Thursday, Mar 23, 2017
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Jack Lessenberry

COMMENTARY

The Blade made errors, but not in running story about Bell

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Lessenberry

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Few Toledo stories this year have been as controversial as the one that broke Sept. 8, when a woman took to the online social media service Facebook to accuse former Mayor Mike Bell of touching her at a bar several nights before.

The Blade put it on its site and then on the front page of the next day’s paper. This provoked an avalanche of criticism. Your ombudsman heard from more than a dozen people, and virtually all were harshly critical of The Blade’s coverage.

The story, one former broadcast producer said, “crossed the line into trash-talking tabloid territory with nothing in it to substantiate the claims against Mike Bell.”

Ken Rosenbaum, who retired after many years as a photo editor of The Blade, wrote an open letter to me in which he said, “I can’t contain my disappointment in The Blade over its front-page coverage of what was nothing more than an accusatory post on Facebook by a woman alleging she was groped in a bar.

“As a reporter and editor at five newspapers over 45 years, including The Blade, this is the sort of story that never should have passed muster at a news meeting to see the light of day in print.”

Your ombudsman has talked to readers about this, and read still more letters and emails about this issue, and here is what I think.

And my conclusions may not satisfy anyone. First of all — I do think The Blade made a number of questionable decisions in the way this story was handled. Not in the writing of the story itself. In fact, I thought the story that did appear was essentially balanced. It included Allison Dow’s allegations against the former mayor — but then made it clear that there are reasons to suspect a possible political motive for her charges.

The story noted that the former mayor denied her charges, many of which she was unable to back up. While Ms. Dow charged that he touched “at least 10 women inappropriately,” no other women accused Mr. Bell of anything. The story made it clear that Ms. Dow had changed her story at least once, and noted the owner of Wesley’s Bar said he heard and saw nothing inappropriate.

Nor did she prove her claims of having salacious pictures of him “grabbing ladies.” She did post a picture of one woman seen hugging Mr. Bell. That woman said they were friends, she’d seen him frequently “professionally and after hours,” and that she’d never seen the former mayor being inappropriate. Your ombudsman is older than the former mayor and hasn’t been in places like Wesley’s much in years. But by modern standards for bar behavior, it seems to me what Allison Dow alleges Mr. Bell said to her (“If you stand up on your tiptoes in that dress, me and my friends will pass out”) sounds no more than mildly naughty.

Mr. Bell, it should be noted, denies saying any such thing.

Mr. Rosenbaum and other readers believe that given that this is indeed just an unsubstantiated accusation, this story should not have been written at all. And in 1990, it probably wouldn’t have been.

But what many of these critics are missing is that this is a different, multimedia world, and these accusations were out there and were certain to be talked about by the vast majority of Internet-savvy Toledoans. Modern newspapers cannot ignore other media, or what the buzz is on the Internet, and be taken seriously.

When I asked Mike Bell whether he thought he’d been treated unfairly, he said he thought he had, but he indicated he wasn’t obsessing over it and it was time to move on. However, in a way, The Blade may have done him a service. Had this story not been written, the rumor mill would have taken it as gospel that he’d hit on a young woman less than half his age in a bar.

When I read the full story, as a reader with no connection to the incident, my inclination was to believe that Allison Dow was at the very least exaggerating whatever happened — though I might not blame readers for wondering what a 60-year-old serious candidate for mayor was doing wearing a cowboy hat and hanging out in a bar on a Friday night with patrons half his age. Where I think The Blade went wrong was in putting the story on the front page on the print edition, which inflated its importance.

The headline “Woman accuses ex-mayor Bell of improper contact,” also might lead some to believe the conduct was worse and more clearly established than it in fact was. What also bothered your ombudsman was a tweet from a senior editor that night which said, “Mike Bell’s bar-hopping catches up to him with serious allegations.”

Again, that tended to frame the incident as one where the former mayor was seen as automatically guilty.

Nor did I think the lede — or first sentence — of the first online version of the story I saw was balanced. It said “Mike Bell’s bar-hopping and socializing has crossed the line into harassment, claims a Toledo woman who went to Facebook … to complain.”

Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, said, “I’m the one who made the decisions about whether we wrote about this incident and where it was displayed. The story would not have been a story if Mike Bell wasn’t running for mayor. But Mr. Bell is running for the city’s highest elected office, and the woman who accused him of inappropriately touching her was a well-known political activist in this city.”

Mr. Murray also wants it known that “The Blade did not report from Facebook, as many have charged, but wrote this story after interviewing the woman, Mr. Bell, the bar owner, and other patrons of the bar. There were a variety of opinions about what happened that night, and The Blade reported them all.”

He added, “I could second-guess my decision to place this story on [the front page] ... other editors may have made different decisions, but I stand by mine.”

While your ombudsman somewhat disagrees, I admire the managing editor’s willingness to explain his reasoning and stand by it. Writing on deadline is hard, and being an armchair quarterback after the fact is easy. But as someone who has had to make deadline decisions myself, I think The Blade had to report this story.

But I think the editors could have been a bit less sensational in their coverage and comments online and in how they placed the story in the 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: 555 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call, 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, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: omblade@aol.com

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