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Thursday, July 10, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 10/6/2013

Commentary

Private lives of candidates should remain private

BY JACK LESSENBERYY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Jack Lessenberry. Jack Lessenberry.
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How much of a candidate’s private life should be fair game for the media? This is something that reporters and editors continue to debate. In practice, if you are running for president, say, you can expect everything you’ve done since birth to be scrutinized.

If you are running for school board in Maumee, the scrutiny is considerably less. But what about mayor of Toledo?

Reader David Davis thinks The Blade is not giving the personal lives of Mayor Mike Bell and his challenger, D. Michael Collins, enough scrutiny. “Is Mayor Bell married? Does he have children? How have they turned out? I have heard rumors over the years,” he continued, speculating about the mayor’s sex life.

Well, your ombudsman disagrees with Mr. Davis. I do not know anything about Mayor Bell’s personal life, except that he is single. Nor do I think the voters need to know, unless the candidate himself wants to put his family out there or turns out to have been doing something illegal, such as selling pornography, or is caught in an act of base hypocrisy, such as denouncing gay rights while being involved in a same-sex relationship himself. Toledoans are not, after all, electing someone to be a celebrity or an example of moral perfection.

They are electing someone to run the city. On the other hand, it was entirely appropriate for the media to thoroughly air and investigate any charge of nepotism, as The Blade did when the mayor was approving contracts for his niece’s development firm.

Mr. Davis wasn’t satisfied with The Blade’s scrutiny of Mr. Collins either. Noting that the candidate is a distant relative of the great Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins, the reader wanted to know whether the councilman approves of political assassinations.

“What does Councilman Collins think of terrorism? Did your reporter even ask him?” Mr. Davis wants to know.

Your ombudsman thinks that would make about as much sense as asking Mr. Davis if he supports reinstituting slavery because he has the same last name as Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

The Toledo Mike Collins has never shown any sign of wanting to start an armed rebellion and seize the post office. Actually, the Irish Michael Collins, who did just that in 1916, ended his days as more of a peacemaker. David Davis might want to rent the excellent 1996 biopic about him, in which Liam Neeson played the Irish Mr. Collins.

● Physician James Hennessy objected to a headline’s characterization of Barry DeRan, a former Maumee cardiologist who in July pleaded guilty to felony drug trafficking charges. DeRan, who is now in prison, voluntarily surrendered his medical license.

Dr. Hennessy doesn’t contest any of that, but he wasn’t thrilled that the headline called DeRan an “ex-doctor.”

Dr. Hennessy said “he is still a doctor in his intellectual ability, but not allowed to practice medicine … I would probably call him a “currently unlicensed doctor.”

Tony Durham, The Blade’s news editor and an expert on the newspaper’s style, notes that “if you lose your medical license, you are no longer a doctor in the eyes of the law. So ex-doctor or former doctor would be allowed.”

Your ombudsman can’t quarrel with that.

“Ex-doctor” does sound a little jarring — but not inappropriate for a physician convicted of illegally trafficking in drugs.

● A reader named “Pat” asked why The Blade puts “pending” after a person’s cause of death. “Why don’t you just wait to put it in when you have the reason for their death?” she asked.

Good question. Kim Bates, Blade city editor, told me the listings come from the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department. In many cases, the cause is immediately apparent.

For reasons of timeliness and not prolonging families’ agony, the newspaper wants to get this information in the paper as soon as possible.

But when the person dies unexpectedly or in a suspicious manner, the case goes to the Lucas County Coroner, “where sometimes a ruling can take six to eight weeks.”

Unfortunately, The Blade doesn’t report all the final rulings in pending cases; gathering the information would be very labor-intensive.

If, for example, the death turns out to be a homicide, a news story is almost certain to follow.

Your ombudsman understands that, but still thinks The Blade should, if possible, find a way to eventually report all causes of death.

● Patricia Sierra, a longtime and incisive reader of The Blade, was one of a number of readers who recently noticed a change in the way obituaries — actually, paid death notices — look in the paper. “Did The Blade decide to change the format for the obituary listings? Seems exceedingly unfair to people who purchase space in the listings to have their obituaries shunted off to page 2, 3, or 4.”

Brad Vriezelaar, The Blade’s new media manager, explained that this was a change made by Legacy.com, an outside vendor that handles death notices for The Blade and many other newspapers.

“There are some technical reasons they did this, but in my opinion, the biggest reason is for revenue,“ he told me candidly. The intention is to “drive [online] users deeper into the site which means more page views, which means more ads.”

What if you aren’t interested in seeing more ads?

“You can still view all obits at once in our apps and mobile site. This change only impacts our full site experience,” Mr. Vriezelaar added.

Then again, you could leaf through the printed paper. …

● 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 E-Mail 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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