Plain Dealer journalist "in closest touch" proven out of touch on HB347

By Chad D. Baus

On December 4, I wrote an article drawing attention to two editorials in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

In the first editorial, dated August 7, the editorial board endorsed the idea of statewide preemption of local gun laws, saying:

    This page continues to look skeptically on concealed carry, but consistency in the form of statewide, uniform standards makes more sense than a confusing patchwork of local contradictions.

Less than four months later, Plain Dealer editors reversed themselves, without noting or explaining the reversal:

    By taking away local governments' ability to regulate the sale and possession of guns, the legislature tramples the principle of home rule more egregiously than ever.

In my op-ed questioning the reversal, I noted that the statewide preemption language in HB347 is the exact same language contained in the bill on August 7, and invited readers to ask the Plain Dealer to explain their seemingly irrational behavior.

Though I'm not certain there is much in the way of an explanation, a reader of this website submitted a response to his inquiry from Plain Dealer Deputy Editorial Director Kevin O'Brien. Mr. O'Brien's answers prompted me to write him about his comments, and a lively exchange ensued.

Following is Mr. O'Brien's response to a buckeyefirearms.org reader, who wrote to inquire why the paper had contradicted itself on the issue of statewide preemption. O'Brien first quotes part of the second (anti-gun) editorial:

    "The legislature's notion that there should be uniform standards statewide on where guns can be legally carried, rather than a patchwork of local ordinances, has merit.

    "But this measure leaps miles beyond that defensible proposition."

    The proposal in question not only would define where permit holders are allowed to carry weapons, but also would take away local governments'' ability to regulate the sale of guns -- something a locality should have the power to do. Hence, our withdrawal of support for what, as originally proposed, had been a reasonable idea.

    Kevin O'Brien
    Deputy Editorial Director
    The Plain Dealer

A few questions immediately came to mind after reading O'Brien's response, so I decided to email him myself:

    ---- Original Message -----
    From: Chad D. Baus
    To: [email protected]
    Sent: Wednesday, December 06, 2006
    Subject: RE: HB347 editorials

    Mr. O'Brien -

    As you may be aware by now, I recently wrote an op-ed for buckeyefirearms.org in which I pointed out that the Plain Dealer editorialized in favor of statewide preemption of local gun laws in August, then editorialized against it just days ago.

    A reader of our website forwarded your response to his inquiry about this to me. I am intrigued by your statement explaining the change in position.

    "Hence, our withdrawal of support for what, as originally proposed, had been a reasonable idea."

    Mr. O'Brien - the preemption provision in HB347 has been in the same form since March or so. It hasn't been changed AT ALL since the August editorial. Can you confirm for me whether or not anyone on the editorial board had read HB347 before writing the August editorial?

    Also, why was there no mention of this "withdrawal of support" in the second editorial? To read it one would never know that the PD had previously voiced something entirely different on the subject.

    I'll look forward to your reply. Thank you!

    Chad Baus
    Vice Chairman
    Buckeye Firearms Association

His response came later that day:

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: [email protected]
    To: Chad D. Baus
    Sent: Wednesday, December 06, 2006
    Subject: RE: HB347 editorials

    Phillip Morris, the editorial writer who is in closest touch with state legislative affairs, wrote both editorials. He reviewed my response to the e-mail before I sent it. If the legislation did not change, then from the editorial board's point of view, we shouldn't have supported it in the first place. Mr. Morris detected some changes, hence, the second editorial. Our news staff apparently detected something new, too, because it produced two news stories, one of which was headlined, "Legislature alters rules on gun control."

    In hindsight, I agree with you that citing our first editorial explicitly would have made for a stronger second editorial. As it was, we settled for weighing the reasonable thrust of the original bill against the overreaching of the substitute bill.

The first thing I noticed in his response was that my question on whether anyone had actually read the legislation was not answered. But even more questions were now coming to mind, so I emailed again:

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: Chad D. Baus
    To: [email protected]
    Sent: Wednesday, December 06, 2006
    Subject: RE: HB347 editorials

    Thank you for your reply.

    I realize you all don't follow this one issue as I do, but simply put, you all are wrong on your perception of the "reasonable thrust" of the first bill vs. the "overreaching" sub bill.

    The preemption language has NOT changed one bit since the bill passed the House in overwhelming bi-partisan fashion. The preemption language has NOT changed one bit between August and now (and has not changed substantially since the bill was introduced in September of 2005), so Mr. Morris could not have "detected" anything different, other than the shrill cries of Mr. Taft.

    Indeed, the last time Bob Taft spoke of a veto of this legislation, back in March before the House removed language that would have removed media access to CHL-holders' names, he never mentioned preemption as an issue for him!

