Armenian genocide dispute erupts at LAT

A dispute that has been quietly bubbling in the Times newsroom went public today when the publisher of the California Courier demanded that LAT managing editor Doug Frantz be fired for blocking publication of an article on the Armenian genocide by senior staff writer Mark Arax, who is of Armenian origin. According to Harut Sassounian, a widely quoted leader of the Armenian American community, Frantz feels Arax is biased on Armenian issues. Arax has lodged a discrimination complaint and threatened a federal lawsuit, says Sassounian. Arax, who lives in Fresno and writes for West magazine, told me he couldn't comment, but I've confirmed there is an internal investigation at the paper. Frantz emailed LA Observed:

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, which is required by our ethics guidelines, and because the reporter and an editor had gone outside the normal procedures for compiling and editing articles. My actions were based solely on the journalistic ethics and standards that we follow to ensure that readers of Times news coverage are not affected by the personal views of our reporters and editors.

Here is Sassounian's piece, which cites emails between Frantz and Arax:

When a company discriminates against an employee on the basis of his or her ethnic origin, it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits "employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin."

It appears that such a breach of the law took place when Douglas Frantz, the Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Times, blocked the publication of an article on the Armenian Genocide written by Mark Arax, a distinguished journalist of Armenian origin, who has worked at the Times for 20 years.

On April 11, 2007, in an e-mail to Arax, Frantz accused him of having "a conflict of interest that precludes you from writing about the Armenian genocide, and particularly about an ongoing congressional debate about it. …Your personal stance on the issue, in my view, prohibits you from writing about the issue objectively."

To justify his discriminatory action, Frantz used the pretext that Arax and five other reporters at The Times had signed a joint letter in September 2005, reminding the editors that the newspaper was not complying with its own policy of calling the Armenian Genocide, a genocide. The editors, at that time, had no problem with that letter. On the contrary, they thanked all six reporters -- five Armenian-Americans and one Jewish-American -- for the reminder and pledged to comply with the paper’s policy on this issue.

To make matters worse, in his e-mail, Frantz falsely referred to the above-cited letter as a "petition," and on that basis accused Arax of taking "a position" on the Armenian Genocide. He thus implied that all six letter-writers -- Mark Arax, Ralph Vartabedian, Robin Abcarian, Greg Krikorian, Chuck Philips, and Henry Weinstein -- were political activists rather than independent journalists.

By "prohibiting" Arax from writing on the genocide issue, Frantz, by implication, was also prohibiting all six journalists, among them a Pulitzer Prize winner, of ever reporting on this subject. In other words, Frantz was not just blocking one particular article and its author, but all future articles on the Armenian Genocide that may be written by any of these six journalists, thus practically issuing a gag order that silences all Armenian Americans working at the Times.

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 covering issues peculiar to their community.

Sadly, Frantz’s misrepresentation of the joint letter as a "petition" initially helped convince other editors at The Times that Arax had an ethnic bias, thus gaining their support in his decision not to run his article. Only days later did these editors take the trouble to investigate the matter and discovered that they were misled by Frantz. Jim O’Shea, the top editor of the Los Angeles Times, in a meeting with this writer last week, said that the letter signed by the six journalists was not a “petition” at all, and that there was nothing improper about it. In fact, he admitted that the letter upheld existing L.A. Times policy.

Amazingly, even after discovering the truth, rather than reversing themselves and publishing the Arax story, The Times’ editors continued to endorse Frantz's censorship and compounded the discrimination. They did this by assigning their Washington reporter, Richard Simon, supposedly to update Arax's story. Even though Frantz, in his April 11 e-mail told Arax that he had "no questions" about his "abilities as a reporter and writer," he did use the excuse that Arax and Washington editor, Bob Ourlian, had gone around the "established system for assigning and editing stories." Obviously, this was a red-herring. The editors in the chain of command both in Washington and Los Angeles were aware of Arax’s article and none of them had any questions or complaints about procedure or content. In fact, not even Frantz himself cited a single factual or bias problem with the story. The only problems he did point to were that Arax had taken a “personal” stand on the Armenian Genocide, which allegedly led him to have a “conflict of interest,” presumably because of his Armenian heritage. Arax has written countless major investigative stories over the course of his 20 years at the Los Angeles Times, including several on the Armenian Genocide, but never had a single one of them “killed” by any editor. But that was before Frantz entered into the picture, moving from Istanbul to Los Angeles to become the newspaper’s Managing Editor in November 2005.

The thrust of Arax’s story was not only about the clash between Turks and Armenians over the congressional resolution on the Armenian Genocide, but also about the split in the Jewish community between those who sympathize with the victims of the Armenian Genocide and those who put a higher premium on Israel’s strategic alliance with Turkey.

