Written by Gary Benz

Gary Benz

Tony GrossiRandy-LernerWhen the obituary of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is written, and it will be sooner rather than later, don't be surprised if the words "pathetic" and "irrelevant" appear somewhere in the first 10 words or so to describe the reasoning behind its demise.

Already a shadow of its former glorious self, the Plain Dealer will be done in by no shortage of irony and perhaps the tipping point will turn out to be their pathetic but hardly irrelevant response to the apparently former PD Browns beat reporter Tony Grossi's tweet about Browns owner Randy Lerner.

The back story here is that Lerner, who gives interviews about as often as the Browns have winning seasons, did grant one to the fawning, preening troll-like blowhard who occupies the afternoon drive-time slot for the Browns' flag ship station, WTAM. As interviews go, it was, to borrow a few choice words, pathetic and irrelevant.

Lerner wasn't asked anything remotely challenging or controversial and he complied spectacularly by not saying say much interesting, he never does. His tone was mostly flat-lined, matching note for note his stewardship of a franchise that, to borrow a few choice words, has been pathetic and irrelevant for more than a decade. In short, Lerner's coming out was the non-event of this year's Berea social scene. So be it.

Grossi, likely frustrated that his status as the longest tenured Browns beat reporter didn't give him the same access to Lerner and hence the opportunity to actually ask questions and demand answers, tweeted that Lerner is a "pathetic figure, the most irrelevant billionaire in the world."

This, of course, probably angered someone inside of Berea, though I doubt Lerner much paid attention. My guess is that it was the public relations director. Maybe it was Mike Holmgren, who just weeks ago railed against the negative attitude of the media and essentially vowed to do something about it.

It doesn't matter. Someone got the word back to the Plain Dealer about Grossi's tweet and the editors there jumped into panic mode. Grossi was forced to remove the tweet, apologize to Lerner and await his fate like a petulant child who just spray painted the cat and was now waiting for dad to come home and mete out the punishment.

Well that punishment came in the form of his removal from the Browns' beat, according to multiple sources. No one at the Plain Dealer is saying much about it, hiding for now behind the kind of "no comment" comment that they detest from others with something to hide. If/when they do say something, it will be along the lines of what they already said when they discovered the tweet, that his actions were inappropriate as they then utter vague references about compromised integrity or some other such horseshit.

There's something very peculiar about newspapers, the so-called champions of free speech everywhere. For voracious First Amendment advocates, they have awfully thin skins. Maybe they're just jittery about their business prospects.

It's actually odd for me to take up the banner for Grossi because I never felt like he was all that good of a beat writer to begin with. At this point in his career, and perhaps jaded by years of watching, to borrow a few choice words, pathetic and irrelevant football being played on the lakefront, Grossi became satisfied with perfunctory analysis and lazy reporting. His editors and audience alike yawned their indifference.

He was repeatedly scooped, like many Plain Dealer sports writers tend to be, by harder working reporters at smaller newspapers or, God forbid, bloggers. Perhaps his biggest flaw, though, was that he never had much interesting to say. My sense always was that he had readers because of his platform and not because of his talent.

Any of those would have been good enough reasons to can Grossi and you wouldn't have heard a peep out of me. But the Plain Dealer, having tolerated his mediocrity for years, has long since lost the argument that Grossi should be fired now because he was lousy at his job.

Instead, they took a much more interesting approach, claiming essentially that it was the freestyling ways of the internets and social media that made it impossible for Grossi to do his job effectively anymore. Why? Because he had the temerity to call it as he saw it when it came to Lerner? What happened to truth as a defense?

Lerner, frankly, is a pathetic figure and an irrelevant billionaire. Whether he's the most irrelevant billionaire in the world can't be measured empirically but let's grant Grossi the latitude that Lerner is in the top 10. The point, though, is that none of this is news anyway, except maybe to the owners or editors of the Plain Dealer who apparently have been too busy trying to scour up advertisers and subscribers to pay attention to such small matters as the disintegration of a key economic driver of the city that the Browns are or at least should be.

Lerner's ownership of the Browns has been a disaster. He's treated the Browns like some sort of aquatic experiment where he keeps buying various kinds of exotic fish and throwing them in the tank together to see if they can survive together. About every two years or so, he's forced to buy more fish when his last experiment didn't work. The next time he shows even a modicum of leadership of the franchise will be the first.

If this hurts his feelings, or if someone pointing this out hurts his feelings, then he should get out of the game. By holding on to the franchise he voluntarily put himself in a position to be criticized. Yet I really doubt that it did hurt his feelings. First of all, he'd have to demonstrate he has any. Secondly, he'd have to demonstrate that he even read Grossi's tweet, which I doubt, or cared enough about Grossi's opinion to even voice his displeasure.

It's important to the underpinnings of this story to harp on what a lousy owner Lerner has been because it completely eviscerates any argument the brass at the Plain Dealer could conger that Grossi's integrity as a journalist was somehow compromised by a supposedly inappropriate tweet.

Are they mad that Grossi feels the way he does about Lerner or just the fact that he said it publicly? For these purposes, the answer doesn't matter. If Grossi's integrity was compromised it was done so long before he made the supposedly offending tweet and yet he's remained on the beat for years.

But I doubt that Grossi's integrity was compromised anyway. He's been on the Browns beat since 1984 and has seen the same things we've all seen, but from a much better view. Lerner's pathetic and irrelevant ownership of the Browns provides the significant context to why the team itself has been pathetic and irrelevant for so long. It's part of each and every crappy coaching hire, each and every crappy draft and each and every crappy loss. It's the story that he was paid to write in the first place.

Let's also not forget that this is sports and not politics, though the fossils that teach journalism on college campuses, assuming it's even still offered as a curriculum, would argue that the standards are the same. Maybe they should be, but they most certainly are not. Sports reporters, particularly those covering the teams on a daily basis for any media outlet, have always been given a much wider berth by their editors to mix fact and opinion in a story then the reporter covering city hall. It's only when those editors become embarrassed by the children they let run loose on the sports beat embarrass them at cocktail parties that they decide to act as if the same rules apply.

But it's also a measure of what these same internets have brought us that the landscape of journalism has changed. There's a reason that this web site, and many like it, get so many visitors each day. People are clamoring for a different, fresher perspective, one that isn't afraid to mix fact and opinion or that is otherwise not bound by some of the conventions of an aging print media.

Grossi's little foray into Twitter, with the ongoing approval of his editors, was the equivalent of dipping a pinky toe in the Atlantic. If the Plain Dealer had been smart, they would have answered the call from whatever faceless Browns official complained and said "welcome to 2012. This is not your father's Plain Dealer."

That doesn't mean there aren't standards, but it does mean those standards have evolved. The only ones that haven't seemed to notice are the editors of the Plain Dealer, which they amply demonstrated here.

It's funny. The Plain Dealer will survive the demotion of Grossi but they won't survive overall. because they never could recognize that the same thought process that brought them to making the decision on Grossi is the same thought process that is making their newspaper increasingly more pathetic and irrelevant.