The Columbus Dispatch and Its “Commitment to Watchdog, Investigative Reporting”

By Denis Smith

After reading the first paragraph of Editor Ben Marrison’s piece in the December 21 edition of The Columbus Dispatch, it reminded me of one of my mother’s favorite expressions. “That would make a cat laugh,” she would say when reading a hilarious item in the newspaper. Indeed, if I had a cat, he would have laughed with me as I read the editor’s standard, self-congratulatory Sunday column.

“One of the things readers tell us they value most about The Dispatch is our commitment to watchdog, investigative reporting,” Marrison wrote. Readers, he went on to say, “… appreciate the difficulty of watchdog journalism because you understand the time commitment it requires to dig deep into a subject…”

When I finished laughing at these assertions about dogged, aggressive investigative reporting by a community watchdog acting to inform the public in the noble democratic (note the small d) tradition of American journalism, my mirth was driven by thinking about my own engagement with The Dispatch during the last year. That engagement was based on a plea that the paper investigate the relationship between a mysterious Turkish exile and a chain of Ohio charter schools.

In contacting The Dispatch, I was probably guilty of committing an unforgivable sin: requesting that the newspaper assume its watchdog function, perform investigative reporting, invest in a time commitment and dig deep into a subject.

But those are Marrison’s words, not mine. And the unforgivable sin? The newspaper was asked to examine a chain of Ohio charter schools that annually consume millions of Ohio tax dollars which otherwise would be spent on supporting public education.

My offer to assist The Dispatch began on December 30, 2013, when I contacted the paper after reading about political unrest in Turkey, and asked that the information I provided be considered on a background basis. Here is what I wrote a year ago. [Due to the length and detail of what I provided the paper, I am including selected portions in this article.]

“Your coverage of the unrest in Turkey as featured in the December 26 [2013] print edition did mention that part of the protests directed at the Turkish government are generated from followers of a Turkish national named Fethullah Gulen. There was no mention that Gulen is an exile who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania and who directs operations in a number of countries that support his business network.

“… Do you intend to inform your readers that this same Gulen Movement … has established a network of charter schools around this nation and maintains about 20 affiliated charter schools here in Ohio? I believe that your readers need to know this important connection as we all cover the unfolding developments in Turkey which may end up destabilizing the current government in a volatile part of our world.”

As someone who is sympathetic to the financial stressors that afflict the newspaper industry, I offered a number of links for the paper to follow so there wouldn’t be much of a time commitment in getting to the essential question, viz., is it desirable public policy to encourage the outsourcing of American public education to an organization with ties to a Turkish exile who is considered a revolutionary by his own government?

My December 30, 2013 message to The Dispatch continued:

“The New York Times has provided coverage of Gulen’s involvement in American public education through publicly funded charter schools in a series of articles going back to 2011 … :”

“As a retired school administrator … who has monitored the growth of this foreign network for the last six years, I am concerned at the lack of coverage by your newspaper of a foreign organization that has used public funds to set up a chain of 135 charter schools in 25 states, with some of those schools operating here in Ohio.”

I offered help to the newspaper by posing the following questions to assist it with performing its surveillance function by investigating why a mysterious charter school chain, tied to a Turkish imam, should be operating with the support of Ohio tax dollars.

“In case you are interested in pursuing this story, here are some questions that a good investigation of these schools might raise as you might work to tell this story in the public interest.

  1. As the auditor’s office or the AG might say, what is the proper public purpose in allowing a foreign-based organization to use public funds to establish a chain of charter schools in this country, knowing that they are exempt from about 200 sections of the Ohio Revised Code?
  2. Is there an insufficient pool of trained and qualified American administrative and teaching staff that can justify the importation of charter school staff through one-year visas, knowing that these individuals will be paid with public funds? …Previous investigative work has been done in this area, but it is dated by several years and needs to be reexamined.
  3. Charter schools are supposedly public schools. If that is the case, why do the governing board members of these schools appear to be mostly male? … Do the parents of children enrolled in Gulen-affiliated schools even know the identity of these individuals or how to contact them? Are board meetings publicized and accessible to the parents of the schools? Do all-male boards containing some foreign-born individuals truly represent the public interest?
  4. How are these governing board members chosen? Are they hand-picked for their allegiance to Gulen and his beliefs?  With such a uniform profile, how can these board members represent the students, parents, and the larger community?
  5. Is there a requirement that these board members need to be American citizens, knowing that some of the teachers in the schools are in this country on the basis of one-year visas? Has anyone, including the Ohio Department of Education and the school authorizers, examined the reason for a large number of foreign-born individuals to sit on the boards of these schools?
  6. It is my understanding that the Office of the Secretary of State maintains records of the names of governing board members from public school districts and educational service centers inasmuch as these individuals are elected public officials. Is there a similar requirement or practice to collect and maintain the names of charter school governing board members, even though they are not elected? Also, are charter school board members considered public officials due to their membership on a public body? If not, why not? Is corrective legislation needed here?
  7. Many of these schools advertise themselves as having a science focus and as high-performing institutions. Yet in some locations around the country, there have been allegations of “cherry-picking” students through recruitment as well as “counseling-out” practices to get favorable results. If these practices are found to be true, isn’t that a form of data-rigging as well, and wouldn’t Ohio’s Greatest Home Newspaper be interested in pursuing an appropriate line of inquiry consistent with its past interest in data-rigging?
  8. Several years ago, as a member of the Ohio Department of Education staff, I found evidence of cronyism in one of the schools through the use of no-bid contracts that engaged Turkish friends … in providing school repair and remodeling. Has the state auditor found anything about such tendencies or pursued a thorough auditing process in light of past charter school treasurer scandals that have been reported?
  9. What kind of review does a charter school sponsor (authorizer) perform before agreeing to engage with Gulen-affiliated schools? Has the sponsor ever met the governing board members of these schools and determined their backgrounds in performing its due diligence?
  10. Could it be that profits from these schools are being funneled back to Turkey or other places in the Middle East to help foment the current unrest against Turkey or other governments which may not be compatible with Gulen’s religious or global viewpoints? Since we already know that David Brennan and William Lager funnel part of their charter school profits back to the Ohio Republican Party, surely such a revelation wouldn’t come as a shock to your readers – or would it?
  11. Is there any evidence that Ohio public funds have been used as campaign donations from Gulen schools to maintain the current lax state of charter school oversight and exemption from nearly 200 laws, as we have seen by the actions of Brennan and Lager?
  12. Are there other Ohio charter schools besides the Gulen network that also have operations and interests in the Middle East? If so, is it good public policy for these schools to have such lax oversight from the state and from school sponsors/authorizers?”

