Letter About The Editor: Mark Arax Vents

aremenianflag.jpgMark Arax, who got into a bit of trouble with the top brass at the LAT last week for appearing to be biased in coverage about the Armenian genocide, sent this memo to colleagues today, demanding a public apology from Doug Frantz:

[Update: We hear Arax is on the “short list” of reporters who will be “encouraged” to take the buyout. Sources say this memo — and all the rest of the hubub — is his way of protecting his job.]

Dear Colleagues,

I am not sure about the timing of writing you. In no way do I want my personal issue to add to the turmoil inside the Times. But as I’ve watched our newspaper respond to my issue over the past several days, I’ve come to conclude that it raises troubling questions that go right to the heart of what we do and how we do it. I know of no other way to explain the matter to you than to proceed straight with logic.

I have been accused by Doug Frantz of having an opinion on the Armenian genocide. “Are you now or have you ever been a believer in the Armenian Genocide?” Of the numerous accusations that Frantz has thrown my way over the past month, this one I am happy to plead guilty to. Yes, I have a stance on the Armenian genocide. I believe it happened. And I am gratified to know that my newspaper believes it happened, as well. So here is the dilemma at hand: What is our obligation when this same newspaper, in stories from Istanbul in 2004 and 2005, begins to contradict its policy on the genocide? What is a reporter to do when members of the Armenian community — judges, politicians, civic leaders — start calling and demanding to know why the newspaper is suddenly throwing qualifiers in front of the word “genocide?”

This was the question confronting me and Greg Krikorian and Ralph Vartabedian and Robin Abcarian in the fall of 2005. So we did what our Jewish and African American and Latino and Asian colleagues have done countless times when faced with an ethnic community angry over our coverage. We went to our editors. We reminded them in a letter that the newspaper had an official policy on the genocide — that it happened, that there was no need to equivocate or treat it like a “he said-she said” dodge. We pointed out chapter and verse in the Times style book. “The Armenian genocide is a historical fact and we should use the word ‘genocide’ without qualification in referring to it.” To act as our newspaper’s eyes and ears and help correct the error was our duty. To stay silent would have been a dereliction of that duty and only served to damage our newspaper’s public standing even more.

Thus, the proper question confronting Doug Frantz as he read my story three weeks ago on the Armenian Genocide resolution in Congress is not whether I believed in the Armenian genocide or signed that letter in September 2005. The proper question — the only question that mattered — was whether I had allowed my beliefs to bleed into my story in a way that made it tendentious. This is the same question that every editor must ask of every story because all reporters, all human beings, have opinions. And yet it does not matter, really, what Henry Weinstein believes in his gut about capital punishment. It does not matter what Megan Stack utters over dinner about the war in Iraq. It does not matter what Robert Lopez writes in a memo to his editor about our coverage of border issues. The only question that needs to be answered is if their biases are on display in a story. This is what we have spent years training as journalists to put aside — our own quarrels, our own narratives, our own wounds. This is how I, the son of a murder victim who had spent more than half his life searching for the killers, was able to go inside the California prison system and uncover official abuses against murderers and rapists.

Let me now briefly explain what happened to my genocide resolution story as it made its way through the editing process in early April.

Bob Ourlian had first crack at it. He removed a few paragraphs here and there for space. He removed a handful of words that he considered imprecise or too loaded. Then he put the story on the budget — “it’s a great read” — and began to sell it for Page 1. As the story moved up the chain of command, no editor called Ourlian or me to alert us to any bias or need for more reporting. Not Joan Springhetti or Tom Furlong or Scott Kraft or Craig Turner. And here is the crux of the matter. Not even Doug Frantz, in his e-mail to me explaining why he was putting the story on hold, said one word about bias or any problems with the story itself. No holes, no contextual problems.

Instead, Frantz told me he was holding the story — a hold that later became a kill — because of two other issues: One, because of the 2005 letter to our editors (Frantz called it a “petition”) I had taken a public stance on the issue and had a “conflict of interest.” Two, Bob Ourlian and I, as a pair of Armenians, had gone around the established system to plant a story about the Armenian genocide resolution. So rather than judge my story on its merits, Frantz suddenly chose to take a gratuitous leap and look into my heart as a writer and the ethnic heritage I was born with. This is dangerous stuff. For one, it raises questions that are impossible to answer. And it has grave implications for all of us, for every journalist in every newsroom. In other words, it is not good enough for the story itself to be fair, objective, well reported and well written. Even when a story passes all those tests, it could still be censored by some tortured inference that the reporter holds an opinion, even though that opinion never shows up in the story.

So my story never ran. A completely different story by Rich Simon replaced it. To justify this, the top editors have now manufactured all sorts of after-the-fact reasons in explaining why my story needed a “new angle.” And what became of Frantz’s two stated reasons for killing my piece? Jim O’Shea told me the HR investigation has concluded that Bob Ourlian and I had followed the proper procedure in compiling and editing the story. And the letter the six of us signed in 2005 did not address a genocide resolution in Congress but rather the fact of the genocide itself. Thus, it was not a form of advocacy, he said. In other words, Frantz’s two reasons for killing the story have no merit.

I hope you don’t think it selfish of me, but I believe I deserve a public apology from Frantz. And I believe that the five colleagues who signed the letter with me — Krikorian, Vartabedian, Abcarian, Weinstein and Chuck Philips — deserve to hear from our editors that our letter was the right thing to do. Are we to stop our conversation inside the paper about issues of fairness and accuracy in fear that raising those issues might someday disqualify us from ever writing about a subject again? If we can no longer trust that we will be judged on the merits of our work — the words carried on the page — then the very foundation of our vocation is destroyed.

What the six of us did wasn’t a public display. We didn’t grab a bullhorn in one hand and a petition in the other and take to the corner of First and Spring. What we did we did inside the paper as loyal employees who care deeply about the Times. In no way should the carrying out of this duty preclude us from writing about the Armenian genocide now or in the future.

Thank you for your ear.


Mark Arax