'Cincy Enquirer' Blog By Army PR Officer Draws Flak for Failure To Disclose

By Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher, April 5, 2006 NEW YORK The Cincinnati Enquirer's "Grandma in Iraq" blog, which has been posting items from a U.S. Army public affairs officer since September, has been criticized for failing to fully disclose her military ties -and now carries a detailed description of her formal title. Most of the items posted on the blog concern views that support the U.S. occupation in Iraq and highlight what the blogger, Public Affairs Officer Suzanne Fournier, considers to be positive events there. Recent postings have cited U.S. and Iraqi efforts at improving water, electricity, and other services, as well as building a firehouse and school facilities, and even holding a Super Bowl party. "We had a great super bowl party here Sunday, or I should say Monday morning because kickoff occurred at 2 a.m. our time and lasted until dawn," Fournier posted on Feb. 8. "We had some die-hard fans and football enthusiasts who had our day room all decked out for the big bash." But until Tuesday, the site was somewhat limited in its full disclosure of Fournier's military ties, prompting some critics to demand more transparency. Since its launch last fall and until recently, the site has described Fournier -- who is a grandmother of 15 -- only as being stationed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Chris Graves, the Enquirer's assistant managing editor/online. Graves said some readers began to complain this week about the lack of disclosure. Meanwhile, an item on the www.tpmmuckraker.com Web site posed the question, "Should a news organization have a military flack writing for it at all? If so, shouldn't she be explicitly identified as a public affairs officer?" Graves agreed, and changed the description of Fournier that appears atop the opening page. It now reads, "Suzanne Fournier of Alexandria, grandmother of 15, posts from Iraq. Fournier is the Public Affairs Officer for the Gulf Region Southern District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Iraq." "We felt we should fully describe what her job is, she never tried to hide it," Graves said. "She has blogged about what her role is." Fournier, meanwhile, offered her own explanation in the blog on Monday and addressed the recent criticism. "Let me take one minute to address a question that was raised today regarding my blog. I work for the US Army Corps of Engineers, they pay my salary and I volunteered to come over here as their employee to officially represent and communicate Iraq reconstruction work completed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. "This blog is done on my own time, I've tried to give you a personal view of what I've observed here, the people, the land and reconstruction activities. Apparently some people are unhappy that I am communicating with you directly, because they are challenging that I haven't informed you that I am a public affairs officer and my job is to work with the news media and American public. "I've explained my job with the Corps several times in my blogs. If I have misled anyone, I sincerely apologize, that was clearly not my intent. I believe the American taxpayers have a right to know how their tax dollars are being invested in Iraq and I believe my current job puts me in a unique position to provide personal observations since I have traveled the Southern provinces of Iraq for the past eight months." Graves also opened up the blog to accept comments from any online reader. Previously, it had been limited only to those who had registered with the blog. Comments posted since then have ranged from supportive to those accusing the paper of propaganda. "You have an EXCEPTIONALLY good blog, incredibly interesting and more in-depth reporting than anything you get on the network news," wrote one reader, while another opined, "The fact that you didn't disclose you worked for the U.S. military is sad, pathetic and unsurprising." Then there's the reader who wrote, "The sad part is I'm not very surprised to learn that the Pentagon is planting propaganda in our newspapers." Graves declined to say why the blog had been started or how Fournier had been recruited for the position,

noting it had started under her predecessor, Dave Heller, who is now with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Calls to Heller, Enquirer Editor Tom Callinan and James Jackson, the paper's vice president/online, were not immediately returned. E&P also e-mailed Fournier in Iraq, but has yet to receive a response.

Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P.

Cincy 'Enquirer' Editor Defends Controversial 'Grandma In Iraq' Blog
By Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher, April 6, 2006 NEW YORK 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."

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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."

Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P.

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Controversial "Grandma In Iraq" Blog Ending, But Not Why You'd Think
By Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher, April 10, 2006 NEW YORK The Cincinannti Enquirer's controversial "Grandma In Iraq" blog, which had drawn criticism because it was being written by a military spokeswoman who had not fully disclosed her identity until last week, will end, the paper's Web site revealed. Tom Callinan, Enquirer editor and a supporter of the blog, wrote in his own blog item this weekend that the Web page, which had posted items since last September, would stop. He said the recent controversy did not spark the shutdown, noting that the blogger, Public Affairs Officer Suzanne Fournier, was leaving the war zone. "It appears Grandma in Iraq’s deployment is ending, so her blog will as well," Callinan wrote on Saturday in a posting on his own blog at www.cincinnati.com. The posting offered no specifics on when the blog would stop, or further information on where Fournier would relocate. The editor went on to defend the blog, but agreed that the Web site's failure to disclose Fournier's public affairs link until last week was a mistake. "Yes, we fumbled in not invasively disclaiming her role as a public relations officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and we fixed that when it was pointed out," he wrote. "No, she wasn’t paid by us for her blog, which provided readers an inside look at her experiences over there. And she claims no superiors approved the work done on her time. "No, there’s no cover-up in the questions about whom and how her blog originated. I’m not inclined to point fingers at the past. Whatever was done, by whomever, was well-intentioned," he added. "It just wasn't thought through completely and I wasn't paying enough attention to the blog world. The bottom line is that since last summer we have reorganized responsibilities for Cincinnati.com and I am responsible for content on the site, along with Chris Graves, our online editor. I've been making news decisions -- and taking shots for them -- for 30 years now. It's OK. "And yes, I suspect the debate will continue about whether Cincinnati.com should have hosted her blog. If you care to continue to debate please make me the target of your venom, not Grandma – or that public relations officer if you’d prefer to address her as such," he wrote. "How about let’s look at our dabbling in citizen journalism from a broader perspective? We’re discussing the concept a lot these days. While The Enquirer has done some work with interactive voices online, most of our readers who care to share their views are limited to traditional platforms – letters to the editor, story suggestions, and news releases. But as we look to the future, we’re exploring new territory." Callinan did not immediately return calls seeking comment Monday, while Fournier has yet to respond to several E&P requests. The existence of the blog had sparked mixed reactions both in and out of the newspaper. Some opponents contended that, even with a disclosure of her military ties, the blogger's placement on the site shared by the newspaper gave the wrong impression of the paper's editorial balance. Fournier tended to focus on positive elements coming out of Iraq, boasting about new school facilities, a new firehouse, road and sewer improvements, and even a Super Bowl party. Supporters had said that it was one of the few places where readers could get a good report on the "positive" happenings in Iraq. Comments to the blog ran about even with supporters and opponents, according to editors. Fournier's last entry, posted on Thursday, described road improvements in one Iraqi village that were being overseen by U.S. officials. Since that posting, more than 70 comments have been sent in by readers and posted. They range from the message contending, "This blog is a sham," to a supporter declaring, "I love this blog! You go girl!" So far, however, Fournier, who had defended herself in several postings last week, has yet to write about the blog's ending or her own future.

Joe Strupp (jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P.