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Published: Saturday, 6/22/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Press cannot be expected to play by Lopez’s rules

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

Last week, Toledo mayoral candidate and Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez caused a stir when it was revealed that she wants a vast amount of information before she will agree to talk to reporters.

That includes a list of the reporter’s questions, whether anyone else has been interviewed, what those people said to the reporter, and who else the reporter plans to interview.

Her aides are also supposed to somehow determine whether the reporter has “an apparent point of view.”

Well, in my life as a journalist, I’ve never seen anything quite like this. I’ve interviewed Communist leaders and Third World dictators, and none of them ever tried to impose anything like that on what I wrote.

The Blade is refusing to comply with her rules. But should they?

One former college dean and current scholar at Oberlin College is somewhat sympathetic to Ms. Lopez.

Norbert Wethington says, “I do not live in Lucas County, but I have to admire Ms. Anita Lopez’s intent … the problem is ignorant and uneducated reporters asking stupid and banal questions.“

Well, yes they do. But so do college students, common citizens, and, for that matter, politicians and officeholders. Watch an hour of congressional hearings on C-Span, if you want proof.

As someone who teaches and tries to do serious journalism, your ombudsman probably finds bad journalism far more annoying than you do. For example, sacrificing serious policy discussion to focus on Hillary Clinton’s hair and clothes, or devoting one millisecond of space or time to Courtney Stodden or any of the Kardashians.

And any competent journalist has been in press conferences where reporters have asked silly, uninformed, and stupid questions. But that’s the way it should be. Reporters, unlike doctors, lawyers, and dentists, aren’t licensed. Nor do we want to be.

That’s because the protection that allows us to do our job, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, applies equally to all citizens. Yes, there is a huge qualitative difference between journalists with degrees who do their work as professionals and a high school dropout who writes a blog in his basement.

But if anyone — the federal government or Anita Lopez — is ever allowed to determine who is a journalist and who gets to ask questions, that is likely to be the end of democracy.

Ms. Lopez is also free, of course, to try to impose any conditions she likes, but journalists are equally free to ignore them.

Mr. Wethington also thinks that any journalist who “tried to shape the news to fit their own preconceived notions of right or wrong” should be promptly fired. Well, he’s right, if he means lying.

But every journalist I know, including me, does have such “preconceived notions.” Such as, for example, the idea that rape and murder are bad.

Saving the lives of sick children is good. So are peace and prosperity.

Nobody is, or can be, objective. The point is to try to be fair. And in an open society, journalists — and everyone else — have the right to ask difficult questions. Even stupid ones.

Reader Alan Buck is worried about the future of The Blade — at least the version printed on paper. “I saw a small article in The Blade yesterday announcing that Newsweek magazine is [again] up for sale,” he said. Newsweek, as he noted, has been an online-only publication magazine since the end of last year.

“Is The Blade staying competitive enough to continue to stay in print for at least the next few years?” he asked. “I just can’t imagine not having a hard copy of my favorite newspaper. I’m a bit old-fashioned at the age of 58, but ... I want my newspaper in my hands!”

Your ombudsman doesn’t make those decisions, but for an answer I turned to Joseph H. Zerbey IV, the newspaper’s president and general manager.

“There’s no question that newspapers face a challenge in today’s world of instant information,” he said. “The challenge is how to secure increased revenue from the electronic versions of our news reports as we face cutbacks [in advertising] on the print side.”

The good news, Mr. Zerbey said, is the balancing act seems to be working. “The Blade has reacted to these pressures by providing our award-winning, comprehensive news, features, and sports on every platform. Better yet, we produce a daily digital replica of the newspaper called the eBlade.”

Yet even though online advertising revenue is growing, “just over 80 percent of The Blade’s revenue comes from the print edition.”

The bottom line, he said, is this: “Tell Mr. Buck that The Blade will be around for a very long time, with both print and electronic delivery.”

Incidentally, both your ombudsman and Mr. Zerbey want Mr. Buck to know that being 58 years old ... sounds rather young.

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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