My message to the The Dispatch summarized the issues to be examined.

“These concerns should get your reporters started in looking at these questions – assuming that the news and editorial functions are interested in a review of these and similar questions. 

…[I]sn’t it time to examine the role of a foreign organization that is the recipient of scarce tax dollars and is now engaged in fomenting unrest in Turkey? What are the real motives of Gulen in setting up schools in America? Are we patsies in providing public funds to fuel geopolitical activity in one of the most unstable regions of the world?”

On January 11, I received this reply for my effort in informing the newspaper. “Is this happening in Columbus? In Ohio”?  I replied the same day: “You ask is this happening in Columbus or in Ohio? That’s for your investigative team to find out.”

After a number of follow-up emails that I sent to the paper from January to May 2014, I received this curt reply from the Great Sphinx of S. Third Street. “Thanks for writing. We will review.”

From that point, as befits a Sphinx, there has only been silence from the newspaper.

Other than a brief story in July, 2014 about testimony before the state board of education from former teachers about alleged unethical practices at some of these Gulen schools in Ohio, there has been nothing resembling watchdog journalism, digging deep into a subject, and the time commitment necessary to present this story to Dispatch readers who need to be better served by being properly informed about how their tax dollars are being spent.

The irony of my December 30, 2013 message to The Columbus Dispatch is that on December 15 and December 16, 2014 – one year after my first contact with them, the paper published two stories about the current situation in Turkey. Here is what I sent to “Ohio’s Greatest Home Newspaper” about their community watchdog function:

“The December 15 and 16 editions of the paper featured stories about the current unrest in Turkey, where government forces are suppressing supporters of Fethullah Gulen, an imam who is currently living in Pennsylvania and directing efforts to overthrow the current Erdogan government. But the stories – and your coverage – are silent about the connection between Gulen, his adherents, and a chain of charter schools that have been established in this country and around the world. You have also been silent about the FBI raids conducted in May and June 2014 against some of these Gulen charter schools around the country – and three located here in Ohio that were also raided and had their records seized by federal agents.

The December 15 story has this nugget: “President Tayyip Erdogan calls [the Gulen Network] a terrorist network conspiring to topple him.”

The December 16 story says “[Erdogan] accuses the cleric of establishing a “parallel” structure in the state through his supporters in the judiciary, police and other institutions, and of wielding influence through the media.”

Never mind that informed readers have serious questions about the Gulen Network and their alleged ties to revolutionary and terrorist forces in the Middle East. Never mind that other informed readers have questions about the Gulenists running a “parallel network” of charter schools that are operated with little transparency and oversight. Hmmm, didn’t I see something on page one two days ago about Johnny Come Lately Kasich being concerned about the need for charter school regulation AFTER the election?’

On December 19, just after emailing The Dispatch about their lack of coverage concerning the connection of Fethullah Gulen with U.S. charter schools, a Turkish court issued an arrest warrant for the cleric, though it is unlikely that U.S. authorities would approve an extradition to his native land.

And so it goes.

With this level of journalism, the public must assume the role of being their own watchdogs. With total media control by the Dispatch Printing Company in Central Ohio and no other major independent voice for news gathering, it appears that investigative journalism independent of the paper’s political agenda is a figment of Ben Marrison’s imagination.


Denis Smith is a retired public school administrator who has worked as a charter school consultant for an Ohio charter school sponsor organization and as a staff member in the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Community Schools. He also has experience in the for-profit and non-profit sectors and served as a director of communications for several organizations.