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Published: 12/15/2013

COMMENTARY

Columnist’s take on Treeces doesn’t fly with reader

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Jack Lessenberry Jack Lessenberry
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Opinions, we all have opinions.

And when it comes to columnists, what’s fair and what’s not?

Longtime reader Patricia Sierra thought Keith Burris was over the top in his Dec. 9 column, “Treece boys not ready for prime time,” about the father and sons who want to take over and privatize Toledo Express Airport. Specifically, the way it began:

“I am trying to come up with the right comparison for the Treece boys — Dock, and his sons, Dock David and Ben,” Mr. Burris wrote. He went on to wonder if it was fair to call them “mini Madoffs” or “music men” after the character in The Music Man musical, who said you could learn to play music just by thinking about it … or to the George W. Bush administration, which “tried to ‘save’ a country it knew nothing about by bombing the hell out of it.”

She thought that was “way over the line, unless Burris can back that up and not merely dance away from it as being a mere opinion.”

Well, your ombudsman agrees those comparisons are strong stuff — but the beauty of the First Amendment — the foundation of our right of freedom of speech — is that columnists are allowed to express their opinions, no matter how outrageous they seem to be,

Now it would indeed be over the line if Mr. Burris had said, “The Treeces are guilty of criminal fraud like Bernard Madoff.”

But he didn’t say that, any more than he said they secretly want to use Toledo Express Airport to bomb Iraq.

What he appeared to be saying was that there is a good bit of disturbing evidence that they do not, indeed, know anything about running airports, something that has previously been reported in news stories in The Blade.

Indeed, the Treeces say they have a detailed business plan for making the airport profitable but refuse to show it to anyone and they say they have a “marketability plan” but wouldn’t share it unless The Blade promised first to provide them with more favorable coverage. (They since have posted it on their Web site.)

All that would seem to invite satire. But even if it didn’t, the courts have repeatedly ruled that columnists can give their opinion if it is properly labeled as such. I can say that I think Prince Fielder’s base running and professionalism are a disgrace; that Miley Cyrus has no talent, or that some restaurant’s food is overrated.

That’s what freedom of the press is all about. Incidentally, if I lived in Toledo, I would be pleased that the question of who runs the airport is getting a lot of scrutiny. Not long ago, Wayne County, Michigan, hired a totally inexperienced woman to run Detroit Metropolitan Airport. When she was fired, her severance cost taxpayers more than $700,000.

Ralph Russo is a frequent critic of The Blade and didn’t like a Dec. 9 editorial about Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald’s first choice for a running mate, state Sen. Eric Kearney.

Mr. Kearney, it turned out, owes a reported $826,000 in federal and state taxes. The Blade editorial said, in part, “It would be unfortunate if an excessive emphasis on Mr. Kearney’s personal finances were to subvert discussion of the broader and more important issues in the gubernatorial campaign: jobs, taxes, economic recovery and growth …”

This incensed Mr. Russo. “Now The Blade opines that Eric Kearney’s personal finances should not obscure the campaign debate? Remember the hatchet job that was done on Anita Lopez earlier this year” because of her financial difficulties?

Your ombudsman agrees that newspapers should, in fact, be consistent and even-handed. But I don’t see a conflict here.

The Blade was not defending Mr. Kearney; in fact, the same editorial said that Democrats’ claims to have checked Mr. Kearney out were not persuasive, and added that voters had every right to “wonder whether someone who ran up such a big bill and was so lax about paying it can credibly articulate the aspirations of poor, working-class and middle-income taxpayers.”

In the same vein, the paper argued earlier this year that it was dubious whether someone with Anita Lopez’s checkered credit record and financial situation could argue they were the best steward for the cash-strapped city of Toledo.

In any event, Ms. Lopez lost in the mayoral primary, and the very next day after The Blade editorial on Mr. Kearney’s tax woes, he found himself off the ticket, an event that, to seasoned political observers, was about as surprising as snow and ice in January,

Reader Thomas Schoen of Toledo was suspicious about the appreciation of the late radio station pioneer Lewis Dickey that ran in the Pages of Opinion on Dec. 6. “The opinion item ends with the initials JRB [John Robinson Block] … is that correct.?

“Does that mean it was written by Mr. Block, and is not necessarily the opinion of the other members of The Blade’s editorial board? If so, why not run [it] as a separate bylined item?”

David Kushma, the editor of The Blade, said there was no real mystery here. “Yes, the publisher wrote the Lewis Dickey appreciation. He asked to have his initials appended to make clear he was speaking in his personal voice rather than the newspaper’s institutional voice. That’s all. It’s rare, but not unprecedented.”

Actually, your ombudsman wrote something similar three years ago after longtime Blade cartoonist Ed Ashley died. I think the publisher’s tribute to a man who was his friend and a prominent Toledoan was entirely appropriate, as was his personally signing it

However, not everybody recognizes initials, and it might have caused less confusion if the appreciation had carried his full name.

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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