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OpEdiTude: When $1M missing matters:Ohio media myopia on Kearney versus JobsOhio

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OpEdiTude: As one of the reporters on the call last Wednesday with State Senator Eric Kearney to hear him explain why he, his wife and their publishing company owe $825,000 or more in federal and state tax liens, penalties and interest, it was clear the 50-year old African-American from Cincinnati was uncomfortable and defensive in his 95-minute explanation of the debts amassed over the years that now endanger his presence on the 2014 Democratic ticket.

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Sen. Eric Kearney's woes include more than just tax liens, they now include news that he didn't pay workers’ compensation premiums for nearly five years.

Sen. Kearney's continued presence on the ticket could now become an albatross around the neck of that ticket, headed by former FBI agent and Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald, who is making his first run for statewide office.

Ohio Democrats have all but nominated FitzGerald to their David in the hopes he can slay the GOP Goliath that is Gov.John R. Kasich. As soon as Sen. Kearney learned FitzGerald, the first elected executive in Cuyahoga County's reformed government structure, had selected him, news of his tax troubles exploded in headlines and have been a regular part of political reporting ever since.

At a rally for President Obama in Cleveland, CGE recorded a "60 Seconds Ohio" spot with Sen. Kearney, who said on his Columbus announcement rollout stop that as of the Obama rally he didn't know of the FitzGerald campaign's selection of him. Did the FitzGerald campaign just stumble badly, and now it can't get up?

To listen to Ohio pundit class, if Sen. Kearney stays, Ed FitzGerald is a dead duck. Few people know of him to start with, a fact several polls from reliable and accurate pollsters reveal. So if their first introduction to a candidate they don't know about but who they might vote for because they're wary of what rehiring a Republican governor and his friendly legislature will do to the state, is that his first partnership pick is an elected official with a giant debt scorecard he has a hard time explaining, Team FitzGerald has a long slough ahead of them to turn media around to prevent a weak first-term governor from skate to a win, despite a warehouse full of problems they have largely left unreported.

Ohio's Big Eight legacy newspaper run in a pack, they duplicate stories, they quote each other, they link to each others' stories. So when one story pops up, others are sure to follow. The frenzy over Kearney's tax troubles is par for media, the lack of frenzy over money disappearing at JobsOhio in far larger amounts is also par for the media.

Since the news of Sen. Kearney's tax problems broke, Ohio media that apparently seem uninterested or toothless when it comes to reporting on how $1 million disappeared at JobsOhio but turn into hungry piranha with Sen. Kearney.

Over the course of last week, the editorial boards of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Youngstown Vindicator and The Cincinnati Enquirer have called for Kearney to step down or for FitzGerald to cut him loose if the Cincinnati senator doesn't fall on his sword, advice that editorial writers and political pundits say is needed now.

In 2010, the Plain Dealer endorsed Kasich the Republican, even thought it called him at the time a "wild card, eager to shake up the status quo and even challenge his own party, but also capable of talking himself right off a cliff." Ohio's largest newspaper didn't chose to back former Gov. Ted Strickland, the sure and steady but boring tortoise. Instead, it picked Kasich, the jack rabbit with a showman's style who said this about him: "With his Red Bull style, it is sometimes hard to tell what's core belief, what's hot air and whether even he knows the difference."

The PD picked the razzle dazzle candidate whose performance so far on creating jobs has been far more razzle than dazzle. If the PD's coverage of Kearney on his tax liabilities, and it's lack of coverage of Kasich whoppers is any indication, it will endorse the jack rabbit again, showing again its values style over substance.

The Youngstown Vindicator, by contrast, stood foursquare behind Gov. Strickland. In its election editorial, the YV said of Strickland, he "has shown that careful, deliberate decision-making is necessary to establish a solid foundation upon which Ohio can rebuild its economy."

It's view of citizen Kasich at the time was to worry about his promise to privatize the department of development without delving into the legal ramifications of placing taxpayer dollars in the hands of corporate executives, a worry that has come true. "Kasich has said that the executives would be paid what they’re worth and would get bonuses, which could be secret," Vindy editorial writers wrote, adding a view into the future that has unfortunately come true today. "The notion that a government entity [JobsOhio] should be able to operate in the dark is at once surprising and disturbing."

The Enquirer said Kearney should step down: "That’s why Kearney should withdraw from the race," the paper wrote, adding it will "give Ohioans a chance to have a fair debate on real issues that matter.And it will obscure debate over issues that matter to Ohioans – jobs, the economy, and yes, taxation."

The Columbus Dispatch weighed in on the affair via its senior political reporter who wrote Sunday that Kearney's "tax woos could doom [the Democratic] gubernatorial ticket." The reporter likened reporters covering the Kearney collapse to "hyenas on a wounded wildebeest."

Another syndicated reporter brought into play another issue—Kearney is an African-American—as another below the radar message that Kearney should go. In an article titled "Democrats not good at electing blacks to statewide office," another reporter took a historical perspective, whose hidden message is that Kearney is a liability for more reasons than just his debts.

As a former credentialed Ohio Statehouse press corps member, CGE has known Sen. Kearney since 2005 when he allowed CGE to be one of the first reporters to engage him in a lengthy profile interview. Obamaesque, Sen. Kearney is smart, calm and collected and before his tax troubles surfaced represented a good selection by FitzGerald, a former FBI agent and Mayor of Lakewood, who has taken on a steep uphill battle to unseat a long-time, well-known political performance artist like Gov. Kasich, who will not want for money next year but who has as many hot coals in his corner as Kearney, but will have no fears that Ohio media, who wants continued access to him, will dig as deep into his problems as media is into Kearney's financial follies.

Meanwhile, as stories on Kearney's stumbles add up, stories on $1 million in undocumented expenditures by JobsOhio, Gov. Kasich's super secret development group, are few and far between outside a day's coverage of reports released by a GOP auditor of state that identified important information on how unprofessional and unchecked JobsOhio operates.

Ohio media shows it has no intention to take on Kasich and JobsOhio, even when $1 million in expenditures by a group advertised as savvy business professionals "moving at the speed of business" go largely unnoticed and uncovered.

Senator Kearney has at least tried to provide documents and information, an "unprecedented" amount as he calls his effort to explain his $1 million problem. At JobsOhio, not only does it not have any documentation to prove the missing $1 million the state auditor identified was spent legitimately, but Yost, the state's fiscal watchdog and Republican running for reelection next year with Kasich, expressed virtually no concern about it. In fact, he downplayed the discrepancy, telling reporters, "there are no headlines here."

Where's the equity, the fair and balanced reporting Ohioans deserve from legacy mainstream media? It's just not there, and won't likely be since doing so will only anger Team Kasich and possibly end access to governor, something this reporter knows about all too well. Pulling your punches can be done in several ways, one of which is by not asking piercing questions.

Whether it's $1 million in tax liabilities and liens by Sen. Kearney or $1 million disappeared at JobsOhio, media reporters have let JobsOhio, the secret group Kasich proposed in his 2010 campaign and said he would be chairman of until the Ohio Constitution got in his way, skate away virtually untouched.

Coverage of Kearney and JobsOhio, and the $1 million or so each is accused of mishandling, begs the question of why Ohio's hyenas don't have an appetite to run article after article questioning how JobsOhio, supposedly run by savvy business professionals, could be so unprofessional in its inner workings compared to an individual candidate who has at least tried to feed the hyenas with documents and information they can't obtain and will never obtain from JobsOhio since Gov. Kasich and his dutiful GOP legislature pulled the veil of secrecy over to avoid having to do what Kearney did, namely, provide the public a view behind the curtain.

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