Newspapers and news magazines have played a major role in virtually every reform movement in American history.
They ve been responsible for some of journalism s proudest public service achievements. Newspaper campaigns helped expose criminal business monopolies and trusts in the 19th century and helped lead to government inspection of food and drugs.
Newspapers campaigned in the 20th century for clean air, clean water, and clean elections, and have fought and are fighting today against a host of ills, including gambling, crime, and prostitution.
The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, where I was once an editor, helped defeat the power of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
And The Toledo Blade has been part of that proud tradition. The Blade was crusading against slavery and the liquor interests as far back as Abraham Lincoln s administration.
In the 1880s, The Blade became one of the first newspapers in the nation to demand that bankers and financiers be held accountable for both public and private funds entrusted to them.
In recent years, The Blade has exposed, among other things, a network of corruption throughout the Ohio Republican Party and a nationwide child prostitution scandal based in Toledo, and won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing atrocities during the Vietnam War.
Last week, however, a blogger angry at the newspaper for firing him charged The Blade with having violated fundamental ethics rules five years ago, when it opposed a ballot initiative designed to overturn a smoking ban enacted by City Council in 2003.
Normally I would not have paid much attention to his charge. For one thing, it has been firmly established by science that secondhand smoke kills tens of thousands of Americans a year. If that isn t a worthy topic for a newspaper to crusade against, what is?
For another, the newspaper s position in favor of a smoking ban was ignored by voters in November, 2004, when they voted to ease restrictions on it. (Two years later, the Toledo referendum was essentially overturned when Ohio passed a statewide smoking ban.)
And finally, the person charging The Blade with ethics violations, a former reporter, has little or no credibility. After a checkered career, he was fired three years ago after an investigation of his office computer revealed he had sent an anonymous letter to the Pulitzer board attempting to sabotage that year s entry.
But while agreeing that his motivations were suspect, several people have asked me if I thought there was any legitimacy to his charge, which is that the paper behaved unethically.
The sometimes anonymous blogger charged that there was something unethical about the fact that the newspaper s sister company, Buckeye CableSystem, and Allan Block, the chairman of the parent company, Block Communications Inc., each supported keeping the smoking ban in place, and made financial contributions to a Citizens for a Healthy Toledo, the group backing the ban.
Allan Block thinks that charge is ridiculous. There is no ethical violation. I don t make editorial policy for the newspaper, period. That s my brother [John s] responsibility, he said.
And just because my family owns the paper doesn t mean I have to give up my free speech rights, said Mr. Block, who according to the records, gave Citizens for a Healthy Toledo $1,000.
Allan Block has a point. Granted, whether it is fair or not, Toledo identifies the Block family with The Blade, and their every public action is apt to be scrutinized. Indeed, if any of the Blocks, or the newspaper itself, were to campaign for a cause that might potentially enrich them directly, it would be suspect.
Were Buckeye CableSystem to donate heavily to a political candidate, that too might be suspect.
But in this case, Allan Block and Buckeye CableSystem were spending their own money openly on a cause which, if successful, promised to help save lives and contain what is probably the biggest health hazard in America today. I see nothing wrong with that.
Incidentally, the blogger, who holds himself out as an expert on journalism, also makes much of a poll on the smoking-ban issue which he charges was suppressed by the paper, evidently because it showed that the people were inclined to overturn the ban.
What exactly happened there was murky, and nobody I have talked to seems to remember the details. It was five years ago, and The Blade has taken and published many polls since.
Granted, it would be ethically questionable if The Blade took a poll and then refused to publish it because the editors or the publisher didn t like the result. But that doesn t sound likely.
The Blade has published many polls that showed candidates and issues the paper editorially supported losing, from John Kerry to various levies. (On the other hand, I once refused to run a poll when I was an editor in Detroit because the survey research firm that took it asked the key question in a misleading way.)
Paul Block, Jr. (1911-1987), this paper s former publisher, once told me he didn t think the paper should print any polls. He remembered the year all the polls agreed that Thomas E. Dewey would beat Harry S Truman by a landslide. I can only imagine what Mr. Block would have thought of exit polls.
Sometimes I think we d all be better off if we followed Paul Block s advice, and limited polling to finding out what people think about issues and dropped the horse-race aspect of them.
That s probably impossible in this multimedia age. But more and more, I think he was very likely ethically right.
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, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 563 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.