Youngstown Newspaper Skewers African American Father Murdered by Police with Past Misdemeanors
The Vindicator is the local newspaper of record in Youngstown, Ohio, but rather than serving as a check on power, the newspaper vindicates every act of the powerful, no matter how heinous or unjust, always falling in line to blame the victims, especially if they’re black. Our president attacks the newspapers almost daily, which is undeserved and damaging to a critical institution of any democracy, the free press, but the Vindicator is not free, not courageous, nor does it defend democracy. Instead, it protects the establishment, trumpeting the lies of the powerful in order to cover up their crimes.
In small-town Ohio (as well as in the cities), the most visible public officials who commit crimes happen to be the police, but nobody wants to punish the police, so they choose to blame the victim. It’s dirty, dishonest work, blaming the victims of incompetent police, but somebody in the newspaper business is bound to play ball, and Ed Runyan is the Vindicator’s star victim-blamer.
On Wednesday, February 27, 2019, the Vindicator let fly another victim-blaming article by Mr. Runyan, digging into the criminal past of a local man, Matthew Burroughs, who was shot to death by police through his back window as he sat in his car on January 2. Since then, people in the community have been protesting the killing, so the article sparked immediate outrage in the black community because it shifted responsibility away from the police who likely broke protocol firing into a vehicle which posed no immediate threat killing a person who had no weapon. No expert commentary was included in any article about the killing, and initially, the newspapers distorted the facts of the case to the detriment of the victim. Now, the Vindicator has resorted to mud-slinging to tarnish the reputation of an innocent man who now lies six feet under the ground.
The article relied on police reports from the same police that killed him, which already seems like a smear job, but even the police reports give the impression that the police were harassing black residents. White residents rarely get hauled in and jailed for 10 days after “appearing to conceal something” and having “glassy” eyes, but Burroughs did in 2013, and Ed Runyan thinks that’s relevant to mention in the context of his murder by police.
The real gem Runyan dug up (or was provided by Burroughs’ killers) was an arrest in 2009 when the cops absolutely freaked out when Burroughs failed to comply with an order. Racist police hate it when black people don’t obey, and the Niles police were prepared to kill Burroughs after he failed to pull over for a traffic citation. Burroughs was evidently so stunned by their overreaction that he failed to comply to show his hands, which led to an angry officer attacking him as he sat motionless in his car.
The entire story was told in a way that suggested Burroughs had a death wish because he didn’t take local police seriously, and the Vindicator’s white readership was quick to celebrate another justified shooting of a black person in the comments below Runyan’s masterpiece. Twice, in ten years, Burroughs disobeyed police that started following him for one reason or another, and the third time, they shot him half a dozen times in the back for fleeing. Disrespecting the police is a death penalty in Ohio if you’re black, and it’s carried out as a summary execution, just like in the old days.
Bria Bennett, a local activist who has been organizing #justiceformatt, commented on the Facebook group, “Matthew needs a storyteller otherwise, articles like this will continue. WE are his storytellers.” Chauncey Harris, a resident of Youngstown, was incensed after reading the article, posting on Facebook, “We not dumb, it’s some foul play going on. This is always how they do it corrupt a potential jury member because the constant story they saying is he a criminal, yet in none of these incidents did he lethally threaten or try to harm police. No matter how you try to paint it he wasn’t a lethal threat to police and was MURDERED.”
Mr. Harris makes an excellent point, and The Vindicator and its competitors have been on a race to the bottom. I’m fed up with this kind of journalism. Let’s take a deeper look at Mr. Runyan and the Vindicator’s “news,” and then, we’ll take a look at what the community is doing in spite of the Vindicator’s yellow journalism.
Background on Runyan’s Shoddy Reporting Career
I don’t know Mr. Runyan well. I’ve never met him in person, but I’ve corresponded with him a bit over the years while I was writing a book entitled Blue Mafia: Police Brutality & Consent Decrees in Ohio. Runyan has been working as a journalist since circa 2005, but I noticed he didn’t know the most basic laws the govern his job. I once sent him an audio file of a call I had recorded with a public official without their knowledge, which is legal in Ohio. Mr. Runyan asked, “Is this legal?” I was shocked- he had been working as a journalist for a decade without knowing that it’s legal in Ohio to record phone calls with officials without their knowledge, one of the most important tools of journalists if you want to have accurate notes of your conversations or defend your story in court.
When I was preparing to publish the book, I sent Mr. Runyan a copy to fact-check, so I could make any necessary changes. A few weeks later, Mr. Runyan reviewed the book for the Vindicator. The review attacked my book, which didn’t surprise me. I provoked it with my ribald criticism of his and his newspapers’ mistakes. I have never responded publicly about how the Vindicator reviewed my book because I valued the publicity more, even if it was shoddy and malicious.
