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Published: Sunday, 11/4/2012

Coverage of killings in Libya angers some readers

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

For days, I’ve been deluged with complaints, calls and letters that have charged that the media in general — and The Blade in particular — have engaged in a massive cover up of the facts surrounding the Sept. 11 killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

“With all the news on Libya, you guys choose to ignore the growing ‘elephant in the room,’” a reader named Rob Kegerreis wrote. “This is a major scandal.”

“Those of us who get news from multiple sources know that the White House, Defense Department, and the intelligence communities knew what was happening,” said Ken Dippman of Waterville.

He says he “knows” that local military assistance was nearby and wanted to help but was told not to do so.

“Yet The Blade doesn’t report the news. Both the President and The Blade were derelict in their duty,” he charged.

Well, were they?

Years ago, your ombudsman was a traveling foreign correspondent, during which time I filed stories from about 40 countries. Later, I was national and foreign editor of a large newspaper. I learned two things from those experiences:

First, never rush to judgment. Stories are often far more complex than they seem. When the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, respected news anchor Peter Jennings first said he thought it had to be “Middle Eastern in origin.”

Instead, the terrorists in that case were Timothy McVey and Terry Nichols, two Americans who had made a fertilizer bomb.

The White House at first indicated that they thought the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues in Benghazi were linked to outrage over a scurrilous video that insulted the Prophet Mohammed and Islam.

But within days, it appeared that “the Libya attack was apparently launched by an extreme Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia. Some U.S. officials believe it was planned, not spontaneous.”

I put those sentences in quotes because, while some readers have accused this newspaper of refusing to ever report that terrorism was involved, those sentences in fact appeared in an editorial in the The Blade on Sept. 13 — two days after the deaths of the four men.

In the two months since, The Blade has had numerous articles about the events in Libya, including columns by Charles Krauthammer and others that have been scathingly critical of the administration’s slowness to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack. The newspaper also has reported that the consulate had requested extra security, which Washington hadn’t sent.

Few of these stories, however, have been on Page One. There are reasons for that.

“We are a regional paper ... in the middle of one of the hottest presidential campaigns in history,“ said Kurt Franck, The Blade’s executive editor. “When presidential and vice presidential candidates appear here in the last weeks of a campaign, especially one where Ohio is all-important, we are going to cover them, and usually put the event on Page One.”

Can The Blade be expected to do independent, investigative reporting on what happened in Benghazi? The paper doesn’t have a bureau in the Middle East, much less Arabic-speaking reporters who are equipped to work on the ground and among radical groups.

When readers such as Mr. Dippmann say they “know” what really happened, your ombudsman is doubtful — unless they happened to be there and have multiple language skills. Most likely, they have read various reports or watched outlets such as Fox news, which often present speculation with an air of authority.

After reviewing a mountain of coverage, your ombudsman does not think it is yet clear exactly who killed the four Americans and why. Nor is it clear whether extra security would have saved them.

It may take weeks or months before we know anything definitive. Which brings me to the second thing I learned in dealing with foreign affairs, which is that we should be very careful of any attempt to exploit crises during a political campaign.

Not only is it not fair, it could have long-range repercussions. Tragedies happen, and this one is scarcely unique. Back in October, 1983, in another time of terrorism and upheaval, President Ronald Reagan deployed Marines to Lebanon as part of an international peacekeeping force and lodged them in barracks.

This proved extremely unwise; a suicide car bomber crashed into their building, killing 241 Marines, and the forces were withdrawn. I don’t remember anybody charging the Reagan Administration with treason and ulterior motives.

But then, that wasn’t a presidential election year. I think the last word on this should belong to Jan Stevens, the father of the slain U.S. ambassador. In an interview with Bloomberg News Service, Mr. Stevens said, “It would really be abhorrent to make this into a campaign issue.”

He added that politicians ought to await the findings of a formal investigation before making accusations or judgments.

“That’s where it belongs. It does not belong in the campaign area,” said Mr. Stevens, who noted also that his son was a career civil service ambassador, not a political appointee.

As someone who has seen these kinds of tragedies before, I couldn’t agree more.

“They tell me your paper endorsed President Obama, but you sure don’t act like it,” a woman with a strongly disapproving voice said on a message left on my answering machine.

“All I see on your front page every day is pictures of [Mitt] Romney. The only picture you had of the President [today] was on Page Three. If you are for Obama, you need to get behind him.”

Well, no, the news department doesn’t need to.

And shouldn’t.

Newspapers take positions and endorse candidates, and The Blade is no exception. The Blade’s editorial board has recommended that the President be re-elected and did so in an editorial on Oct. 28. But news coverage is something else.

Both Mr. Franck, the executive editor, and Dave Murray, the managing editor, told me they pay no attention to the newspaper’s editorial positions and strive to be as evenhanded in their coverage as possible.

Except for one thing: Major party candidates who campaign in this region are naturally going to get more coverage, regardless of their politics. The visit of a presidential or even a vice presidential candidate is a newsworthy event.

So if Mr. Romney is in Bowling Green, and President Obama is in Virginia, the GOP candidate is going to get more space and better display in The Blade. The opposite is also true.

The Blade’s editorial endorsements are not allowed to influence news coverage. In 2001, The Blade endorsed a candidate for mayor of Toledo. After that, Blade reporters turned up all sorts of questionable financial and personal behavior on the part of the candidate their newspaper had endorsed.

Nobody on the editorial board attempted to interfere with the coverage, though it made The Blade‘s endorsement look embarrassing. The reporters’ stories ran prominently. The candidate lost badly. And the newspaper‘s integrity was preserved.

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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