By: Joe Strupp
Cincinnati Enquirer editor Tom Callinan defended the controversial “Grandma In Iraq” blog on his paper’s Web site, which has drawn both support and criticism for its pro-military views. Callinan stressed that the blog, written by a U.S. Army public affairs officer, is not under control of the newspaper’s editorial staff, and called its existence “a very complicated issue.”
“We are trying to do the right thing,” Callinan told E&P Thursday, noting that the Web site had recently changed the description of the blogger, Suzanne Fournier, to clearly state she is a military spokesperson. “She never hid the fact that she worked for them,” he asserted. “But we did not put a disclaimer at the top, we had overlooked that. We have now corrected it.”
Still, the existence of the blog, which launched in September 2005–and was covered by E&P on Wednesday–has sparked mixed reaction both in and out of the newspaper. Some opponents contend that, even with a disclosure of her military ties, the blogger’s placement on the site shared by the newspaper can give the wrong impression of the paper’s editorial balance.
“It diminishes their credibility,” said Marjorie Fox, associate professor of electronic media at the University of Cincinnati. “Even if it is labeled.”
Some newsroom staffers, who declined to be identified, also showed concern. “Everyone was aghast when they first learned of it,” declared one reporter. “The very title of the blog — ‘Grandma in Iraq’ — makes it sound as if her viewpoint is from some everyday person with a front-row seat. It would be like allowing Dick Rumsfeld to write a blog titled, ‘Grandpa in Washington.'”
Another reporter said, “it looks bad for the paper. That bothers a few people.”
Gary Hill, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, cited the recent tension over the war in general, as well as past scandals involving columnists paid by government entities for favorable articles, for some of the negative reaction to the blog. “It is not unusual in this atmosphere that they would get their knuckles rapped,” he said of the editors.
Supporters, however, contend that such a Web page is what blogging is all about — giving space to opine. “Readers are intelligent folks, if the person is clearly labeled, I would not have a problem with it,” said Jeff Fruit, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kent State University. “I understand their concerns and it should be an open matter for discussion. But the first level is disclosure.” Enquirer columnist Peter Bronson agreed. “I don’t see a problem with it as long as it is clear who it is.”
Callinan said the blog was created after the Enquirer did a story about local troops going to Iraq and found Fournier working over there. “We thought it was interesting that a 61-year-old grandmother would be in Iraq,” he said, stressing that the Web site invited her to blog. “She did not seek us out.”
But until Tuesday, the site was somewhat limited in its full disclosure of Fournier’s military ties, prompting some critics to demand more accountability. Since its creation last fall, the site had described Fournier, who is a grandmother of 15, only as being stationed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Editors changed the description of Fournier that is atop the opening page. It now describes her as “Public Affairs Officer for the Gulf Region Southern District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Iraq.”
“Should we have addressed the disclaimer issue from the start? Obviously, although she has not hidden her role,” Callinan said. “We’ve done that.”
Callinan stressed, however, that the blog is a separate entity from the Enquirer. He pointed out that, while both are on Cincinnati.com, the blog and the Enquirer’s Web site, are separate. “There are a lot of things on the Cincinnati.com portal that our newsroom is not generating,” he added. “This one was just one more voice.”
Managing Editor Hollis Towns said many in the newsroom did not know about the blog until the recent controversy. “There were a number of people who were unaware of it,” he said. “The newsroom does not direct content on the Web.”
As for Fournier, she has not responded to requests from E&P for comment. But she addressed the issue with a sharp defense on the blog late Wednesday.
“Gosh, I had no idea my blog would stir up such strong voices. I truly do believe in freedom of speech and expression, but may I ask you to be tolerant, courteous and respectful of each other’s opinions?” she wrote. “I want to take a few moments to clear up misinformation posted about my blog recently. There was never an attempt on my part or on the part of the Cincinnati Enquirer to hide the fact that I am a public affairs officer and that my profession is communication.”
Fournier then posted several newspaper stories from 2005 that mention her and note her military title. “This isn’t about me, the real heroes over here are the soldiers and the Iraqi people,” she added. “I believe we need to support all Coalition forces and their families.”
Comments to the blog, meanwhile, continued to come in during the past few days, both staunchly defending Fournier and sharply attacking her. Among the supporters, a reader who wrote of being “grateful beyond measure” for the blog, while another called Fournier “a paid hack.”