NY Times owes Apology to Ethiopia’s First Lady

On Nov.15/’10 Haile Gebreselassie wrote ‘Running is in my blood and I decided to continue competing. My announcement in New York was my first reaction after a disappointing race’, on his twitter account. A few hours later New York Times (NY Times) published a story, by its sport editor Jeré Longman, which caused a controversy.

Though titled ‘Gebrselassie Reconsiders and Won’t Quit Racing’, the  principal purport of the story was explaining Haile’s previous decision to quit running. It suggested that not only Muscular problem but also political pressure caused Haile’s frustration, thus the sudden decision to retire.

“The two sources”

The ‘political problem’ theory was based on two sources: A statement allegedly made by Haile’s manager and an opposition media.

The NY Times story cites Jos Hermens twice, in relation to the ‘political problem’:

Hermens also suggested that Gebrselassie’s emotional decision to retire might have stemmed, in part, from political pressure he was feeling in Ethiopia. His phone has been tapped by government officials and he has faced some sort of blackmail attempt, Hermens said of his client.

Frustration over the injury and political tensions perhaps led Gebrselassie to overreact after dropping out of the New York marathon, Hermens said. “ All this pressure came out; he was emptying his heart,” Hermens said.

NY Times vs. Jos Hermens

However, on Nov.17/2010, Haile Gebreselassie and Jos Hermens appeared on the weekly sport show of Ethiopian Television to denounce the NY Times story.

A Snapshot of Haile G/selassie Twitter account, as it appeared on Nov15/2010

Haile Gebreselassie said:

This (is) nothing but a way of presenting their own agenda by using someone’s name. This is trash… in my personal view it gives a well respected paper like the New York Times, less value.

Jos Hermens said:

I didn’t say this. I said, Haile has a very busy life. He is training all the time and he is running his business also. Sponsors, companies, and journalists and others are trying to get hold of him. This is what I said and sadly this is what the journalist reported as political pressure.

Although I wasn’t with Haile during his announcement to retire, I have given numerous interviews, including to (the) New York Times and the association of political pressure with the retirement is only the idea of the reporter and not mine.

The reporter asked me about political pressure, and I have told him I have nothing to say about that.

The writer, NY Times sport editor Jeré Longman,  has not been reachable since Wednesday, despite repeated efforts to contact him by journalists and concerned individuals. However, on Thursday, Letsrun.com, a web-based sport media, was able to get responses from his assistant Tom Connelly, but only through e-mail.

Letsrun.com reported the following:

[Tom Connelly said] “The New York Times stands by its story. Jeré reported what he was told. We reported the story correctly.”

When asked why, then, was Hermens saying the NY Times was inaccurate in its reporting, Connelly refused to speculate.

“You’d have to ask him why he said what he said (on Ethiopian TV), (but) Jeré got it right. He spoke with Gebrselassie’s agent and that’s what he was told. We have no reason to present this in any other way.”

Who is lying?

This is simply Jeré Longman’s word against Jos Hermens’s word. Thus, it is up to the audience to decide whom to trust.

Some commentators hypothesized that both Gebrselassie and Hermens were strongly encouraged to denounce the story by the powers in charge in Ethiopia – either that or Gebreselassie realized he needed to have Hermens do it soon or he would have some significant problems on his hands.’

Some one may justifiable speculate that Jos Hermens might have made the statements to NY Times ‘off the record’ and/or based on his own assumptions or rumors. Thus, when controversy arose, he denied to save his face.

However, this is based on one big assumption: why would a sports editor of NY Times make up such accusations? Plus, why would he cite Jos Hermens as a source if it weren’t true?

In short, Jeré Longman is supposedly a prudent journalist with no motive to report unwarranted story.

But, is he?

Answering this question should not require an extensive analysis of Jeré Longman’s personality, rather a brief look at the rest of the ‘political problems’ story.

Jeré Longman’s flagrant blunder

To reinforce and explain the ‘political problems’ theory, NY Times made a reference to a Nov.01/2020 ‘news’ posted on Ethiopian Review, a website run by Elias Kifle (a fan of Eritrea’s strongman, Isaias Afeworki):

The Ethiopian Review, an opposition online journal based in Washington, reported this month that the prime minister’s wife and her associates were attempting to force partnerships with Gebrselassie on a new hotel that he had built and on other real estate ventures.

The mayor of Addis Ababa, an ally of the prime minister and his wife, had also recently ordered the confiscation of land that had been leased to Gebrselassie, the journal reported, citing sources in Addis Ababa.

Officials at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington could not be reached for comment.

Well. Had Jeré Longman been a prudent editor, he would have remembered the need to check the credibility of a source before citing it. Had he done his home work, he would have learnt that it is oxymoron to use the words ‘Ethiopian-review’ and ‘reported’ together in the same phrase.

