Kick 'em while they're down: How the WSJ misrepresented my city

I’m pissed off at Doug Belkin.

He’s a Wall Street Journal reporter who covered a conference I attended in Dayton. I’m pissed, because… well, you can read why here. And you can read Aubrey’s much more literate complaint here.

And apparently Mr. Belkin doesn’t get it. He wrote back saying that he doesn’t understand how his article was so negative and unfair.

Please, sir, allow me.

Because the elements I’m critiquing are so pervasive and (relatively) subtle, I end up quoting a huge amount of his article. Because this is a review and critique of his article – and hopefully serving an educational service to those who are journalism students – I believe my use below falls under fair use. I have also (because I don’t want to just copy the whole article) omitted sections that I did not have a problem with – but there weren’t many of them.

First, keep in mind that most people just read the headline, look at photos, and barely read any text. You can assume that those who read the article at all will read the first paragraph or two, and not much more. (source, and I imagine it’s worse on the internet. I originally learned this in an INTRO TO JOURNALISM class.)

So, now let’s look at the mean-spirited snark, shall we?

‘Fastest Dying Cities’ Meet for a Lively Talk

Hey, there’s a conference that’s explicitly called to counter the “Dying Cities” moniker! Let’s call it by the name it’s trying to change! That’ll show them they can’t change the image the WSJ wants them to have!

To be fair, editors usually are the ones who set headlines, so maybe Mr. Belkin doesn’t deserve blame for this one.

DAYTON, Ohio — Here’s an idea for saving Rust Belt cities: Tell bloggers and radio stations to stop calling your town a basket case.

As mentioned in my original blog post, taken out of context this idea does sound stupid. Put in context as “a way to get citizens actively involved in managing the image of the city they live in”, this is a perfect example of government doing more while spending less.

The city representatives lunched on $6 sloppy Joes and commiserated through Power Point strategy sessions: Lure back former residents, entice entrepreneurs and artists, convert blighted pockets into parkland.

What does the price of the food at the Convention Center have to do with anything? I’m currently around the Indianapolis Convention Center, and the food isn’t any cheaper here. The last time I was in New York, I paid quite a bit for a simple meal at the airport. By putting the price and “Sloppy Joes” here, it creates the connotation of being overpriced and us being unsophisticated (presumably unlike the WSJ readership). It’s patronizing.

My biggest complaint about the conference was that everyone was spending their time talking about how great everything was. NONE of the presenters were feeling sorry for themselves or wallowing in pity with others, as commiserating implies.

Yeah, both of these are connotation rather than explicit slam. They also subtly create a false impression about a conference that was overwhelmingly positive . One of my complaints about the conference was that it was a little too positive for my taste!

On the Ropes

Hey, look at this chart title in bold! These cities are “on the ropes” and don’t know it! The bold title creates more of an impression for more readers than an entire paragraph of text halfway through an article of this length.

What emerged was a sense of desperation over the difficulty of rebounding from both real problems — declining populations, dwindling tax bases — and perceived woes.

These are explicit slams. What emerged – simply by sheer amount of time spent talking – was a sense that these cities are working to change things in areas where they live.

Valarie McCall expressed frustration at marketing a city that still echoed the image of the polluted Cuyahoga River catching fire. “That was 1969,” said Ms. McCall, Cleveland’s chief of governmental affairs. “Come on, I wasn’t even born then.”

And why, pray tell, is it so frustrating? Why, because a WSJ reporter only bothers to quote this one sentence out of a twenty-minute presentation, about 18 minutes of which was spent talking about positive things that Cleveland is doing. Thanks for being part of the problem, Mr. Belkin.

Last year, used long-term trends of unemployment, population loss and economic output to devise a list of “America’s Fastest Dying Cities.” A few months later, Peter Benkendorf was eating chicken tacos when he hatched the idea for the symposium.

Again, an irrelevant food reference. Why include it? It’s a snarky little subtle dig at Peter so that the folks reading the WSJ can feel superior. Again, connotation rather than explicit, but given how ubiquitous these sorts of digs are throughout the article, he obviously knew what he was writing. He wrote them subtly so that when called on it by people like Aubrey, he could then turn around and claim innocence.

And assuming that we’re stupid enough to buy that excuse is even more patronizing.

And apparently the chicken tacos were more important to mention than the fact that Peter recently relocated to Dayton. Pointing out that Peter is not just talking but actually practicing what he preaches would be an important bit of information – but it would also mean that Mr. Belkin’s article couldn’t be as snarky.

Mr. Benkendorf, who directs an arts program affiliated with the University of Dayton, named the symposium, “Ten Living Cities.” Dayton skeptics called it “Deathfest.”

::shrug:: I heard skepticism from people, but I never heard that term. Interesting, since I live in Dayton and Mr. Belkin doesn’t.

One was college student Joe Sack, 22. “It’s like a gambling addict [trying] to help an alcoholic,” he said while at work in a coffee shop. “It’s hard to see what they can learn from each other.”

