Synecdoche

(I’m writing this if only to remind myself to write more about this topic: synecdoche as a crutch for journalists.)

Seth Godin ran a great podcast episode on this idea earlier this week. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, but I’m not sure I had the right framing in mind.

Synecdoche is “a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in Cleveland won by six runs (meaning “Cleveland’s baseball team”).” You see this all the time in local news reporting—and don’t even get me started on the national desk, where ideas go to die.

The Plain Dealer ran a great example of this concept in the paper earlier this week. “Cleveland City Council: Silencing residents for 183 years.” It’s a good piece for us residents to consider. In the past six years, especially the five years I spent as a reporter at Scene, I’ve met and learned from so many engaged residents who know their way around not just this city, but the very economic and political governance of it. I’ve also met folks who just plain don’t know what to do about a perceived negligence on the part of City Council. What that negligence looks like is unique to each taxpayer, but it inevitably leads to the dead-end thought: Well, what am I supposed to do about it? Who do I talk to?

City Council public comment is not a clearinghouse for specific odds-and-ends concerns about the city. Rather, it’s both symbolic and actionable: It’s a gesture of good faith from elected representatives (limited, usually, by rules and time) and a focused platform for ideas. It’s a place where the real stakeholders of local government can truly express themselves, and it’s far more visceral than the voting booth.

Anyway. The Plain Dealer piece is good, and it’s something we should be talking about in this city. But there’s an indictment that’s not coming through, at least in my reading. “Cleveland City Council” isn’t silencing Cleveland residents; the 17 members of the elected body are willfully enacting this policy every time they gather in chambers. At 7 p.m. on Monday evenings at 601 Lakeside Ave., Joe Jones, Kevin Bishop, Kerry McCormack, Ken Johnson, Phyllis Cleveland, Blaine Griffin, Basheer Jones, Michael Polensek, Kevin Conwell, Anthony Hairston, Dona Brady, Anthony Brancatelli, Kevin Kelley (president), Jasmin Santana, Matt Zone, Brian Kazy and Marty Keane are very specifically silencing residents through inaction on this policy that’s been on the books “forever,” as the Plain Dealer‘s Andrea Simakis writes. Each week that they fail to lift the ban on public comment, those 17 men and women uphold the ban and ensure that Cleveland residents do not have a chance to speak publicly at City Council meetings.

It’s not council that’s the problem, because what is council? It’s the choices made by individuals. “City Council” as the monolith baddie does no one any good, from a public discourse standpoint or from a journalistic standpoint. 

Kelley was reportedly asked for comment; “he hasn’t responded,” according to Simakis.

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