Ten days and counting: No correction of erroneous Plain Dealer editorial

By Chad D. Baus

There have been ten issues of the Cleveland Plain Dealer (and ten opportunities to correct glaring falsehoods repeated in a September 29 editorial about how House Bill 347, Rep. Jim Aslanides' sweeping firearms law reform bill, would amend the media access loophole) since editorial page editor Brent Larkin told Buckeye Firearms Association "if there is an error in the story, I will address it."

In those ten issues, sixteen other corrections have been published. The average length of time Plain Dealer has taken to publish corrections about stories in October has been two days (not including one correction left over from a September story).

Although one letter has finally been published in response to the editorial (one that does NOT address the errors), the newspaper has had ten opportunities to publish one of the two letters to the editor sent by PAC Chairman Jim Irvine and myself on the same day the editorial ran. The Plain Dealer editors have ignored the letters just as the editorial writer ignored the facts themselves.

So why the long delay in publishing the truth about House Bill 347? With each passing day, the hypothesis that the Plain Dealer doesn't want to write the true facts about what this bill would do becomes more and more plausible.

On Thursday October 6 (exactly a week after the editorial ran), I called and spoke again with Brent Larkin, who had agreed with me six days before that the editorial misrepresented House Bill 347, and that "if there is an error in the story, I will address it." In fact, in the confrontational conversation we had last week, Larkin repeated that phrase to me three times, and on the fourth snidely added "Do you want me to write it down for you?" My response was "Yes, in your newspaper." More than a week later, Brent Larkin still hasn't come through.

I had left a voicemail for him the previous day, so he was prepared for my phone call on Thursday. He told me that after receiving my message, he called "Philip" to check on the status, and then observed "it's been a week."

I picked up on the name Philip, and asked "Did Philip Morris write the editorial?" Although the previous week he had refused to tell me who wrote it, this time Larkin confirmed that he did. I told him I was surprised to hear that, because I'm familiar with Morris' writing (Phillip Morris is a Plain Dealer columnist), and had appreciated much of it in the past. Larkin reminded me that Morris was writing the majority opinion of the editorial board, and not necessarily something he agreed with. I closed the call by saying I was looking forward to seeing the correction run, and we hung up.

So what is taking this newspaper so long to correct what are clearly false statements - first, that legislation "offered by Rep. Jim Aslanides of Coshocton would end journalists' access to the list of people granted a concealed-weapons permits [sic]" (the bill would do no such thing), and second, that in the first 18 months of Ohio's concealed carry law, "almost 45,000 permits have been issued" (the latest numbers, 3 months old, show more than 60,000 licenseholders)?

In our first conversation Larkin inadvertantly admitted to me he had not read the bill and would have to do so before taking a position on the actual proposal to allow a battered woman the chance to prevent the release of her personally identifying information to the media, or a family who has moved 3 times in 5 years in fear of a stalker. But does it really take ten days? The paper already had two weeks to read it before their first editorial (and they still got it wrong).

Is this just complete ineptitude? With each passing day, this explanation grows less likely. In an op-ed entitled Editorial Ineptitude and Rampant Jason Blairism, Buckeye Firearms Association's Gerard Valentino suggests that something more sinister is going on:

    Knowing, however, that they would quickly lose the battle of public opinion if the truth about the new bill became known they have purposely printed misinformation by claiming it would completely eliminate their ability to get the names of license holders.

    At best, they are misinformed about the bill - more likely they are making a concerted effort to trick Ohio’s citizenry.

The Phillip Morris op-ed that will forever stick in my mind was an April 17, 2003 column in which Morris wrote about a legal challenge to what was at the time a complete ban on concealed carry in Ohio:

    The Ohio Supreme Court turns its attention today to guns and begins to ponder what the framers of the Ohio Constitution really meant when they wrote:

    "The people have the right to bear arms for their defense and security; but standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and shall not be kept up; and the military shall be in strict subordination to the civil power." Article 1, Section 4 of the Ohio Constitution.

    The first 13 words seem as clear to me as any children's nursery rhyme: "The people have the right to bear arms for their defense and security."

    Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. What is the interpretive difficulty or confusion with either of these simple declarative statements?

But what I did not remember on the telephone last Thursday with Brent Larkin was another piece Morris wrote more recently. And in re-reading it, Valentino's hypothesis that the editorial was intentionally written to hide the true facts about what this bill would do becomes more plausible. On August 10, 2004, Morris used his column to respond to intense criticism the newspaper was facing after a concealed handgun license-holder whose name had just recently been printed in the pages of his newspaper was ambushed and murdered:

    ...Focus on The Plain Dealer and the other large newspapers around the state that have recently published the names of people who have received CCW permits is misplaced.

    Instead of blaming the newspapers, ...anger should be directed at the legislators who passed the law that made the permit process secret to everyone but the news media, and at Gov. Bob Taft, who signed it.

And again later in that same August '04 column:

    The legislature should revisit the CCW law and remove any open record restrictions on permit holders. That way, newspapers probably would stop publishing the names of permit holders, people like Steve would no longer be singled out any more than a person who decides to buy a fishing license, and gun thieves would no longer be able to buy a newspaper to find out who is packing heat.

That's right: Phillip Morris (the same man who wrote the erroneous editorial falsely describing how House Bill 347 would amend the media access loophole) is on record expressing his personal belief that the solution to the problem faced by battered women and victims of stalkers who are trying to hide their whereabouts from their assailants would be to make their private information even more available.

After reviewing his personal thoughts, it will certainly appear to some that the writer of the erroneous Sept. 29 editorial has a motive for misrepresenting the compromise set forth in House Bill 347, or at least for delaying the publishing of a correction to his erroneous editorial for ten days...and counting.

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