And this is where I really lost it. Why is a college student barista’s opinion relevant here? Why is it more relevant than mine – also a college student, but one who works full-time here, has been in the military and seen MSAs of many different sizes and shapes, and actually knows what the difference between a MSA and a city is? My opinion apparently wouldn’t allow for the snarky story – so I’m not heard. So much for journalistic integrity.

Representatives of Dayton, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo; Canton and Youngstown, Ohio; Flint, Mich.; and Charleston, W.Va., took turns talking about their plans. There was little discussion of how cities might pay for the initiatives.

Apparently Mr. Belkin fell asleep at some point during the presentations. Representatives from many of the cities – Flint, Youngstown, Charleston, Buffalo, and Cleveland specifically – talked about actions already taken as well as actions for the future.

Dayton Mayor Rhine McLin ran to the podium for her talk.

Again, an irrelevant detail with a connotation that’s negative. Why was a mayor running? Was she late? (Short answer: not at all)

It matters, and it comes across as negative – unless you show motivation. She was so enthusiastic about the conference – and said as much, in as many words – that she was full of energy. But without those bits of detail – detail omitted from the article – you’re left wondering why someone like a mayor was running.

“If you look under the surface, you will see that we are developing a boutique city,” she said. She didn’t elaborate on what she meant.

She didn’t. She wasn’t giving a presentation; she was giving opening remarks to the conference. Going into detail at that point would have been unfair to the other cities or to Mr. Gower. But again, pointing out the context would not allow Mr. Belkin to be snarky – so it’s left out.

In a historic reversal, the cities are embracing plans that emphasize growing smaller.

I can hear white guys in suits saying “Wha-wha-what? Growing smaller? Madness!” (And you can actually read comments to that effect at the WSJ website.) Again, the context – we’re talking about market equilibrium and adapting to it instead of waiting for the housing bubble to reinflate – provides the context that makes this sound reasonable,

In Buffalo, where more than a third of the students drop out of high school, Michael Gainer, executive director of Buffalo ReUse, is putting young people to work dismantling some of the thousands of abandoned homes and selling the scrap materials.

The dropout rate is true. He then fails to mention that Buffalo ReUse is not just “putting them to work” but explicitly giving the high school dropouts skills to make them marketable. It’s a relevant detail that shows how Buffalo ReUse is working to counter the negative Mr. Belkin cited – but again, it’s left out. By this point, we must assume that Mr. Belkin is intentionally leaving out relevant details or is incompetent as a reporter.

A councilman from Charleston described how the city lured “The Worlds Strongest Man Competition.” It was shown several times on ESPN, she said.

How did they do so? Oh, wait, by the MSA being able to quickly adapt and seize an economic opportunity when the date of the contest moved up – in direct contrast to other potential venues. Yet another example where a relevant detail was omitted. With the context, Charleston looks more adaptable and resourceful, and demonstrated so in the real world. Without that context, they look foolish. And once again, Mr. Belkin chooses to make us look foolish by omitting parts of the truth.

Mr. Bach described how he is fighting back. After a Canadian radio station aired a “This Ain’t Flint” campaign to cheer up listeners depressed about Ottawa’s economy, Mr. Bach orchestrated a letter-writing and email effort to stop the ads. The station awarded Flint more than $60,000 in free radio time that Flint used to air spots about vacationing in Michigan.

Why, this is that idea that sounded so silly in the opening paragraph! It suddenly doesn’t sound so stupid! Too bad that most readers stop after the first paragraph!

Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams talked of helping startup companies. This month, his city was named by Entrepreneur Magazine as one of the 10 best in the U.S. to start a business.

When I was taking journalism classes, one of my assignments was to rewrite an AP article. This was during the first Iraq conflict; and I pointed out to the professor how much impact paragraph order had on the story. Putting the paragraph about soldiers dying at the top made it sound far more negative about Desert Storm than the paragraph order that had run on the AP wire.

Just imagine how much difference it would have made if this article had started with the two sentences I quote above.

“We don’t want to force anything on them,” said John Slanina, a Youngstown native working on the project. “But we want people to know, ‘Hey, Youngstown is changing, take a look.'”

Mr. Slanina said he’s optimistic about the future of his hometown. But for now he lives in Columbus, Ohio, and has no plans to move back.

Again, somehow that person’s choice of location is more newsworthy than Peter’s – or mine – where we chose to move to Dayton. Again, the main difference is that our stories are not snarky.

Mr. Belkin wrote a shamefully misrepresentative article, omitting relevant facts and context in an attempt to deliberately slant the story. When called on it, he claimed ignorance. This is a review and critique of his work, with a majority of this article being my own original commentary and observations and (hopefully) an educational purpose. This fits three of the criteria for fair use citation. Stop by Mr. Belkin’s article, comment there, and e-mail him at Let him know what you think of someone going out of their way to slam our city.

Edit: Also e-mail the editor of the WSJ

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One Comment

  1. Spacecat5000
    August 15, 2009

    I was not able to make the symposium due to other commitments. I'm curious to know what priority education was given, both K-12 and college, in the strategies of the cities to better themselves. I don't know if anything can be positively impacted in our city or in any other if our leaders are concentrating mostly on the money and little on the mind. I hope education figured in prominently.

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