BY HARUT SASSOUNIAN
Douglas Frantz, Managing Editor of the Los Angeles Times, resigned last week following his controversial decision in April to block the publication of a major article on the Armenian Genocide, written by reporter Mark Arax.
After killing the story, Frantz sent an e-mail to Arax wrongly accusing him and five other Times reporters (four of whom are Armenia’s) of signing a "petition" to their editors on the Armenian Genocide. Frantz told Arax: "You have a conflict of interest that precludes you from writing about the Armenian Genocide." Frantz also alleged that Arax and Bob Ourlian (a Times editor) had gone around the newspaper’s established system for assigning and editing articles.
When this columnist first learned about the controversy back in mid-April, he contacted David Hiller, Publisher of The Times, who promised to look into the matter. Then, unexpectedly, Douglas Frantz called this writer and, talking in an abrasive manner, provided no rational explanation for his action.
A week later, Jim O’Shea, Editor of The Times, met with this writer along with Zanku Armenian and Janet Janjigian to discuss the on-going controversy. The three Armenian community members told O’Shea that Frantz’s accusations were false, discriminatory and illegal and that Arax and his fellow reporters had not signed a "petition." Instead, the six reporters had sent an internal memo to their editors in response to The Times’ repeated mischaracterization of the Armenian Genocide in 2005, reminding them that the newspaper was not complying with its own written policy on the Genocide. This policy mandated that The Times not equivocate whenever it referred to the Armenian Genocide. The editors at that time did not find anything wrong with the memo. On the contrary, they thanked the reporters for their very proper reminder which was in keeping with The Times’ own Code of Ethics. It required that staff members bring inaccuracies to the editors’ attention.
During the meeting, the three community members also told O’Shea that Frantz had falsely accused Arax and Ourlian of circumventing proper editorial channels in writing and editing the article on the Armenian Genocide. The newspaper’s executives in the chain of command were fully aware of Arax’s article and had slated it for publication on page one.
Furthermore, the Armenian participants brought to O’Shea’s attention Frantz’s long-standing ties to Turkey. He was stationed in Istanbul for several years, first as bureau chief for The New York Times and then as investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He had developed close contacts with various Turkish officials, including the Turkish Consul General in Los Angeles who boasted in a taped interview with Arax about his special relationship with Frantz. O’Shea was also told that Frantz was going to Istanbul in early May to moderate a panel that included a notorious genocide denialist. The Armenian group told O’Shea that it was Frantz not Arax who had a biased view on the Armenian Genocide. While promising to investigate these issues, O’Shea went along with Frantz and approved publication of a substitute article on the Armenian Genocide written by another reporter, thus killing Arax’s original story.
Seeing that there was no resolution in sight, this writer decided to make public the censorship of Arax’s article and called for Frantz’s dismissal. That column was posted on scores of websites, generating great public interest. Several newspapers and radio stations interviewed this columnist, further publicizing the controversy. The reaction was fast and furious. Thousands of e-mails were sent to The Times by Armenian and non-Armenian individuals and organizations, including Jewish World Watch, protesting Frantz’s discriminatory action against Arax. The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) subsequently issued a nationwide Action Alert urging the Armenian community to demand Frantz’s resignation. The Western Diocese of the Armenian Church also supported this initiative by posting on its website ANCA’s Action Alert along with this writer’s column. It is noteworthy that several Turkish writers rushed to Frantz’s defense by urging fellow Turks to write to The Times in support of Frantz’s censorship of the article on the Armenian Genocide. The Azeri Press Agency (APA), not to be left behind, claimed that Frantz told its U.S. Bureau that "he is grateful to all Azerbaijanis supporting him."
David Hiller, Publisher of The Times, then held two follow-up meetings with a select group of Armenian community members. The first meeting included Editor O’Shea, Zanku Armenian of ANCA; Prof. Hrair Dekmejian, Director of USC Institute of Armenian Studies; Maria Mehranian, Chairwoman of Armenia Fund, Western U.S.; Harut Sassounian, Publisher of The California Courier; and Larry Zarian, former Mayor of Glendale. The second meeting was with Prof. Dekmejian, Raffi Hamparian of ANCA, Sassounian and Zarian). There were also more than a dozen phone conversations on this issue between Hiller, Sassounian and Zarian.
Hiller told the Armenia’s during the second meeting that he had come to the conclusion that Mark Arax had done nothing wrong. In a written statement he issued on June 18, Hiller said that all of Arax’s actions were "journalistically appropriate," including "his professional work in reporting on the Armenian genocide, and in communicating with the paper to ensure our adherence to established policy in referring to the genocide." Hiller went on to say that "The Times does not tolerate any discrimination in the reporting or editing of the news based on ethnic heritage or other basis."
