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Published: 5/27/2012

CO0MMENTARY

Obituary offered balanced look at attorney's life

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

Several weeks ago, a prominent and much-loved Toledo attorney died, a man who had a second career as a disc jockey.

He was widely known, and The Blade ran a long obituary about him, in which the first quote was, "He was just a classic fellow and a totally great guy."

There were many similar sentiments.

But he wasn't perfect. Toward the end of his obituary, the story noted that seven years ago, he was disciplined by the Ohio Supreme Court for taking money from clients without doing the work they hired him to do. Consequently, his license was suspended for six months.

That action stemmed, the obituary reported, from a criminal case in which he was allowed to enter a diversion program in lieu of conviction, and charges of forgery and identity fraud were dismissed.

Matthew Fitzgibbons was one of several readers who didn't think putting that in the obituary was appropriate.

"Neither journalistic fairness nor balance would have suffered if Blade obituary editors had elected to delete any reference to the matter at all." he said.

Sorry, but your ombudsman disagrees.

Obituaries, after all, are news stories, which are meant to give a complete and balanced picture of a human life, so far as possible. (Death notices, which appear in smaller type, are paid advertisements, and the family can determine what is said.)

In this case, the reporter made it very clear that this was an accomplished man who was very popular and had compassion for his fellow man. But his criminal record was part of him too.

While I am sure the attorney's family and friends didn't like being reminded of his mistakes, the obituary was anything but lurid. And my guess is that the 11 clients whose money he took would not have appreciated a story depicting the lawyer as a saint.

Reporters and editors are human too. Had this man gotten into trouble as a teenager, a case could be made for not seeing it as newsworthy. But he was in his 50s when his license was suspended.

I thought the way in which the incident was handled in the obituary was tasteful and appropriate — though I might have added that his problems stemmed from becoming addicted to painkillers after three surgical operations.

?

Peggy Darrah wasn't happy with food writer Daniel Neman's recent column, "Honk if you like foie gras."

The columns was all about that delicacy, which is made by force-feeding a duck or a goose to make its liver especially fatty.

Animal-rights advocates think the practice is cruel, and, as Mr. Neman notes, California has just outlawed it. But Mr. Neman thinks that foie gras is the delicacy of all delicacies. He ends his column by approvingly quoting a friend and restaurant critic, who said, "Yes, I know how it is made, and no, I don't care."

That statement outraged Ms. Darrah.

"I was appalled that The Toledo Blade would publish an article condoning animal abuse," she wrote to me. "How do you have someone on the payroll [who] has no problem with animal cruelty?" she asked.

Well, again, there are differences of opinion. Mr. Neman is writing a column in which it should be very clear that what he is expressing are his opinions and no one else's.

Your ombudsman doesn't eat liver of any kind, and thinks the practice of force-feeding geese sounds repulsive. However, people do worse things to other people every day, let alone geese.

Foie gras production is not illegal in most states, including Ohio.

And it isn't quite fair to Daniel Neman to say that he is defending animal abuse. For one thing, he thinks "the process of force-feeding isn't nearly as horrifying as it sounds."

For another, the column also discusses a group called the Coalition for Humane and Ethical Farming Standards, of CHEFS, who are trying to promote a more humane way of feeding the birds.

Peggy Darrah has every right to find Dan Neman's views on this subject tasteless — but that's no reason to suppress his column.

However, it would be nice to see a column expressing a contrary view. (Naturally, I am sorely tempted to say that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, but that really would be in bad taste.)

?

A discerning reader who gave his name only as Harvey is disgruntled that, well, a lot of the letters to the editor seem written by people who he doesn't think are very smart or well-informed.

"My question is, does a paper have the right to require letter writers to achieve some level of quality in order to be printed?"

That's an interesting question. Editor David Kushma tells me that his staff tries to edit letters to sharpen their focus and sometimes be more coherent. I believe you can define clarity.

But quality is, to a great extent, a subjective thing.

Some people think Glenn Beck is a brilliant commentator; others see him as a raving idiot, depending on your taste.

And when it comes to judging quality among columnists and commentators … as a practicing member of the tribe, I perhaps should refrain from saying anything more about this issue.

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, 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 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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