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Published: Sunday, 9/19/2010

Questions arise over accuracy of letters, columns

Reader Bob Kelso has an interesting question: “Does The Blade factcheck statements made in Readers' Forum letters?” He was referring to a letter that said of President Obama, “His application to elementary school reads that he was Islamic.”

Mr. Kelso wrote, “I've never seen or heard that claim before, so I have to wonder about its accuracy. If her claim is true, fine. But if not, then it seems to me her letter should not have been published.”

David Kushma, The Blade's editor, said that “as a general matter of policy, we do what we can to ensure that statements of “fact” that we know are inaccurate, or that we have serious doubts about, don't get published in Readers' Forum — or in editorials or columns or cartoons, for that matter.”

That doesn't mean mistakes don't get made, though the editorial staff tries hard not to let any slip by.

This particular case is a bit of a gray area. Repeated investigations show that Mr. Obama is not and never has been a Muslim, nor has he attended any radical Islamic school. When he was 6 years old, he did attend a Roman Catholic school in Indonesia. The applications showed he had to indicate a religion when he enrolled, and somebody listed him on the document as a Muslim. The most likely explanation is that happened because his stepfather, the head of the household, was a Muslim.

Had it been up to your ombudsman, I would not have run that letter. The writer has deluged me for years with charges and fears about Mr. Obama, who she seems to believe is a radical Muslim and a dangerous threat to Israel, though there is no evidence of either.

He is actually a member of the United Church of Christ.

Mario Goveia, a frequent correspondent and sometime harsh critic of The Blade, had a similar question: “Are columnists allowed to include verifiable falsehoods in their columns and continue to be used by The Blade? I'm not talking about opinions but statements that are factually wrong which can easily be verified.”

The short answer to this, again, is no, as Mr. Kushma's statement above indicates. However, when I asked Mr. Goveia for examples, all those he provided were entirely subjective.

Politically, Mr. Goveia seems to be somewhere between a libertarian and conservative Republican, and he is essentially criticizing those ideologically opposed to him.

For example, he was incensed that The Blade runs columns by “left-wing journalists like E.J. Dionne and Paul Krugman,” which assert that cutting tax rates lowers tax receipts. Mr. Goveia is evidently a believer in the Laffer curve, “rising tide lifts all boats” theory that was popular in the early years of the Reagan administration.

Essentially, that theory holds that if you cut tax rates, people will do so well and make so much more money that the government will take in more revenue in the long term.

Nothing wrong with that theory, though as the 1980s showed, tax receipts usually decline at first. But there is nothing unethical or inaccurate with disagreeing with it either. By the way, Mr. Dionne is a Rhodes scholar and a professor at Georgetown University. Mr. Krugman has won the Nobel Prize in economics.

Their assertions about the economy deserve at least as much credence as Mr. Goveia's. Now, if one of them were to say something clearly wrong, like “the Dow Jones average never went above 800 last year,” I assume The Blade would contact them or correct that.

But otherwise, the paper believes in letting many different opinions compete out there in the free market of ideas.

Mr. Goveia also takes issue with columnist S. Amjad Hussain's assertions that many Americans blame Islam and Muslims for Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, something that he says is “provably false.”

I am not sure how one would prove that false, though my own anecdotal experience would suggest it is essentially true. However, Mr. Goveia then asserts that “hundreds of Muslims were killed on Sept. 11,” when terrorist attacks killed almost 3,000 Americans.

Ironically, that “fact” is, essentially provably wrong. A number of experts have been attempting for years to come up with the precise number of Muslim dead. One of the highest documented figures can be found at about.com, which counts 28 innocent Muslim victims. Other accounts indicate as many as 60.

Facts can be tricky things.

Anyone who has 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. Reminder, however: If you don't leave me an e-mail address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

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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