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Cleveland Plain Dealer takes a Myopic look at the Imperial Avenue Victims

21 March 2011 9 Comments

For weeks now, the Cleveland Plain Dealer has been running biographies of the 11 women who were found murdered just over a year ago by serial killer Anthony Sowell in a house of the east side of Cleveland.

Denise Hunter holds her sister Amy Hunter's picture. Amy Hunter was one of 11 women killed by Anthony Sowell on the east side of Cleveland. Photo: Plain Dealer

This week, they profiled Amelda “Amy” Hunter, a “bookworm” from Chicago, that eventually got mixed up with men and drugs. All of the stories, more or less, follow the same pattern: A young woman, loved by her family, full of promise, falls prey to older men, crack and a life on the streets, and her life meets its tragic ending at the hands of a sociopath.

Here are links to all of the stories:


Crystal Dozier | Tishana Culver | Leshanda Long | Tonia Carmichael | Michelle Mason | Kim Yvette Smith | Nancy Cobbs| Amelda Hunter | Janice Webb | Telacia Fortson | Diane Turner

It’s all, of course, terribly sad.

A friend of mine pointed out, in all these stories, in all their coverage, sympathetic as it may be, the Plain Dealer never raises the bigger issue. What made these women such easy targets was being black, being women and being from the highly-segregated and desperately poor east side of Cleveland.

This is a story about racism and inequality and sexism and poverty as much, if not more, than it is about drugs and individual lives going astray. This is a story that’s inseparable from its environment: a neglected ghetto in Cleveland, in deplorable conditions even before it was turned upside down by the foreclosure crisis.

It didn’t matter to Anthony Sowell that some of the victims read poetry, or cooked greens, or cared for children. It didn’t matter to the larger society and he knew that. Nobody was going to tear up the city looking for a few black women from the east side with sketchy pasts.

The story of the Imperial Avenue victims should inspire a complete rethinking of the way Cleveland cares for its most vulnerable residents. Maybe that’s what the Plain Dealer was trying to say, without actually saying it.

I’m just not convinced, more than one year after those bodies were discovered, that is couldn’t happen all over again.

Have we stabilized these neighborhoods? Have we changed the way we look at black women? Have we repaired the relationship between the police department and the city’s worst neighborhoods?

One year after these murders, those are the questions we should be asking ourselves. It’s too bad we can’t rely on our local newspaper to raise them.

-A.S.

  • http://www.clevelandreview.org Christine Borne

    I think what they are trying to do is appeal to those people who just plug their ears or refuse to participate in conversations about isms, and the best way to do that would be to bring it down to the individual life story level. To promote understanding by focusing on similarities rather than differences. I think it would be a good idea for them to segue into the larger discussion, once people are listening.

    Of course, there will always be some people who will never listen.

  • schmange

    Yeah, you might be right. It’s kinda sad though that The Plain Dealer thinks it has to dumb it down and assumes we cannot comprehend or intelligently discuss concepts like racism, sexism and poverty. I think we are kinda screwed if that is really the case.

  • http://cleveland.com John Kroll

    Angie,

    The current series was written for a specific purpose: to tell the personal stories of the 11 women; to give them back their humanity as we approach a trial where they will inevitably be largely seen as victims. If this were the only coverage we produced, your friend would be right — we would be missing the bigger picture.

    But The Plain Dealer has provided a great deal of coverage, and will continue to do so. The list of stories at cleveland.com/anthony-sowell is very long. Columnists including Phillip Morris have written about the bigger picture. Margaret Bernstein and Stan Donaldson, who produced the current series, had taken a look at the issues through the eyes of four sons of Imperial Avenue victims. There’s much, much more, covering all of the things you mention — questions about how police treated reports of rape or missing women, about what the city and the neighborhood can do going forward.

    The current series isn’t the end of our coverage, either. There will be a summing-up piece, and undoubtedly even as we report on the trial we will continue to step back and look at broader issues.

  • http://rustwire.com Schmange

    John,

    I am glad you commented. I am familiar with your coverage. I was a seven-day-a-week subscriber until a few weeks ago.