    As far as the news staff...the headline is accurate, but doesn't speak to this question. Of course in passing the bill they moved to alter the law, but what we're talking about is the PD editorial page, and why the paper reversed itself on language in the bill that has stayed constant. Incidentally, the news staff was wrong, in my opinion, in making it look as though preemption was new to the bill. ("The "plain sight" issue had been the lightning rod of controversy - until Wednesday, when the substitute version was introduced and hurried through the General Assembly.")

    It may be new to all of you at the Plain Dealer, but it's been in the bill since it was introduced in September 2005.

    Honestly, between this poor explanation and the lack of any acknowledgement of the reversal in the Dec. piece, it appears as though no one at the paper had read the bill before now. Is there a better explanation?

    Chad

When he didn't reply for several days, I tried again:

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: Chad D. Baus
    To: [email protected]
    Sent: Saturday, December 9, 2006
    Subject: RE: HB347 editorials

    Mr. O'Brien -

    I am still looking forward to your reply to my last email.

    A couple of additional thoughts: please take a look at ORC 2923.126 (B). We already have ccw preemption, which you guys have endorsed, and the 6th District Court of Appeals ignored it in Toledo.

    Furthermore, the Supreme Court's Baskin decision today said the General Assembly needs to clearly state their intent to preempt firearm laws, thus highlighting the need for HB347.

    I am looking forward to your reply to these thoughts, and my previous email...

    Chad

With his response, O'Brien proved that the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial board is not interested in journalistic integrity or accuracy:

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: [email protected]
    To: Chad D. Baus
    Sent: Monday, December 11, 2006
    Subject: RE: HB347 editorials

    The bill changed and our position changed (as did the governor's). Can't make it any plainer than that.

It was becoming obvious that O'Brien was unwilling to admit that they had erred, even when presented with the facts. Still, I had to try one last time.

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: Chad D. Baus
    To: [email protected]
    Sent: Monday, December 11, 2006
    Subject: RE: HB347 editorials

    Kevin -

    I don't know how to make it any plainer.

    On the subject you all took a position on (statewide preemption of local gun laws) the bill absolutely DID NOT change in between your two editorials.

    I would have expected you would be a little more concerned with accuracy than this.

    Want to try again?

    Chad

His response speaks for itself, and says volumes about the integrity of the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial staff.

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: [email protected]
    To: Chad D. Baus
    Sent: Monday, December 11, 2006
    Subject: RE: HB347 editorials

    Nope.

Everyone is capable of making mistakes. However, the concerns that have surfaced with the publishing of these two editorials (and a subsequent news story from just two days ago!) are quite serious.

Concern #1: The editorial board published two opposing editorials, less than four months apart, and failed to acknowledge, let alone explain, its reversal. Even Deputy Editorial Director O'Brien agrees "in hindsight", that "citing our first editorial explicitly would have made for a stronger second editorial." But this admission does nothing to answer the original question - WHY DID THE NEWSPAPER REVERSE ITS POSITION ON STATEWIDE PREEMPTION OF LOCAL GUN LAWS?

Concern #2: In attempting to explain the mysterious reversal to inquisitive letter-writers like myself, the Plain Dealer has adopted a completely untenable position. There can be no debate on whether the language addressing statewide preemption changed between August and December. It did not. By repeatedly blaming the flip-flopped editorial position on a change in the bill that never happened, the editors appear not only uninformed about matters which they editorialize, but also egotistical in refusing to admit they were wrong, or to correct the problem.

Concern #3: In my December 6 email to O'Brien, I noted that I thought the news staff was irresponsible to make it look as though preemption was new to the bill. Amazingly, the latest example of this myth being repeated in a Plain Dealer news story is from an article dated December 13 - more than a week after the newspaper was first informed of its error:

    Taft objected to the late-added provision wiping out local gun ordinances, noting that big city bans on assault weapons would be gone.

The Plain Dealer reporters guilty of repeating this error are Reginald Fields and Aaron Marshall, who apparently define a "late-added provision" as one that has been in the legislation for 9 months in its final form, and 15 months total.

CONCLUSION: Mr. O'Brien's communications indicate that the writer of the two editorials, Phillip Morris, did not read (or did not comprehend what he was reading) the applicable language in HB347 before writing the unsigned August 7 editorial. Mr O'Brien's communications also indicate that the newspaper is apparently willing to knowingly publish false reports (or perpetuate myths that will better suit its agenda?) rather than admit its errors and issue corrections.

This problem should raise significant concerns about ANY future editorializing the Plain Dealer does on pending legislation, since, as O'Brien says, "Phillip Morris [is] the editorial writer who is in closest touch with state legislative affairs."

FLASHBACK October 3, 2005: Plain Dealer's Brent Larkin admits they don't read legislation before editorializing

FLASHBACK October 17, 2005: Plain Dealer's Brent Larkin on HB347 editorial: 'We were wrong'

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