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Published: Sunday, 12/25/2011

COMMENTARY

Comic repeat, book title spur reader complaints

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

Garry Trudeau's comic strip "Doonesbury" has been stirring up controversy since he began syndicating it in the 1970s.

However, this time the controversy is being created by The Blade, at least according to Doonesbury fan Vic Norton of Bowling Green, who was upset by the cartoons of Dec. 15 and 16.

Not because of the subject matter, but because they were repeated strips that, "as any Doonesbury fan should know, were recycled from sometime in the distant past." Mr. Norton thought this was tantamount to "forging data" and "publish[ing] obvious lies."

So what happened here?

Luann Sharp, the assistant managing editor whose duties include overseeing the features department, said the culprit was really that events had overtaken the strip. Originally, Donald Trump was going to moderate one of the many Republican presidential debates. But after the strip had been drawn, Mr. Trump pulled out.

"So replacement Doonesbury strips were offered by the syndicate that distributes them, and those are the strips that ran Dec. 14-17 in The Blade." The syndicate supplied some replacement strips that originally ran Jan. 31- Feb. 3 of this year. (The service, not The Blade, put new dates on the strip. They are copyrighted material, and newspapers are forbidden to alter them in any way.)

The Blade then ran those. The reasoning was the editors feared there would have been complaints had the strip shown a Donald Trump debate that never happened.

This is a case where there is no perfect solution. Your ombudsman thinks that in future cases where a comic strip has to be repeated, The Blade should run a note to readers in the comic section telling them what's being replaced and why.

On the other hand, however, The Blade, like many other newspapers, still runs the iconic strip "Peanuts," even though most people know its creator, Charles Shultz (1922-2000), is long dead.

Those strips, naturally are all repeats.

David McClellan of Perrysburg was puzzled that the death of famous author Christopher Hitchens, a flamboyant atheist, was announced in The Blade's religion pages on Saturday.

He was also curious about why the newspaper changed the title of the writer's most controversial book: god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. (Twelve Books Press, 2007.)

When The Blade cited that book, it capitalized God. But in his book, Mr. Hitchens did not. Why did we change it?

Dave Murray, The Blade's managing editor, notes that the newspaper's stylebook calls on editors to "capitalize all nouns and pronouns referring to the Deity."

However, in this case, the reference was to a book title. Changing it, he says, was probably a mistake because it altered reality by "taking style to an extreme."

However, the obituary The Blade ran was supplied by the Washington Post, which capitalized the word, something The Blade did again in an editorial about the brilliant writer's death.

Your ombudsman thinks that book titles ought not to be altered in any way, as long as they don't contain words that we wouldn't print in a family newspaper. God ought to have appeared with a lower case "g" when Mr. Hitchens' book was cited.

However, placing the obituary on the religion page made sense to me; this is a newspaper, and obviously, Mr. Hitchens in recent years was a man involved in religious controversy.

C.J. Brown had a complaint that admittedly "is not very earth-shaking -- just a minor annoyance." C.J. is a devotee of the daily trivia game and other puzzles on Page 3 of the Peach section.

However, the answers are on Page 2, and as our reader observes, "it is hard not to notice or look at the answers" and wondered if they could be moved to another page.

Kurt Franck, the executive editor, was sympathetic -- but had to say no. Putting a newspaper section together is a difficult puzzle, and pulling one piece out isn't as easy as it seems.

Your ombudsman also knows this: If The Blade did move the answers, I'd hear from a flood of people who were upset about that.

So -- use a napkin and cover up the key, C.J.

And while I'm at it, Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to one and all.

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 email 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 email 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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