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Thursday, July 10, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 9/18/2005

Columnists have leeway with opinion, not facts

Every time The Blade runs one of Molly Ivins's columns belittling George W. Bush (whom she calls "the shrub") and the members of his administration, I get e-mail complaining we are being disrespectful to the commander-in-chief.

Every time Jack Kelly writes a column defending the president, or the war in Iraq, we hear from critics, saying he is merely a right-wing shill for an incompetent and corrupt warmongering administration.

But his column published on Sept. 10 about the federal response to the Katrina hurricane, "No National Disgrace," drew a different sort of violent criticism.

"I was very surprised at all the easily verifiable inaccuracies in the piece," one reader wrote. "For instance, the time in which the New Orleans levees (were) breached," he said.

Media Matters For America, an Internet site which defines itself as "comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media," published a detailed refutation of many of the points in Mr. Kelly's column.

The Media Matters site notes a significant number of statements where Mr. Kelly offers "facts" that differ from what other media have reported. For example, he says that the levee broke Tuesday, when media on the scene (Mr. Kelly wasn't there) said it broke Monday.

"It's very discouraging to see such blatant journalistic errors. That's what makes people distrust the media so," one reader wrote.

Some of the other criticisms were more subjective, such as the question of whether the government's response "pretty much met its standard timelines" for a response to a disaster. In fact, the columnist was not making that assertion directly, but was quoting a Florida National Guardsman who has frequently taken part in hurricane relief.

To what standards should a columnist be held?

My response is that any columnist ought to have great latitude to express opinions in his subject area. Whatever his politics, Mr. Kelly, who was both a Green Beret and a U.S. Marine, has almost unique experience in practical defense matters.

"Jack Kelly's background provides our readers not only with a decidedly conservative point of view but also a familiarity with military and defense matters that we feel are important," said Tom Walton, who, as editor of The Blade, is responsible for the opinion pages.

"Columnists can look at the same information and see it differently," he added. "And Jack did correct his factual errors in his Sept. 17 column."

That's true.

Yet facts are facts, and frankly, our columnist was irresponsible and sloppy in not getting the facts right the first time, and the sad fact is that it weakened his case. There probably were some who blamed too much of the horrors on George Bush and the federal government.

There is considerable evidence that some of the failure to respond can be laid at the doorstep of local and state authorities. They, after all, could have gotten the local buses involved in evacuating people, as Mr. Kelly rightly points out.

Trouble is, he greatly exaggerated the number of buses available. I think his reporting didn't meet the standards this newspaper deserves.

Why, then, did the mistakes get into print. As Mr. Walton likes to note, publishing a newspaper is like publishing a 40,000 word book every day, starting from scratch. We do the best we can.

But sometimes, the best isn't good enough. Incidentally, those readers who charge that The Blade is nothing more than a shill for the Bush administration haven't been reading very long.

Our editorial pages urged President Bush's defeat both times he ran. But we are committed to running a variety of views. That's the bare minimum needed to make any newspaper great.

•

An indignant reader complained it was unfair that we ran a story about the drunk-driving conviction of a businessman who was once an executive at this newspaper. "I believe that the Blade has shown a serious lack of dedication to journalistic ethics," said Michael Brooks, who sometimes works for the man.

Kurt Franck, managing editor of The Blade, responded: "We ran it because he is a prominent person who is on a half a dozen civic boards in the Toledo area .●.●. we run all DUIs (driving while intoxicated) in the paper. Whether it's a story or a line-item depends on the prominence of the individual."

What matters is equal treatment, and this policy seems to this ombudsman to be both fair and socially responsible. Fewer than a thousand Americans died in Iraq last year. The number killed by drunk drivers: 16,694.

Anyone with a concern about fairness and accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St. Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office, 189 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, 48202.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com or 1-888-746-8610.



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