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Sunday, October 26, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 7/14/2013

Commentary

Political candidates’ personal finances are fair game

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

The Blade’s coverage of Anita Lopez’s controversial mayoral campaign has continued to raise questions among readers.

Three weeks ago, I examined the newspaper’s coverage of her demand that reporters submit a detailed questionnaire before the Lucas County auditor would agree to be interviewed.

Since then, concern has focused on coverage of the way she has handled her finances. Three other candidates for mayor, including incumbent Mike Bell and Councilmen Michael Collins and Joe McNamara, quickly released their personal financial records and credit reports.

Ms. Lopez appeared to want to avoid doing so, refusing at first to discuss her credit score or how much she owed.

Several days later, on June 26, she said she would release her financial information, a day before The Blade criticized her in an editorial, saying that “to retain any credibility with voters, Ms. Lopez must release [her] current credit reports and her latest tax return now.“

Reader David Thomson wrote to me that this was outrageous. “I think the editorial was completely off base after the candidate stated she was releasing the documents,” he said.

Was it unfair?

Your ombudsman doesn’t think so. For one thing, saying you are going to release documents is one thing; actually releasing them, something else. Had she released the documents on June 26, The Blade certainly should have canceled or modified the editorial.

When she finally did release her documents and credit history, they showed a more troubled financial record than the other candidates and much more debt.

She was also the only candidate who had a history of repeatedly paying bills late. The Blade reported all the candidates’ financial information in some detail.

That didn’t please Toledoan Mike Pope.

“I was sorry to see The Blade doing a detailed article on Anita Lopez’s personal finances,” said Mr. Pope, who supports Ms. Lopez for mayor. “Maybe The Blade should concentrate more on Toledo’s problems and issues and less on the details of the candidates’ personal finances.”

Does he have a point?

Not as your ombudsman sees it.

Indeed, as the June 27 editorial criticizing her reluctance to release her information noted, “Voters won’t necessarily reject a candidate who carries significant credit card debt — or even who has shaky credit scores. But they do want [politicians] to be honest and open about such information and the circumstances.”

Indeed, the July 2 story chronicling her financial problems quoted a union official, Steve Kowalik, who still supports and defends Anita Lopez.

Nobody has to run for office, and for years, those who do have had to endure high levels of public scrutiny about their private lives.

To your ombudsman, revealing that a longtime county auditor has credit issues herself is not only fair, it is public service journalism. As long, that is, as all candidates get the same treatment.

James Susko has a “pet peeve” about The Blade’s “continual practice of starting three to five articles on the front page and continuing them” on other pages inside the paper. (In the newspaper business, those are known as “jumps.”)

“If you read USA Today you will see that it is rare to see more than one article that continues on another page.” Mr. Susko said.

He added that he is getting tired of this “senseless and archaic practice” and wants to know why it continues, “especially when one finds that USA Today has managed to preserve all of the other positive attributes while eliminating all of the negatives.”

Good question. So here’s my answer:

Because USA Today has NOT “managed to preserve all of the other positive attributes.” Certainly some stories need to be short and punchy and contained on a single page.

True, there may have been times when some stories in The Blade, or any newspaper, have been longer than they needed to be,

But many stories really do need to be longer than part of a single page. Let’s say Toledo faces a complex property tax levy. Or the newspaper takes an in-depth look at invasive species.

You cannot responsibly do any of those stories in a few paragraphs.

Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, put it this way: “As much as some readers don’t like ’jumps’ in the paper, I see no way to avoid them if we’re going to continue to offer readers thoughtful, informative stories. I hope that people who still buy printed newspapers do so because they want to know what’s happening in their communities and around the world.

“It’s not possible to provide readers with that kind of journalism” in short stories that don’t jump, he said.

“In fact, one of the joys in life for me is to read a long, sometimes very long, newspaper story with my morning coffee.”

Your ombudsman agrees, personally as well as professionally.

But Mr. Susko has a point too. Studies show that fewer than half of newspaper readers turn the page when a story jumps.

That’s something editors may want to keep in mind.

Leaving Phone Numbers: Several times a month, I get calls from readers who want me to call them back — but are probably irritated because I never do. That’s because they forget to leave phone numbers, forget one or more digits, or don’t speak distinctly enough for me to make out what their phone number is.

One of these last week was a gentleman who complained that The Blade reported that the Fourth of July fireworks were free “when they were really $10.” Well, admission to the fireworks was free.

But food and parking cost. Most surface parking lots charged $10, which is probably what happened to this man.

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 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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