Opinion: Columbus’ Identity Crisis and its Media
Columbus is a city in search of itself. “Cap City” lacks an identifying and unifying identity. Neither site of the state capital nor home of Ohio State football carries that weight. Nor does ranking in the top 20-25 largest U.S. cities. A sign of its insecurity comes in the habit of its institutions claiming to be the “best” in the state or nation, and failing to admit whether this comes from popularity contests or expert evaluations. Typically, 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 corruption-ridden Columbus Zoo have legitimate claims.
A “great city” requires excellent local media. Its newspapers and television and radio stations must be committed to more than boosterism or cheerleading. They must develop and practice excellence in terms of constructive, reflective, and responsible criticism of the city’s institutions, significant groups, and leaders. In this, Columbus’ media fail.
None of the city’s major media maintains a consistent focus on the city and its needs. While occasionally ground-breaking, their investigative reporting is limited and inconsistent. No one has established a tradition of constructive social, political, or cultural criticism. Especially at the present challenging moment, Columbus urgently cries out for this.
Consider, first, the Columbus Dispatch, 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 had major downs and some recent ups. It broke the Columbus Zoo corruption story among other triumphs, has some good political columnists, and has an improved Opinion department. On the other hand, it is often poorly written and almost never reports corrections. It no longer has a copy desk. It has no tradition of self- or community criticism. It touts “enterprise journalism.” The signs are that it fears a backlash if it moves in that direction. Its pages of advertising swell but its reporting does not. The Dispatch is unresponsive to questions and defensive in response to constructive criticism.
NBC4 is the city’s best daily television news broadcaster. It has an investigative reporter who has done important work on the Columbus Police Department. Its major scoops come from anchor Colleen Marshall on the OSU Dr. Richard Strauss sex abuse and Moritz College of Law endowment scandals. Its overall reporting is inconsistent as is its focus on the city itself. Reporters appear on air standing 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. It fills a great many hours daily rebroadcasting its own and NPR programs, sometimes multiple times a day, week, and month. It touts its “largest” and “best” local news team, exaggerating its rankings. But it does very little investigative journalism and on-air reporting, almost none on weekends. It has difficulty staying on the air and broadcasting clearly. Its signature program, “All Sides with Ann Fisher,” rebroadcast incessantly, in my own and others’ opinion, is inadequate, from Fisher’s own limits as a consistent and knowledgeable host to her uneven choice of guests. (I speak from years of experience collaborating with NPR stations in a number of cities.) The station is now experiencing an exodus of reporters because of the work environment. WOSU is loath to criticize Columbus. It rejects all criticism and serious questions, I have learned.
Finally, there is Columbus Monthly, which has declined in quality during my years in the city. Filled with photos and full pages of advertising, it is poorly written and edited. Boosterism dominates over both descriptive and critical journalism. Minor topics fill many pages. Its much promoted special issue on “Black Columbus” (May) proved disappointing in its topics, reporting, and writing. It lacked any effort to mold its pieces into a coherent whole. Fundamental racial issues in the city, past and present, were not confronted in a sustained way.
Columbus is better served by its online alternative media: Columbus Underground, Columbus Alive, and Ohio Capital Journal. They provide the widest range of coverage and opinion. Unfortunately, they have limited resources and audiences.
Together, Columbus’ leading media do not provide the active, responsible reporting and criticism that a city in search of itself, seeking to advance, and working to meet its challenges, requires. By all accounts and both direct and indirect indicators, they all fear backlash if they move in these directions and directly confront the city’s most pressing issues. Columbus’ political and institutional leaders too often share these hesitations. I call on them to rise to the challenges now.
Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history.