Machaskee To Be Inducted
In Press Club Hall of Fame
In a development sure to give plenty of people a serious case of heartburn, the Press Club of Cleveland will induct former PD Publisher Alex Machaskee into its hall of fame in October.
The decision comes after a vote of the membership, which will be announced at the group's annual meeting tomorrow, a lunch affair at Windows on the River in which Machaskee's successor, Terry Egger, ironically enough, will be the featured speaker.
Machaskee is a complicated figure, but one who's had an enormous--and I'm sad to say, mostly negative--imprint on the region for many years. One well-researched book on the Newhouse empire (the family that owns the PD) noted that the PD has had a reputation in journalism as one of the more corrupt newspapers in America, and Alex ("the Snake," as he was dubbed some years ago by his newsroom critics) deserves much of the blame for that.
When Teamster president Jackie Presser's FBI files were opened to scrutiny some years ago, my friend Ken Myers (a former journalist and now a prominent civil liberties attorney) wrote in Crain's that they revealed that Machaskee, then the general manager of the paper, had tried to encourage the Teamsters to make trouble for the arch-enemy (now defunct) Cleveland Press. He was perhaps lucky these allegations first arose during the Teamsters-friendly, ethics-challenged Reagan Administration, because they seemed to most experts to be clear violations of antitrust laws, for which he could well have been prosecuted. The Press was then teetering on the edge of viability, and he well knew that problems with the union representing its distribution arm (delivery drivers) could push it over the edge. The Newhouses later touched off a scandal by buying the readership list of its shuttered competitor for millions of dollars, which to some sounded suspiciously like an illegal inducement to close a newspaper. A federal investigation into that matter later ended with no indictments.
In any event, Machaskee's opportunities for mischief grew geometrically once he became publisher, after he cruelly humiliated his predecessor and one-time boss, Tom Vail. Machaskee routinely and improperly meddled in the newsroom, installing a network of spies whose legacy is a culture of internal intimidation and caution that still exists to this day (although editor Doug Clifton has done his best to minimize its vestiges). His close friendship with and protection of George Voinovich, one of the most corrupt public figures of the last quarter century in this town and state, in turn drove many other forms of smaller and more subtle corruption. But the cumulative effect was devastating.
I would argue that by protecting then-Governor Voinovich and his henchmen, and by cutting what he called "vanity circulation" of the PD in such outlying areas as Columbus (which lessened the paper's influence over state politics), Machaskee played a crucial, perhaps central, role in the multifaceted state government scandals that continue to play out to this day. They've unfortunately happened to blow up on the feckless, well-meaning Bob Taft's watch. Still, nearly all of the seeds were sown by his cruder, more streetwise predecessor, who learned his brand of smash-mouth politics in the gritty streets of post-war Collinwood, where one learned to take care of one's friends and really take care of one's enemies.
This controversial selection naturally sheds some light on the Press Club itself (of which I've been a member off and on for years, currently on), which has been a tad anemic in recent years. But then, it operates in a town where it's often said journalism needs an oxygen mask to keep it barely alive. The club (which despite its name draws perhaps half its membership from among the p.r. industry) largely exists in order to confer annual statewide awards (presented at a banquet each June) and install those whose career contributions were deemed worthy into its hall of fame. The latter choices have occasionally been steeped in cronyism--like the decision some years ago to induct a thoroughly mediocre but well-connected PD highway-beat reporter, who proceeded to give a telling glance into her thought process by asking a developer to introduce her at the banquet.
In all fairness, the membership's choices for the hall been getting better in recent years, I think. And whatever his other sins might be, Machaskee's long tenure atop the town's only daily and his universal name recognition probably made him a cinch from the beginning.