Richard Simon, on the other hand, proceeded to write a completely different story which was published in The Times on April 21. His article covered the conflicting political pressures affecting the adoption of the Armenian Genocide resolution by the Congress and its “uncertain” chances of approval. There was no reason to kill the Arax story to run Simon’s. Both articles could have been published, one as a sidebar to the other. In a vain attempt to appease Arax and defuse a looming controversy that is sure to anger the half-a-million strong Armenian community in Southern California, a handful of paragraphs from Arax’s article were incorporated into Simon’s story. The editors told this writer that they were dismayed that Arax refused to have his name jointly appear on the byline for Simon’s story. Even then, despite Arax's justified protests, the editors added a tagline at the end of the article, stating that Arax "contributed to this report."

An investigation of this matter in the past two weeks has led this writer to believe that rather than Mark Arax having an ethnic bias, Douglas Frantz himself seems to be the source of the problem. Based on discussions with individuals familiar with various aspects of this controversy, conversations and meetings with top executives at the Times, and a contentious phone call with Frantz himself which he initiated, it appears that he has strongly held personal views on Armenian-Turkish issues which have clouded his professional judgment, causing him to take actions which are improper and possibly illegal:

1) In a discriminatory e-mail, Frantz falsely accused Mark Arax and five other Times’ reporters of signing a "petition" on the Armenian Genocide. This accusation was used as a pretext to block Arax’s story on the Armenian Genocide.

2) Frantz has reportedly made comments to at least one co-worker at The Times that he personally opposed the congressional resolution on the Armenian Genocide. He also said he believes that Armenians rebelled against the Turks, an argument used by Turkish denialists to justify the genocide.

3) Frantz was stationed for several years in Turkey, first working for the New York Times as Istanbul Bureau Chief and then for the Los Angeles Times during which he may have developed very natural friendships with Turkish individuals and officials.

4) The Turkish Consul General in Los Angeles has reportedly bragged about his close friendship with Douglas Frantz and said that he turns to him whenever he has a problem with The Times.

5) This writer was told by the editor of The Times, Jim O’Shea, who has known Frantz for many years from their time together at the Chicago Tribune, that Frantz has a very abrasive personality. No wonder he was short-tempered and abrupt during a phone conversation that he initiated, falsely accusing this writer of threatening him, when in fact he was simply being told that the controversy regarding the Arax article might upset the Armenian community, if it turned out that the story was blocked due to the Armenian background of the journalist.

6) Frantz is scheduled to moderate a panel at a conference in Istanbul, May 12-15, on "Turkey: Sharing the Democratic Experience." The panelists are asked to discuss: "Can the Turkish experience be emulated by other countries in the region and beyond?" Among the speakers at the conference are the President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Turkey. One of the participants on the panel chaired by Frantz is none other than Andrew Mango, a notorious genocide denialist. Despite being sponsored by the International Press Institute, the conference does not cover the lack of freedom of speech in Turkey, the jailing and killing of journalists such as Hrant Dink, and draconian laws on "denigrating Turkishness." O'Shea told this writer that the Los Angeles Times will be paying Frantz' airfare to participate in this conference. Would The Times pay for Frantz’s trip, if he were moderating a panel that included David Irving, the infamous Holocaust revisionist?

Arax has filed a discrimination complaint with The Times against Frantz. He is also considering a Federal lawsuit for the possible violation of his civil rights. The Times executives are expected to make a decision this week on what action, if any, they would take against Frantz.

The Publisher of The Times, David Hiller, and the Editor, Jim O’Shea, reassured this writer last week that they would not tolerate any executive who has a bias against the Armenian Genocide and discriminates against Armenian-American employees. Once the internal investigation is complete, the expectation is that the top management of The Times would do the right thing and find an appropriate way of eliminating the hostile working environment created by Douglas Frantz at one of the nation’s greatest newspapers.

It is hard to imagine how Frantz could continue working at a newspaper in a community where more than half a million Armenians reside, given his unfavorable actions against his Armenian-American colleagues and his negative views on the Armenian Genocide.

The Armenian community highly values the special relationship it has developed in recent months with the publisher and other executives at the Los Angeles Times. The opinion column written by Matt Welch, the Times’ assistant editorial page editor, published on Sunday, April 22, is another indication of the newspaper’s solid position on the facts of the Armenian Genocide. The Frantz episode is an aberration and has to be dealt with as such. His continued presence at the highest echelons of this venerable newspaper would only serve to antagonize the Armenian community and all those who care about the upholding of equal rights for all employees regardless of their race, color, religion, sex and national origin.



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