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Published: Sunday, 2/24/2008

Readers on lookout for fairness in Democratic nomination fight

By common consent, this is probably the closest and certainly the most exciting race for the Democratic presidential nomination in history.

And the Ohio primary may well determine the winner for the first time, well, ever. With all that going on, people are engaged, energized - and scrutinizing The Blade to make sure their candidate is being treated fairly.

One puzzling complaint this week came from two women who were outraged that a front-page headline Tuesday said that former President Bill Clinton was "trolling" for votes for his wife in Toledo.

"I was aghast. There is really no excuse, but I'd sure like to hear what you might come up with. That is not a neutral, descriptive term appropriate for a front page news headline," said a reader who signed herself Diane.

That puzzled me. I do know the identity of The Blade writer who uses the term "trolling" most often: Steve Pollick, the award-winning outdoors editor. Indeed, when I hear the word "trolling," I think trolling for fish, even though I never manage to catch any. I hauled out my huge Oxford English Dictionary, and a more compact Webster's as well, and found a number of other definitions stretching back to the 15th century, including "rolling."

But there wasn't a single pejorative one. However, a search of the Internet discovered that the term is now sometimes used to describe prostitutes "trolling for customers" or pedophiles "trolling for victims."

That may have been what Diane was referring to. But I doubt that it was on the headline writer's mind. He or she was looking for a word that fit. I think trolling was just fine, except that it implies a more leisurely search than I think the Clintons are conducting these days. My guess is that former President Clinton was more aggressively power-casting for votes to shore up his wife's campaign.

Another writer was annoyed with my use of "African-American" in a column about Barack Obama. "I wish you and all journalists would simply stop using the term African-American," he said. "Those two words refer to geography, not race."

Well yes, they do. And also to ethnic heritage.

Mr. Obama is more authentically African-American than most, since his father came from Africa and is buried there. African-Americans also have a unique heritage and vote in identifiable patterns. Now, if I had said his health plan was the "African-American health plan," that would have been outrageous.

Sometimes, depending on context, it is legitimate to refer to him that way, just as it is legitimate to sometimes refer to state Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo) as a Hungarian-American. Writers also should take into account what people preferred to be called, and on occasion Mr. Obama has referred to himself that way.

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Rick VanLandingham III, an environmental activist, wrote to complain that "last month I was wrongly accused of breaking into a nearby home and stealing a sink. The Blade reported this accusation, charge, and later reported the arraignment, then [indictment.]" Later, "the felony charge was dropped. Yet, there had been no follow-up reporting."

With the help of the news staff, I checked this out. Mr. VanLandingham was, as he claimed, not convicted of a felony. But he did plead guilty to trespassing, a misdemeanor, and was given 30 days, which was suspended under the condition that he keep a job and undergo mental health treatment.

I think your newspaper dropped the ball here; whenever we run a story saying someone is accused of a felony, we need to say later what happened.

The vast majority of people who are charged are in fact convicted, and the paper has an obligation to follow up and not leave a misleading impression.

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Anyone with a concern about fairness or 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, MI 48202; call me, at 1-888-746-8610 or E-Mail me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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