However, because of this prior relationship, it’s my duty as a journalist to summarize our past dealings (something the Vindicator doesn’t do), so the reader can judge whether my statements reflect a personal bias. My book really tore into certain local media outlets (especially the Warren Tribune Chronicle) for their shoddy reporting in the lead up to a lengthy Justice Department investigation and a consequent lawsuit (with The United States as the plaintiff) against the local police for committing all of the crimes that the community had been trying to tell the newspapers for decades.
I even went out of my way to criticize one of Mr. Runyan’s articles where he didn’t bother to google a police brutality video that had been on Youtube for five years, but he still wrote an article concerning the investigation which originated from that video, remarking that officers in the video “were accused of using excessive force.” When you watch the video, it’s pretty easy to verify that the level of force used was excessive, but apparently, nobody on the Vindicator staff thought to watch it, or they did watch it but preferred to talk of “accusations” because it was safer. It makes one wonder, is the editor afraid to speak the truth?
Typically, if a journalist is not ready to make the call about what’s what, they can talk to an expert, but the Vindicator never does this. After Burroughs’ murder, I talked to former cops and cops who became professors, and all of them were concerned by the circumstances of Burroughs’ death. I begged local journalists to consult experts, but nothing doing! I think they are more worried about the fallout from telling the truth, especially litigation, which could easily bankrupt their organization. Well, I pondered this question in some depth in the book, so it was doubly fascinating to analyze how the Vindicator responded to it.
The headline immediately tarred me as a “California-based author” which is akin to saying “liberal.” Nevermind that I spent most of the time writing the book in Virginia, much closer, politically and geographically, to Ohio. The whole article was replete with loaded suggestions and half-truths, but what interested me was how the article played defense against my criticisms by summarizing the history of police brutality I wrote about in abnormally candid terms. Instead of officers in the video “accused of excessive force,” Mr. Runyan wrote, “The video shows officers using extreme force to arrest Kimble,” (emphasis added).
I took it as an oblique acknowledgment that their reporting had been deficient in a way that only someone who knew my criticism would notice. It also indicated that somebody finally did get around to watching that darn video! In the end, the Vindicator spread lies about my book because I told the truth about their lies. With such a vindictive propaganda press, it’s little surprise that residents have a low opinion of the media.
Nevertheless, I don’t hold a grudge against the outlet; I just want them to do real journalism, not sweep injustice under the rug for government thugs. I even applied for a reporter position at the paper in hopes that I could bring some integrity back to their organization by exposing the corruption and abuse of power Ed Runyan contentedly wallows in as pleased as a pig in shit. That brings me back to the tragic case of Matthew Burroughs and what the community is doing to counter the Vindicator’s hit job.
The Community Responds
Residents in Niles, Warren, and Youngstown have responded in a big way, hosting rallies, marches, dialogues, steaming everything on FB Live, phone-banking to raise awareness, putting out flyers and sharing information constantly on social media. People of color are subject to plenty of discrimination and outrage in Ohio, but it takes a very grave injustice to get this kind of reaction.
In the dead of Winter, locals, both black and white, have showed up, for protests obliging them to march, to chant, and stand around outside with signs. All the civil rights organizations and a few church-leaders have been involved in the efforts. Nearly 100 gathered at a local church for an open discussion and a lengthy, powerful time of prayer, before marching directly to the police station and delivering batteries (the police recently claimed that they were having problems maintaining body cameras in working order, which could potentially foreshadow a claim by the Niles police that they have no footage of Burroughs’ death).
Of course, the Vindicator sent Ed Runyan to cover the event, right after his despicable article. His article has subtle indications of his disinterest in their actions, repeating all the basic facts about the case without the necessary detail, including some incisive commentary, signing off with an error that “a letter” was delivered to the police, instead of batteries. I’m in California, and I was able to use Facebook to verify Runyan was wrong.
After the Vindicator’s tarring of Burroughs for his lack of cooperation, one young pastor, Todd Johnson, who has been doggedly and consistently speaking out for justice, posted the following on FB:
Dear The Vindicator, Ed Runyan, Since you saw fit to dig back into 10 years of legal issues with #MatthewBurroughs, please exercise fairness and put that same energy into publishing a list of all complaints filed against the Niles Police Department in the last 10 years. And be sure to make it front page news.
You can bet your bottom dollar that’s not going to happen, not even regarding the disciplinary records of the officers involved, James Reppy and Christopher Mennella. The days of courageous journalism in Ohio are long gone. Today, much of Ohio is under a media blackout. The residents of one town have little idea how others in the next town are doing, which makes it easy for powerful people to do pretty much as they please. In this situation, it’s up to us to raise our voices and let the authorities know we have reached the limit of the abuse we are willing to endure.