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Trouble at the L.A. Times 

An editor kills a Page One story on Armenian genocide, and charges of bias fly

Wednesday, Apr 25 2007
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Did the Los Angeles Times kill a front-page article about the fight over the recognition of the Armenian genocide because its writer, Mark Arax, is Armenian?

It’s a question L.A. Times managing editor Douglas Frantz would probably prefer not to address.

News broke earlier this week that Frantz killed Arax’s story in a terse email message to the writer because, Frantz said, Arax had “a conflict of interest” and a “position on the issue.” Frantz was referring to a 2005 letter in which Arax, four other Armenian Times staff writers and legal affairs reporter Henry Weinstein reminded the paper’s top editors to refer to the genocide as genocide, in accordance with the paper’s style rules. The 2005 letter had been well-received, acknowledged, and, sources at the paper tell the L.A. Weekly, forgotten.

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But in his recent email to Arax, obtained by the Weekly, Frantz characterized the letter as a “petition,” as in some form of activism. He also told Arax that he “went around [the] system” in a bid to land the story assignment, by dealing with an editor in the Times Washington bureau, Robert Ourlian, who is Armenian American. So Frantz reassigned the story to Washington reporter Rich Simon, who turned around a decorous and somewhat routine take on Turkey’s ongoing mission to block Congress from recognizing the slaughter of more than 1 million Armenians by Ottoman Turkey during World War I, something several Western developed countries - including France and Canada - have already done. The revised Times article ran under the headline, “Genocide Resolution Still Far From Certain” on Saturday, April 21, four days before Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day in L.A. Arax was given a consolation tagline at the end of the article for having “contributed” some reporting.

Arax, sounding incensed, sent an email to some of his fellow reporters, which made its way to the Weekly. Here’s how it started: “Colleagues, You should know that I had a Page One story killed this week by Doug Frantz. His stated rationale for killing the piece had nothing to do with any problems with the story itself. In an email to me, he cited no bias, no factual errors, no contextual mishaps, no glaring holes.”

Arax then spelled out the holes he saw in Frantz’s objections, reiterating that the 2005 letter was not a petition, and that the standard process was used with Ourlian to assign and edit the story. And he pushed the dispute up a notch, going so far as to suggest that the only person in the dustup who has a bias or personal stance is Frantz, who lived in Turkey for years.

Said Arax, in his email: “Because his logic is so illogical, questions must be raised about Frantz’ own objectivity, his past statements to colleagues that he personally opposes an Armenian genocide resolution and his friendship with Turkish government officials, including the consul general in Los Angeles who’s quoted in my story. Frantz is heavily involved and invested in defending the policies of Turkey.”

Arax ended the note by sharing the news that he has filed a discrimination complaint against Frantz inside the paper, and that a Times Human Resources Department inquiry was launched. The reporter, based in Fresno and officially assigned to the paper’s West Sunday magazine, declined to speak to the Weekly, citing the internal investigation. Ourlian, the Washington editor, and Frantz, also declined to comment. Times editor James O’Shea and publisher David Hiller did not reply to interview requests. But Harut Sassounian, publisher of the local Armenian paper The California Courier, has been more than willing to publicly address the dispute. On Tuesday, Sassounian began circulating a scathing article he penned calling for Frantz’s resignation, accusing Frantz of discriminating against Arax because of his ethnic background. Sassounian framed the dispute in terms the rest of Los Angeles media can easily digest. “By the same logic, Frantz is implying that Latinos will be barred from writing on illegal immigrants, African-American journalists from covering civil rights, Jewish-American reporters from writing about the Holocaust and Asian-Americans [from] covering issues peculiar to their community,” Sassounian wrote.

Sassounian told the Weekly he learned about the matter from people who had been interviewed by Arax and were waiting for his story to be published. He said Arax never called him. The Courier publisher, based in Glendale, said he had recently met David Hiller at a dinner event and had a cordial conversation with him. So he called the Times publisher directly to find out what happened to Arax’s piece. Within minutes, Sassounian said, he got a call back - from Douglas Frantz. Sassounian said Frantz was “abrupt” and “evasive,” telling Sassounian that there was “no problem” and that the story needed “depth and balance.” Sassounian said he warned Frantz that if it turned out Arax’s story was axed simply because Arax is Armenian, a confrontation would arise between the paper and the L.A. Armenian community, which happens to be the largest in the world outside Armenia. That’s when Frantz went bonkers, Sassounian said.

“He says to me, ‘I’m going to hang up on you! You’ve threatened me! I said, ‘I didn’t threaten you.’ He said, ‘You threatened me. I’m going to hang up.’”

And Frantz did, he contends. Hiller and O’Shea, Sassounian said, treated him much differently. Sassounian said that in conversations with the Times publisher and editor, they apologized for Frantz’s behavior and said they would not tolerate any bias against the Armenian community in their paper’s pages. “They all apologized for his behavior, for accusing me of threatening him,” Sassounian said. When the Sassounian piece started making the rounds, Frantz quickly shot back, defending his actions to media blog LAObserved: “I put a hold on a story because of concerns that the reporter had expressed personal views about the topic in a public manner and therefore was not a disinterested party,” Frantz told the blog. But who’s really the disinterested party here?

Frantz was a longtime correspondent based in Istanbul for both The New York Times and the L.A. Times. As Sassounian noted, Frantz is scheduled to be back in Istanbul next month to moderate a panel for the International Press Institute’s World Congress that is titled, “Turkey: Sharing the Democratic Experience.” Among the panelists is Andrew Mango, who Sassounian describes as a “notorious genocide denialist.” And then there’s the matter of Frantz’s coverage of the Armenian genocide while at The New York Times. In January 2001 the paper ran a correction on Frantz's reporting, for downplaying the genocide. A month later, the Armenian National Committee of America put out an action alert again accusing Frantz of downplaying the genocide and casting it as merely an Armenian allegation. The paper never ran a second correction. Frantz joined the L.A. Times as a reporter in Istanbul, brought on by his friend, then-managing editor Dean Baquet, who left the paper in spectacular fashion late last year and then rejoined The New York Times. The L.A. Times dispute over Arax’s killed story became public on Tuesday, April 24 - the massacre’s traditional remembrance day. All day long, cars and trucks driving in Little Armenia in Hollywood were draped with Armenia’s red, blue and orange flag. A somber march and rally was held on Hobart Street. The few young people the Weekly spoke with after the Unified Young Armenians rally said they had not heard of the controversy at the L.A. Times, but spoke with a refreshing sense of nuance about the imperatives of history. “It’s politics,” said Sevak Ghazaryan, 19, a student at Glendale Community College. “Turkey and United States are very close. The United States has a military base in Turkey, and businesswise they import a lot of goods from Turkey for cheap price, likewise for oil. So therefore, Turkey plays a big role in business and economy for the U.S. It’s just politics.”

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