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Published: Sunday, 8/4/2013

Inmates who drove drunk weren’t cast as heroes

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Jack Lessenberry. Jack Lessenberry.
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Nobody would deny that drinking and getting behind the wheel is a recipe for disaster. Over the last century, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost and countless other lives damaged and ruined by drunk drivers, including those of the drivers themselves.

On July 21, The Blade published a story, “Inmates describe path from drinks to tragedy,” by Jennifer Feehan, a staff writer. In it, four prisoners in the Toledo Correctional Institution tell their harrowing stories. All drove drunk; the effects of what they did include seven strangers dead; four injured; one paralyzed for life.

The story happened in part because the four inmates have put together a video they want shown to as many people as possible, from drivers’ training classes, to high school students and Alcoholics Anonymous — you name it. Their message, as Ms. Feehan reported. is simple: “Don’t drink and drive. We have no excuses for what we did. No one does.” The men said they weren’t asking for pity, or for their sentences to be reduced. They just wanted to warn others.

That was not enough, however, for Elizabeth Lessner of Columbus, who was irate about the coverage, especially as pertained to one of the men, Michael Rose, who, according to the story, was thrown out of a bar five years ago, stormed out — and ran over two people in the parking lot, paralyzing a 28-year-old woman for life.

Nobody, including Rose, who is also from Columbus, disputes that he was convicted for running over the women. But Ms. Lessner claims the circumstances there were different from what The Blade’s story had about them. She alleges that he was not “visibly drunk” and that he ran over both of them deliberately. Ms. Lessner wants The Blade to consider “a retraction of your story, (and) an apology to the victims whose hearts you’ve managed to break in publishing this story.”

Does she have a reasonable request?

She might be justified, your ombudsman believes, if the July 21 story glorified Rose, allowed him to justify his actions, or sought to make him a hero in any way.

The story, however, makes Rose look anything but heroic. “I remember the impact of their bodies hitting my car and the disbelief I had ... I was scared to death. I kept on driving,” he said.

He adds “my goal here is to open your eyes to the consequence of drinking and driving.”

Jennifer Feehan did in fact check on Rose’s record, and found that he was in fact convicted of aggravated vehicular assault. But the story was not about his criminal history; it was about drunken driving, told from the standpoint of four drunken drivers.

Every story can’t, and shouldn’t, be all-encompassing. This one was about four young men who abused alcohol and ruined lives, including their own. Your ombudsman sees nothing wrong with it.

A group called Citizens’ Choice in Rossford thought a July 26 Blade editorial “Wrong Road in Rossford” was unfair to them.

The editorial supported the decision made by Rossford City Council in June to keep the city in TARTA, the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority. Citizens’ Choice wants to collect signatures and put the question of TARTA membership on the Nov. 5 ballot.

“Rossford voters elected city council members to make sound decisions for their community. In voting to remain in TARTA, that’s just what they did,” The Blade’s editorial said.

Don Montague, Bob Densic and Leonard Michaels, three officials of the Citizens’ Choice group, didn’t like that the editorial questioned their “wisdom and ideology” without first talking directly to members of their group. The editorial speculated that those against TARTA “are more likely ideologues who oppose public transportation and the taxes needed to pay for it, regardless of the benefits.”

Your ombudsman would agree it was unfair if they weren’t interviewed — if this were a news story, or even news analysis.

But a newspaper’s editorial page is where the newspaper’s editorial board express its opinions, which are clearly labeled as such. The main point of the editorial, in fact, was to say that such decisions are best left to the elected bodies we select to make them, which is what representative government is all about.

Your ombudsman did think the editorial board should, in the interest of fairness, run a letter from the Citizens’ Choice group, and David Kushma, editor of The Blade, had already decided to do that. The letter is running today, on B4.

Incidentally, in case you thought The Blade can’t admit being wrong: Reader Mike North of Bryan, Ohio, took exception to The Blade’s July 25 editorial “Mr. Obama Speaks Out.”

As he noted, it said in part “Ohio law now permits citizens in their homes and vehicles to use deadly force in self-defense only if retreat is impossible.” That was dead wrong, Mr. North noted.

“Your correspondent is right,” Editor Kushma said, after checking. He promptly ran a correction noting that in fact “under Ohio law, citizens who believe themselves and their families to be in imminent mortal danger in their homes and vehicles may use deadly force in self-defense, with no legal duty to retreat.”

Anyone who as 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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