[5 May 2007]
FRENSO, Calif. - A well-known Fresno author and journalist is waging a heated battle with his boss at the Los Angeles Times - a very public struggle that has outraged many in Southern California’s large Armenian community.
It’s also reverberating in Fresno, not only because of the sizable local Armenian population, but because Times staffer Mark Arax lives here and is of Armenian descent.
“People I talked to locally are really upset,” said Varoujan Der Simonian, executive director of the Armenian Technology Group, a Fresno-based nonprofit that provides support for Armenian farmers.
The dispute revolves around an article Arax wrote - but the paper refused to publish - to mark April 24, the 92nd anniversary of the Armenian genocide. An estimated 1.5 million Armenians died between 1915 and 1923 at the hands of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
The modern Turkish republic contends that no genocide occurred, but for Armenians - and many Armenian Americans - the issue remains critically important.
Hygo Ohannessian, who chairs the local chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America, said the Arax family has deep ties to Fresno and has long shown loyalty to its Armenian community.
“We all want to come to (Arax’s) aid, not just because he is Armenian, but because he has good values,” she said. “I stand behind him 100 percent.”
The latest twist in the controversy came late Tuesday, when the Armenian National Committee of America urged members to call for the resignation of Times Managing Editor Douglas Frantz, whom Arax blames for killing his story.
Harut Sassounian, a Southern California Armenian leader, and others say thousands of e-mails have flooded the Times - and they plan to continue pressing the matter.
The dispute erupted in early April after Arax completed a story on the Armenian genocide resolution in Congress.
According to Sassounian and accounts in the online political journal LAObserved.com, Arax’s article looked at how the resolution battle was dividing not only Turks and Armenians, but also the Jewish community. Some Jews feel a kinship with Armenians because both were victims of genocide, while others don’t want to damage Israel’s alliance with Turkey.
Frantz declined to comment on why he halted publication of the story. But LAObserved.com has published several internal Times memos on the issue, as well as a comment by Frantz.
“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,” he wrote in an e-mail to LAObserved.com.
Frantz said he was concerned about bias because the writer, along with several other staff members, had signed a memo in the fall of 2005 to top Times editors. The memo pointed out that the paper wasn’t adhering to its written policy of unequivocally referring to the Armenian genocide as a historic fact.
Arax, a longtime Times staffer who currently is assigned to the paper’s Sunday magazine West, declined to comment on the dispute. However, he wrote a lengthy memo to his Times colleagues on Monday that was posted on LAObserved.com in which he defended himself and said he deserved a public apology from Frantz.
In the memo, Arax said an internal investigation found the reasons cited by Frantz to be baseless. He offered no evidence of this finding, however.
After Frantz stopped the story, a Times reporter in the Washington bureau used some of Arax’s reporting to fashion a different story that appeared on the paper’s front page April 21.
An April 26 memo by Editor James O’Shea to the staff that also was posted on LAObserved.com said the published story “was the best one.” O’Shea noted that Arax’s story was not killed but had been sent back for additional reporting. Arax could have had a double byline but rejected it, O’Shea wrote.
Bill Erysian, coordinator of grants and international projects for the Armenian Agribusiness Education Fund, a nonprofit based at California State University, Fresno, said he has known Arax since college. Arax has always been unbiased - even on Armenian issues - Erysian said.
“The whole irony to this situation is Mark Arax is not an activist, not a `professional Armenian,’” Erysian said.
Arax, however, has taken public stances on other issues. Last year, he tangled publicly with Fresno County Supervisor Bob Waterston at a meeting of the Local Agency Formation Commission, and also criticized the LAFCO board for its failure to discuss urban sprawl.
Arax also wrote a letter to the editor criticizing The (Fresno) Bee after it offered its Fresno Unified school board endorsements. The Bee had not endorsed his sister, Michelle Asadoorian, who later went on to win one of the trustee seats.
Local Armenians maintain that Frantz’s logic in the matter is flawed. If his claim that Arax’s signature on a memo showed he has a pro-Armenian bias, then the same claim could apply to other ethnic minorities.
“Are you saying no Jewish people can write about the Holocaust?” asked Barlow Der Mugrdechian, a lecturer in Armenian studies at Fresno State. “That seems a little ludicrous.”
Some Armenian activists feel Frantz has his own bias on the issue. Before becoming managing editor of the Times, he was a longtime correspondent in Istanbul, Turkey, and is scheduled to moderate a panel discussion this month in Istanbul titled “Turkey: Sharing the Democratic Experience.”
In the end, many in the Armenian community say, something has to give in the dispute.
Said Sassounian, the Armenian leader who first rallied a defense for Arax: “There’s no way Douglas Frantz and Mark Arax can exist in the same newsroom after what has happened. One of them has to go, and hopefully not the one who is innocent, but the one who is guilty.”