Furthermore, in a earlier e-mail sent to his newspaper’s staff and readers, Hiller said: "I am very proud of the reporting that The Times does on the Armenian Genocide, and also the positions we have taken on our editorial pages. I am also proud and grateful for the welcome and support my new friends in the Southern California Armenian communities have shown me since my arrival here six months ago. I look forward to continuing that fine relationship and the strong and open communications on which it is based."
Hiller also told the Armenian community members during the second meeting that the newspaper had signed a settlement agreement with Arax who has decided to retire and devote his time to writing books and taking an active role in Armenian affairs. The Fresno Bee quoted Arax’s attorney, Warren Paboojian, as saying that Arax and The Times had reached an undisclosed financial settlement "to forestall a lawsuit alleging defamation and discrimination." Arax told the Bee that he could not comment on the terms because of a "confidentiality agreement."
In a statement issued to The California Courier this week, Arax said: "I was truly humbled by the support from the Armenian community. It came from all quarters and across political and organizational divides, though I would be remiss if I didn’t single out the special roles of Harut Sassounian, the ANC and the Western Diocese. This support turned one journalist’s fight against censorship into a community battle, and the pressure brought to bear on the Los Angeles Times was instrumental in helping us reach a fair settlement. Despite my voluntary departure, the Armenian community should know that I am not leaving the profession of journalism. Indeed, now that I am unburdened of my newspaper work, I plan on writing even more books and national magazine stories on topics dear to me, including genocide denial. If all goes well, I plan on visiting Armenia in the near future and tracing the river valley that gave our family its name."
Throughout this ordeal, the pressure was mounting on Frantz both from the outside and apparently from within The Times organization. The well-connected "laobserved.com" website reported that the word going around Times staffers was that "Editor Jim O’Shea ordered Frantz to make a public apology and that it wasn’t going down well with Frantz." It is understandable why top executives of The Times did not want to make any embarrassing public comments on Frantz’s blunder. Indeed, it was clear that by absolving Arax from any wrongdoing, The Times management was implying that Frantz had censored Arax’s article for reasons that had nothing to do with journalism.
Finally, the combination of escalating criticism and a job opportunity — not surprisingly — in Istanbul, led to Frantz’s resignation last week after less than two years at his current position. It is noteworthy that just eight months ago, when several of his colleagues were leaving the newspaper as a result of management changes, Frantz was determined to stay and told his colleagues: "I am not quitting and I am asking all of you not to quit."
Curiously, Frantz did not provide a reason for his resignation. However, several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, made references to the Armenian controversy that preceded his departure. L.A. Times reporter Roger Vincent wrote: "Frantz recently was embroiled in an emotionally charged personnel issue. A group of Armenian Americans called for Frantz’s ouster after he blocked the publication of an article on the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century." The Chicago Tribune reported that Frantz first approached The Times’ Editor O’Shea a month ago offering to resign, saying that "being a managing editor was ‘not a good fit.’"
In a press release, the ANCA characterized Frantz’s resignation as "an appropriate answer to his unprofessional behavior and anti-Armenian posture in the newsroom. The Los Angeles Times is a fine newspaper and deserves better than to have a genocide denier as a member of its senior staff. The fact that Frantz is returning to Istanbul tells the full story of where he stands."
Armenia’s will now have to monitor Frantz’s reportage from Istanbul in the Wall Street Journal. The Armenian community’s concern is justified in view of the fact that for many years the Wall Street Journal has been more pro-Turkish than even the Turkish Daily News! Interestingly, Wall Street Journal’s Managing Editor Marcus Brauchli was quoted by the L.A. Times as saying that he offered Frantz the position of Middle East and Africa bureau chief in Istanbul, "after [the Journal’s] top executives reviewed his handling of the Armenian story." Given the Turkophile perspective of the Journal’s editors, they may have considered Frantz’s censorship of an article on the Armenian Genocide an asset rather than a liability! Notably, Frantz’s new position at the Wall Street Journal is several levels below the rank he held at the L.A. Times, going from Managing Editor to working for a Deputy Managing Editor.
During the past two months, Frantz’s unwarranted actions created considerable tension between the Los Angeles Times and over half million Armenian American residents of Southern California. With his departure, the Armenian community can now look forward to the renewal of the constructive relationship that had developed in recent months with Publisher Hiller and other senior executives of one of America’s most prominent newspapers.