No wonder the bloggers are winning

I despise the internet. It’s irresponsible and, often, a net of hate. And I don’t have time for Blogopops. But here’s a tale of two gutless newspapers which explains why more and more people are Googling rather than turning pages.

First the Los Angeles Times. Last year, reporter Mark Arax was assigned a routine story on the 1915 genocide of one and a half million Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish authorities. Arax’s report focused on divisions within the local Jewish community over whether to call the genocide a genocide.

It’s an old argument. The Turks insist – against all the facts and documents and eyewitness accounts, and against history – that the Armenians were victims of a civil war. The Israeli government and its new, Nobel prize-winning president, Shimon Peres – anxious to keep cosy relations with modern Turkey – have preferred to adopt Istanbul’s mendacious version of events. However, many Jews, both inside and outside Israel, have bravely insisted that they do constitute a genocide, indeed the very precursor to the later Nazi Holocaust of six million Jews.

But Arax’s genocide report was killed on the orders of managing editor Douglas Frantz because the reporter had a “position on the issue” and “a conflict of interest”.

Readers will already have guessed that Arax is an Armenian-American. His sin, it seems, was that way back in 2005, he and five other writers wrote a formal memo to LA Times editors reminding them that the paper’s style rules meant that the Armenian genocide was to be called just that – not “alleged genocide”. Frantz, however, described the old memo as a “petition” and apparently accused Arax of landing the assignment by dealing with a Washington editor who was also an Armenian.

The story was reassigned to Washington reporter Rich Simon, who concentrated on Turkey’s attempt to block Congress from recognising the Armenian slaughter — and whose story ran under the headline “Genocide Resolution Still Far From Certain”.

LA Times executives then went all coy, declining interviews, although Frantz admitted in a blog (of course) that he had “put a hold” on Arax’s story because of concerns that the reporter “had expressed personal views about the topic in a public (sic) manner…”. Ho ho.

Truth can be dangerous for the LA Times. Even more so, it seems, when the managing editor himself – Frantz, no less – once worked for The New York Times, where he referred to the Armenian massacres as, yes, an “alleged” genocide. Frantz, it turns out, joined the LA Times as its Istanbul correspondent.

Well, Arax has since left the LA Times after a settlement which forestalled a lawsuit against the paper for defamation and discrimination. His employers heaped praise upon his work while Frantz has just left the paper to become Middle East correspondent of the Wall Street Journal based in – of course, you guessed it – Istanbul.

But now let’s go north of the border, to the Toronto Globe and Mail, which assigned columnist Jan Wong to investigate a college murder in Montreal last September.

Wong is not a greatly loved reporter. A third-generation Canadian, she moved to China during Mao’s “cultural revolution” and, in her own words, “snitched on class enemies and did my best to be a good little Maoist.”

She later wrote a “Lunch With” series for the Globe in which she acted all sympathetic to interviewee guests to catch them out. “When they relax, that’s when their guard is down,” she told a college newspaper. “It’s a trick, but it’s legit.” Yuk!

Wong’s take on the Montreal Dawson College shooting, however, was more serious. She compared the killer to a half-Algerian Muslim who murdered 14 women in another Montreal college shooting in 1989 and to a Russian immigrant who killed four university colleagues in Montreal in 1992. “In all three cases,” she wrote, “the perpetrator was not ‘pure laine’, the argot for a ‘pure’ francophone. Elsewhere, to talk of racial purity is repugnant. Not in Quebec.”

Painfully true, I’m afraid. Parisians, who speak real French, would never use such an expression – pure laine translates literally as “pure wool” but means “authentic” – but some Montrealers do. Wong, however, had touched a red hot electric wire in “multicultural” Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper complained. “Grossly irresponsible,” said the man who enthusiastically continued the policy of sending Canadian troops on their suicidal mission to Afghanistan.

The French-Canadian newspaper Le Devoir – can you imagine a British paper selling a single copy if it called itself “Duty”? – published a cartoon of Wong with exaggerated Chinese slanted eyes. Definitely not pure laine for Le Devoir. The hate mail was even more to the point. Some contained excrement.

But then the Globe and Mail ran for cover. Its editor-in-chief, Edward Greenspon, wrote a cowardly column in which he claimed that the offending paragraphs “should have been removed” from her story. “We regret that we allowed these words to get into a reported (sic) article,” he sniffled. There had been a breakdown in what he hilariously called “the editorial quality control process”.

Now I happen to know a bit about the Globe’s “quality control process”. Some time ago, I discovered that the paper had reprinted an article of mine from The Independent about the Armenian genocide. But they had tampered with it, altering my word “genocide” to read “tragedy”.

The Independent’s subscribers promise to make no changes to our reports. But when our syndication folk contacted the Globe, they discovered that the Canadian paper had simply stolen the article. They were made to pay a penalty fee. But as for the censorship of the word “genocide”, a female executive explained to The Independent that nothing could be done because the editor responsible had “since left the Globe and Mail”.

It’s the same old story, isn’t it? Censor then whinge, then cut and run. No wonder the bloggers are winning.
http://news.independent.co.uk/fisk/article2788619.ece

Robert Fisk

Middle East correspondent for London’s Independent, often outspoken and out of step with the rest of the mainstream media