth of the Columbus Way.” See also Cox, Boomtown Columbus.)

The Dispatch’s coverage of state politics is comparable. In prominently placed feature articles, it pays more attention to nonstatewide candidates like Joe Blystone than to Democratic Senatorial candidates Morgan Harper and Tim Ryan. (For a major example, see Jessie Balmart, “How a farmer became race’s ‘big, noisy cuss,’” Mar. 4, 2022, in print, not on website.)

The Dispatch’s chaotic, unedited, and unfact-checked Opinion page serves as free [?] advertising or self-promotion for politicians in search of offices, especially right-wing Republican US Senate candidates and former Congressional representatives like Steve Stivers, who resigned his seat in the House of Representations to become head of the private business booster Chamber of Commerce. Unlike in reputable newspapers, almost every week Opinion permits them—and corporate heads selling their own products—to publish dishonest, inaccurate campaign pitches and attacks on opponents posing fraudulently as “opinion essays.”

The centerpiece of my critique is NBC4i Channel 4, perhaps the city’s worst example.

Paralleling its nonstop flow of unfact-checked, grossly dishonest, right-wing Republican political candidate ads, anchor Colleen Marshall airs previews of interviews with the same candidates and then broadcasts longer versions on her Sunday morning talk show, “The Spectrum.” Republican office-holders and candidates far outnumber Democrats or others. Marshall asks softball questions and rarely probes misrepresentations or challenges her “guests.” The relationship between the guests and their treatment on the one hand, and the paid advertising on the other, cannot be accidental.

The single worst piece of irresponsible reporting is Channel 4’s unexplained partnership with the online Congressional website The Hill and their joint commission of a fatally flawed public opinion survey of Republican and Democratic voters’ preferences—in other words, their name recognition for the scheduled but now unlikely May primary. Never mentioned by Channel 4 but hinted at by pollster Emerson College is the survey’s self-canceling limitations. To any knowledgeable reader, they are numerous.

Complications begin with the simple fact that Emerson is among the least respected national pollsters. This is not my opinion alone but shared by political scientists and political journalists. Channel 4’s declaration of Emerson’s reliability is unacceptable by itself, as is its reference to the result of one race in the November 2020 general—not party primary—election.

The small sample size alone invalidates the incomprehensible results. The “independent, impartial” poll’s sample size of a total of 723 “likely voters”—313 for Democratic and 410 for Republican primaries for a state the size of Ohio—is untenable. The stated statistical “margins of errors” do not apply to such small samples. Channel 4’s statement that margin of error “means a candidate could theoretically lose or gain” a certain percentage “if the poll were done again” is gibberish.

Further, the survey method of “using text-to-web, an online panel and automated telephone calls” is also flawed. They are no built-in checks or confirmations with such distanced and cheap procedures. Never in the report published by Channel 4 are the actual survey questions listed, another unacceptable procedure.

If all this were not sufficient to invalidate the survey, the final proof is the incomprehensibility of the responses. Given the unusually small sample sizes, no breakdowns by gender, age, education, race, or region are reported. The pollster states matter-of-factly: “The margin of error is higher because you’re dealing with such a small subset and we’re looking a couple of months out from the election.” Duh.

In struggling to report the results on the air uncritically and positively on March 2, Colleen Marshall could not hide her bewilderment with each result as she announced it. This included the almost exclusively rural candidate Joe Blystone’s 20.1% compared to Mike DeWine’s 34% and Jim Renacci’s 9.3%. And even more, the almost 70% undecided among Democratic potential voters for governor.

The Senate race surveysmake even less sense, contradicting all other surveys. Mike Gibbons’ lead among Republicans reflects little more than his leading share in the flood of blatantly dishonest TV ads, many aired nightly by Channel 4 and other stations. His “leaping ahead,” as NBC4i calls it, is only 7 points higher than Josh Mandel with almost 40% undecided.

Among Democrats, Tim Ryan’s lead directly reflects his long-time position as a member of Congress and name recognition. The shares of the others, among both parties, make little sense beyond advertising and name recognition. Curiously, Emerson does not report any measures of statistical significance, only statistically irrelevant “margins of error.” They would be tiny if any.

The much-hyped poll carries no value. All told: unacceptable journalism and failing their audience.

On top of all that, Channel will broadcast the Republican Senatorial “debate” on Mar. 28 but not the Democratic debate. The pattern continues.

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Three additional political notes:

Note 1.The hype including paid ads in the Dispatch touting retiring Republican Senator Rob Portman as one of the signers for much too-limited US Postal Service reform bill that ignores many of the major issues rings hollow to this constituent. For almost a year, I asked my Congressional representative Balderson, Senator Portman, and Senator Brown to take action against the illegal failures of mandated delivery by Louis Dejoy’s battering of the USPS as he invested in UPS and FedEx and aided Trump’s campaign by slowing down mail voting. Only Sherrod Brown’s office responded. Portman never responded to calls or emails; Balderson muttered about sending a letter, which never occurred. In contrast, Brown filed a formal complaint and I am now in regular communication with a USPS regional coordinator who makes clear that Columbus is one of the Postal Service’s worst disasters. So much for representation from Balderson or Portman.

Note 2.The failure of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ohio Department of Health (ODOH), and Columbus Public Health to “follow the science,” the history of epidemics, public health, and common sense. Together they surrender to politics. If the US is shifting from “pandemic” to “endemic,” as many believe, all possible modes of understanding demand continued vigilance, not active surrender to the already identified new variants, expected to be more transmissible. The recommended removal of mandates also is contradicted by the US’s (and especially Ohio’s) comparatively low level of vaccinations and the inability of children under 5 to receive vaccination (despite scientific research showing vaccination to be safe for ages 2 to 5). Finally, the dependence on daily shifting Covid case counts ignores the declining level of testing, the necessary denominator in the simple equation. This is arithmetic and common sense, not statistics or medical “science.” The CDC and ODOH appear not to understand.

Ohio State University is ending its mask mandate at 6:00 pm on Mar. 11 as Spring Break begins. When students return in 10 days from drunken parties on crowded beaches, international travel, visits home, and some ventures, there will be no public health or commonsense precautions in effect.

Note 3. DeWine and Republican legislators rush to proclaim their almost completely empty rhetorical support for Ukraine. As important as this is, their refusal to endorse or enforce the legal rights of Ohioans rings more loudly. Why is that?


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. His Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is forthcoming. His essays appear in Inside Higher Education, Times Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe, Publishers Weekly, Columbus Free Press, and other outlets. Specialties include the history and present condition of literacy and education including higher education, children and families, cities, interdisciplinarity, and contemporary politics, culture, and society.