Shooting coverage leads to claim of pro-union bias

Several years ago, when The Blade was involved in difficult negotiations with the unions representing its employees, a number of readers wrote to complain of what they thought was the paper’s anti-union bias. Last month, the paper was accused on various Web sites of being so pro-labor it engaged in a cover-up of union-orchestrated violence.

Late in the evening of Aug. 10, one John King, the owner of a Toledo electrical contracting business, was shot in the arm by a man who he found trying to slash the tires on Mr. King’s vehicle outside his home in Lambertville, Mich. The Blade promptly reported that, along with a description of the suspect. The wound was not severe enough to require hospitalization. Days later, however, a blogger named Tom Blumer reported that this was union violence that was covered up by the “odious, leftism-uber-alles Toledo Blade.”

Mr. Blumer cited radio and other blog reports that indicated that the contractor was non-union and that the word “scab” had been scrawled on his truck, based on a photo Mr. King had supplied. Reader John Gomolski emailed me several times, indicating he felt the truth was being suppressed because The Blade did not want to expose “another black eye to unions.” Then, finally, the newspaper ran a comprehensive story on Aug. 23. It said that Mr. King believes he was targeted because he had resisted organizing by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and gave details about his acrimonious relationship with the union.

Why did it take the newspaper so long to do a follow-up story?

Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor said the paper did not have a second story on the case immediately “because of lack of information. Michigan police at that time refused to release a report on the incident.” Yes, the newspaper knew that Mr. King was alleging that the IBEW was responsible for the crime. But no charges had, or have been filed, and no arrests have been made. “I’m not going to let him defame the union, or its members, without confirmation. I wouldn’t let the union do that to him,” Mr. Murray said.

Eventually, the newspaper did get the police report and wrote a story. There is, or used to be, a principle taught to all journalism students that the cardinal ethical rule of journalism was “get it first, but first get it right.” The fact that someone says somebody attacked him and wrote “scab” on his truck doesn’t necessarily make it so. In 1970, a U.S. Army physician said a band of hippies killed his whole family and wrote “Pig” in blood on the walls of their North Carolina home.

Years later, the doctor, Jeffrey MacDonald, was convicted of murdering his wife and children and stabbing himself. Some of the blogs which reported The Blade’s “cover-up” also have reported “proof” that President Obama was born in Kenya. Eventually, The Blade got the police report, extensively talked to both sides, and wrote what is the best and most complete and balanced report of the incident that I can find.

Would it have been good if this story could have appeared a few days earlier? Of course. Did The Blade move as fast as it should, given that this became somewhat of a national story, at least online? Your ombudsman can’t judge that. It is worth noting that The Blade primarily covers Toledo, and that while Mr. King’s business, King Electrical Services, is in Toledo, Michigan authorities had not, as of Aug. 23, contacted Toledo police or shared information with them.

If you have to err on the side of fairness and getting it right, that’s the kind of error journalists should make more often.

  • Don Alter, a perceptive reader in Elmore, Ohio, has been following closely the controversy over whether to privatize the Ohio Turnpike. While he, like Toledo Congressman Marcy Kaptur, opposes leasing the turnpike, he took issue with a remark Ms. Kaptur made in The Blade Aug. 24. She said, “The turnpike belongs to Ohio and Ohioans. They paid for it and they have maintained it with their tax dollars.”

“The truth is that the Ohio Turnpike was, and continues to be, supported by TOLLS, not tax money,” Mr. Alter said, asking for a clarification and noting that a taxpayer who has never used the turnpike has in fact paid nothing. Dave Patch, The Blade’s transportation writer and expert, said he is indeed basically correct, with the exception of the tax on fuel sold at the service plazas. This money goes into overpass maintenance. True, some consider a toll a sort of tax, but in this case, it is a voluntary one.

  • Owning up to my own mistake: In my last ombudsman column, published Aug. 14, I discussed a thoughtful letter I received from Susan Miller, who is the communications coordinator for the Monroe Intermediate School District. Unfortunately, I referred to her as Sylvia Miller, probably because I know another reader of the same name. Still, that’s a clumsy error for which there’s no excuse. My apologies.

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, OH 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

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.

This column was originally published in The Toledo Blade on Sept. 4, 2011.

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