By: Mark Fitzgerald
Roldo has a last name, but none of his many admirers ? or equally numerous detractors ? in Cleveland ever seem to use it when they talk about the iconoclastic journalist, who over the years has become a municipal institution as familiar as Terminal Tower or the West Side Market.
But now Roldo is going the way of the old massive Memorial Stadium that was replaced by a city-subsidized facility several years ago. In an article sent a few days before Christmas through the e-mail newsletter What’s Up in Northeast Ohio, Roldo Bartimole declared: “This will be my final weekly column ending more than 35 years of alternative writing since I quit The Wall Street Journal in May of 1968.” Later he told E&P that he decided to retire because he was 70, his heart was again giving him problems (28 years after a bypass), and he had lost his latest print outlet, the black- oriented City News weekly.
Cleveland Magazine once called Roldo “the poor man’s Tom Paine,” but it’s probably more accurate to compare him to I.F. Stone. Like Stone, Roldo for decades published a one-man newsletter, Point of View, that presented news and perspectives that could not be found in any other print or electronic outlet in town.
“Roldo has been our conscience, to give us a reality check, and to look at the human needs of the city,” said Jerry Masek, a board member of the Cleveland Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which honored Roldo with its Distinguished Service Award in 2002.
Out-of-town media often referred to Roldo as Cleveland’s premier “media critic.” It’s true that in Point of View, and in his long-running column in the alternative Free Times newspaper, Roldo frequently berated the publishers and editors of The Plain Dealer. Roldo accused the “Pee Dee,” as he invariably called it, of advancing the interests of a business establishment he believed was more interested in glittering monuments like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum or new sports stadia than in helping Cleveland’s struggling neighborhoods.
But Roldo was always more reporter than pundit. He pored through budget documents and attended the obscure committee meetings that every other news organization in town often skips.
Roldo began his journalism career in the 1950s as a conventional newspaper reporter in Connecticut. He worked briefly at the P-D and then in the Cleveland bureau of The Wall Street Journal. He became increasingly disenchanted as editors frustrated his coverage of poverty and other urban issues. “I always felt the papers could never tell the truth about people with power ? and never looked at them critically,” Roldo said. On his 35th birthday ? the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination ? he quit the Journal and began Point of View, which he would continue to publish for the next 32 years.
The biweekly was unlike anything any other journalist was doing in Cleveland, recalled Walt Bogdanich, a former P-D investigative reporter now at The New York Times: “It was so startling to see what he was writing compared to what was being published in the local papers… You were able to learn the sort of hidden power structure” in Cleveland.
The local power structure didn’t always enjoy the attention. In one famous incident ? re-run on local TV news “more than the Hindenburg,” as one commentator said ? the then-president of the City Council tried to bodily toss the diminutive Roldo out of a meeting.
But if Roldo achieved local fame in his long Cleveland journalism career, fortune always eluded him. In 1982, when an average P-D reporter made about $28,000 annually, he told Cleveland Magazine he’d made $8,041 ? and four cents. Roldo was always a stickler for details.
“I think even people who are targets of his barbs admire the heck out of him,” said Bogdanich, “for having the courage to follow through on his beliefs, even if it meant he would have to live in, if not poverty, then close to it.”