    This kind of coverage is typical of the Plain Dealer’s coverage of urban issues more generally. You guys just never scratch very deep.

    Oh sure, you cover all the court hearings. You have Regina Brett write some column lamenting the tragedy without recommending any real specific solution. Then you move on to the next salacious thing.

    You never raise the big issues. On sprawl, on segregation, on inequality — the issues that are really killing this region — the Plain Dealer is largely silent.

    I used to try to write letters to the editor, but after a while, I just kind of got fed up with it.

  • schmange

    Also, I love that you brought up Phillip Morris, the PD’s racial apologist in chief.

  • Emily

    It’s interesting to me that there could be such a negative response to this series of articles. I thought it was appropriate that the PD took a step back from the coverage referring to the collective “eleven Imperial Avenue victims” and focused on each woman individually. I think that these articles have shown a degree of humanism and respect that is not often afforded by the media or the public to the casualties of urban crime. I also think that the PD has, at other times, taken advantage of this opportunity to have a more open discussion of the “bigger issues” to which you referred, such as the need for better investigation of rape cases.

    As an aside, I’d like to mention that in three years of living in Cleveland and reading the PD on a daily-to-weekly basis, I’ve been generally impressed. I lived in Cincinnati before this and have to say that the Enquirer is a far inferior product in regard to both the quality of reporting and the active role that the newspaper takes in the community.

  • Joe

    Thanks for the very thought provoking article. When this terrible story broke about these vicious crimes I could not help but think of another horrific story that occurred in Vancouver. On the east side of downtown Vancouver a large number of First Nations (American Indians in Canada) women went missing. Robert Pickton was formally charged with 26 murders, but it is believed that up to 60 women were murdered. Out of all of these terrible crimes the focus of the news was on the tragedy that befell the victims and the lack of response from the police department. Many articles also focused on the psychosis of the serial killer. All of this coverage is very important in my opinion, I expected to get some of these high level details from the local newspaper. However, there is a larger story that is being left untold. If 60 people can go missing from the same neighborhood, the problem is not just a police and psychopath, there are obviously broader social issues. The issues of news coverage was the focus of a book, “Missing Women, Missing News.” The author provides some interesting points for the current discussion. Many of the points of the book center around poverty, the cutting of social programs and the lack of community organizations.

    What I took away from your article about the Cleveland crimes is that coverage very similar to that of Vancouver has occurred. There is certainly a time for more personal information on the victims. It is this personal information that can help avoid the inference that the victim had a role in the crime that was committed against them. This was a large problem in the Vancouver case, as many of the women were prostitutes. Some of the use of language and news coverage is discussed in the following two articles that I found an interesting read when researching the topic:

    http://www.feministmediaproject.com/2007/01/19/literature-review/
    http://www.feministmediaproject.com/2007/12/21/conversations-with-three-feminist-reporters-covering-the-pickton-trial/

    An interesting point that these articles brought up is that in many violent crimes against women, the perpetrator is only as guilty as the victim is innocent.

    I certainly do not have the answers for a problem as complex as the expected and quality of coverage in a case as horrific as what happened here in Cleveland. I do know though, that for something like this to happen it is not simply a problem with the police or a random psychopath. We have an obligation to one another in a community and we as a community obviously have failed if something like this can happen in our city. We have an obligation to look at all causes to avoid such tragedy in the future.

  • schmange

    Excellent point, Joe. You know it also kind of reminds me (sadly) of Juarez, Mexico. The epidemic murder of women in that drug trafficking city is notorious. It is very closely tied to the low value the local culture places on women.

  • schmange

    “For something like this to happen it is not simply a problem with the police or a random psychopath.”

    Thank you, Joe!! That is my point exactly. My complaint against the PD, maybe I didn’t articulate it clearly enough, is that is doesn’t acknowledge this very explicitly.

    These stories seem to point the finger of blame at drugs and individual lives going astray. Leading up to the trial, where a man will be found guilty and imprisoned, presumably solving the problem.

    The white elephant in these stories is racism and poverty and the PD has chosen to avoid these difficult topics as much as possible. I think they shirk their responsibility to the public in this regard because they are terrified of being perceived as “liberal.”