Photo – Elias Kifle, Sileshi and Isaias Afeworki – Presidential palace, Asmara, Eritrea

For the unknowing, let me cite what Ethiopian review recently posted a ‘news’ which indisputably reveals the website ceased to consider it self as a serious news media. Just two weeks ago, on Nov. 4/2010, in its post about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church [EOC] synod decision to pull down the statute of the Patriarch, Ethiopian-review alleged ‘he [the Patriarch] went on a tour to various monasteries in Ethiopia… [and] …scheduled a trip to Egypt to find statues of religious leaders.’ Of course, there was also a bogus photo of the demolition of dismantle of the statute. However, it was a public knowledge the Patriarch was in his office in Addis Ababa, receiving representatives of the Hawasa church and the statute was still standing.

Again, had Jeré Longman taken some time to think it through, he could have learn the nonsensicality of Ethiopian Review’s allegations. Imagine the first lady, chair of OAFLA-Organization of African First Ladies against HIV and AIDS, whose husband is in charge of a USD 5.5 Billion budget, ‘forcing partnership’ with Haile’s new hotel that worth less than USD 12Million. Of course, I am aware of the smear campaign by the extremist Ethiopian opposition, in recent years, against the first lady, whom they found a convenient target as the popularity of the Prime Minister surges. Thus, rumors alleging her involvement in petty trades are commonplace in those circles, where truth and logic are deemed inconsequential. But, that is not what you would normally expect of NY Times.

Moreover, with a couple of calls to Addis or internet browsing, Jeré Longman could have learnt about the nature of the recent land lease cancelations in Addis and its probable financial impact on Haile. First, Addis Ababa Administration terminated the lease of 2.2million Hectare land, of which only 40,000 Sq Km belongs to Haile. Second, the list of persons whose contract is terminated includes staunch supporters of the ruling party; such as, Samuel Teshale 56,000 Sq Km, Tekleberhan Ambaye 50,000 Sq Km, and Samuel Teklay 14,588 Sq Km. Third, an inference by analogy suggests, Haile leased the land for some USD 1.5 million and he might have paid less than a quarter of it to date. Fourth, Haile has shown no sign of intimidation, in fact he publicly warned the administration to reinstate the lease contract or else face a legal action.

As a matter of fact, Jeré Longman should have found it illogical to assume Haile is at odds with the Prime Minister just a month after he was a keynote speaker at the ruling party Congress where he honored the prime minister by giving a t-shirt that he broke a world record with. And guess what, First Lady Azeb Mesfin honored Haile by inaugurating his new hotel. In fact, these occasions made Haile a new target of the smear campaign of the extremists in the opposition camp.

What does that tell us?

Why should we give Jeré Longman the benefit of the doubt?

Of course, Jeré Longman is a sport editor at the New York Times and an author of three previous books that are the New York Times bestseller.

But, Jos Hermens too is a renowned professional who established Global Sports Communication, one of the largest sports management companies involved in long distance running, who has more than 120 clients, including Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Gabriela Szabo, and Nils Schumann. As an athlete, he earned the title of Dutch Sports Personality of the Year 1975 and broke the World Record for one hour twice (1975 and 1976), the latter performance remaining unbeaten until 1991.

Thus, an unbiased observer would find it difficult to trust one rather than the other, ab initio.

However, Jeré Longman’s injudicious use of Ethiopian-review as a source tilts the balance in favor of Jos Hermens. One may justifiably suspect whether Jeré Longman has fallen into the trap of the extremists.

But, that should not necessarily be the case.
It is not difficult to imagine Jeré Longman’s eagerness to explain the cause of Haile’s decision. With this zeal, he persistently goggled and come across Ethiopian-review and Haile’s latest tweets.

Alas, his enthusiasm failed him. He forgot to ask why other media outlets ignored the Ethiopia-review story, although it’s been online for 15 days. He had less than a day, only Monday morning, to attempt contacting the Haile Gebreselassie and the Ethiopian Embassy. Given this, it is likely that he might have misinterpreted Jos Hermens’s statements. It is probable that, as some media outlets suggested, he didn’t have a direct conversation with Jos Hermens, thus increasing the margin of error. In fact, it appears NY Times doesn’t have a reporter in Addis, rather relies on freelancers.

How the truth regarding the NY Times vs Jos Hermens controversy will come to light if Haile proceeds with his threat of legal action against the newspaper. Perhaps, it suffices if Haile puts down his demand in black and white send it to the NY Times Headquarters.

Irrespective of how that turns out, one thing is clear.
The story made a flagrant slander against the Ethiopian First Lady, in disregard of the ABCs of journalistic ethics and prudence.

Thus, the NY Times owes apology to the First Lady, to the Mayor of Addis, and to the nation.


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