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.
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”
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
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
“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.”