The Oregon Convention Center Hotel: Let the people decide

It’s a classic government argument to justify dumping dollars into a construction project. “It will mean JOBS.” How can you be against jobs?

In the case of the proposed government subsidies for a convention center hotel in Portland, Metro President Tom Hughes has gone even further, arguing at a 2013 Labor Day picnic sponsored by the Northwest Oregon Labor Council that hotel critics are engaging in “class warfare” to “keep families from putting food on their table.”
Good grief! What’s next, accusing critics of  “taking food out of the mouths of babies.”

Actually, what was next was a devious ruling from the Multnomah County elections department that critics can’t go to the county’s voters to seek to overturn the Multnomah County Commission’s approval of taxes to go towards the hotel’s construction.

“The initiative and referendum process is reserved to the people of the county relative to the legislative acts of the Board of County Commissioners,” said Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott. “The subject of the Petition filed… relates to the exercise of the Board of County Commissioner’s Executive and Administrative powers.”

“I want to build a hotel,” Hughes said at the union Labor Day picnic. “I want it to be built by union workers, and I want union workers running it.”

And he wants it so bad that he doesn’t want citizens voting on it, calling the decision of critics to seek a public vote “short-sighted and selfish”. A public official is opposing the public having a say.

That reminded me of a statement made by Iroquois Indians to the English in the mid-1700s when they felt the English were not listening to their deep concerns: “You ask us…to have faith in you…But how can we have faith in you and believe in you when by the very actions you have taken you have plugged up our ears and thrown sand in our eyes and sewn our lips together?”

Hughes even fell back again on the jobs mantra, this time upping the ante by throwing in a taunt that the critics didn’t care about minorities. Failure to go ahead with the hotel deal would harm “members of the minority and historically underserved communities of North and Northeast Portland,” he wailed.

The validity of Scott’s decision is now being considered by the Multnomah County Circuit Court. Hopefully, it will do the right thing and let voters have a say.


Redefining “reporting” – the erosion of journalistic integrity by Metro

Metro is misusing the term "reporter"

Metro is misusing the term “reporter”

Traditional journalists have long been defined by their independence and integrity, beholden to no one but the public, producing the news without fear or favor.

But lately, with trust of American media already at an all-time low, media are being complicit in their own decline, undermining their authenticity and trustworthiness by allowing publicists to pose as reporters and blurring the line between editorial content and paid advertising.

One of the more egregious abuses of the journalism standard is at Metro, the Portland area’s regional elected government, where a former Hillsboro Argus news writer pretends to be a “reporter” providing “objective, written news coverage” of Metro. Metro created the position in 2010, insisting that the new hire would provide “objective, written news coverage” of the agency. The “reporter” would get style, spelling and other editorial support, but could decide what topics to pursue and would not have his or her work edited for content.

The eventual hire, Nick Christensen, came from the Hillsboro Argus, where he had covered Metro and western Washington County. Pror to that he served as managing editor of the Summerlin Home News near Las Vegas and as a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun.
Now reporting to Metro’s Communications Director, Jim Middaugh, Christensen is referred to as “Metro News editor” and as a “news reporter” for Metro on the agency’s website.

Access by a true reporter to the inner corridors of power can translate into aggressive, groundbreaking, fiery media stories, but it’s not likely that Metro’s in-house “reporter” will produce such stories. It’s clear from a review of his prosaic, process-oriented writing to date reveals that he’s not going to be a Woodward or Bernstein exposing seamy government practices or, for that matter, an investigative reporter in the tradition of the journalists at Willamette Week who exposed Neil Goldschmidt’s rape of a 14-year-old babysitter.

Instead, Christensen’s stories are carefully crafted press releases masquerading as independent news reporting. Metro even asks, “In the interest of disclosure to readers”, that media attribute content from Christensen‘s (stories) to him and identify him as a news reporter for Metro.
Making things worse, local media, including the Portland Business Journal, Willamette Week and the Portland Tribune have bought into Metro’s ruse, frequently citing Christensen’s comments as those of a reporter. This even though Middaugh has admitted that Christensen’s work is “definitely public relations”. Middaugh has justified Christensen’s identification as a “reporter” on the basis that government has a responsibility to keep people informed in the face of public cynicism, apparently unaware that misleading the public feeds that cynicism.

Christensen’s stories are, let’s be honest, the equivalent of advertising disguised as news. In that respect, he fits right in with the deliberate blurring of the divide between advertising and editorial content that’s going on across the media landscape, eroding public trust in journalism.

In case you haven’t noticed, digital and print media are increasingly featuring sponsored content, or “native advertising” created or developed by a business or special interest seeking to influence viewers.

In a prominent case, The Atlantic magazine found itself in the middle of a reputation debacle in January 2013 when it featured a native advertisement package submitted by the Church of Scientology which, though identified as “sponsor content,” looked otherwise like a regular story.

The Internet exploded with negative comments, some criticizing The Atlantic for promoting the controversial Church of Scientology, but more for allowing paid advertising to be subtly disguised as editorial content.

To put it simply, the news business is slowly being corrupted by practices like native advertising and media’s willingness to go along with things like Metro’s attempt to pass Christensen off as a reporter. If it isn’t controlled, readers’ trust will be lost.

So, let’s all get on the same page here and call a P.R. guy a P.R. guy. For Metro, that would be good P.R.

What didn’t he know and why didn’t he know it?

This is really getting embarrassing.

Washington State has directly enrolled 454,009 people in health insurance through its Healthplanfinder website since launch day, Oct. 1, 2013. The number of health insurance enrollments directly through Oregon’s Cover Oregon website since Oct. 1, 2013? Zero. Zilch.

The launch of Oregon’s much ballyhooed Cover Oregon website has been like a rolling catastrophe, a hot mess even more embarrassing after Oregonians were bombarded for months by a multimillion dollar campaign featuring quirky, down-home advertisements.

As the Cover Oregon debacle has plodded on, Governor John Kitzhaber has tried to shift public attention away from the hapless website, saying in Nov. 2013, “Cover Oregon works, the website doesn’t work.” That’s pretty much what President Obama said after Obamacare’s website failed spectacularly on its Oct. 1, 2013 rollout. “The Affordable Care Act is not just a website,” he said. “It’s much more.”

A former emergency room doctor with a national reputation for healthcare innovation, pulling in speaking fees for healthcare presentations around the country during his first two and current terms, and a declared candidate for an unprecedented fourth term, Kitzhaber has a lot riding on Cover Oregon.

So why did he let this fiasco happen on his watch?

For somebody touted as a skillful politician and manager, and a governor likely concerned about his legacy, his failure to keep a close watch on the Cover Oregon website from the outset is an egregious error for which there is really no excuse.

Myriad explanations have been proffered for why the website didn’t work on Oct. 1 and is still comatose, including the complexity of the project, internal feuding, bureaucratic bungling, shifting federal guidance, poor management, lack of state expertise and big mistakes by the primary software firm, Oracle Corp.

Whatever the reason, Kitzhaber should have been bird-dogging the project from day one.

And the well-compensated people working at Cover Oregon, all rewarded with six weeks of paid time off plus 11 holidays each year and 95 percent state coverage of health insurance, should have felt obligated to give Kitzhaber a heads up when things were going off the rails. Or he should have noticed.

After all, Cover Oregon’s problems as the work was underway were legion and well-documented.   failed to meet the terms of the initial federal grant for the project, which stipulated that the website was supposed to be ready to go by Feb. 15, 2013.

Then, in May an internal Cover Oregon report revealed that the exchange was infested with technical bugs.

In mid-August, another warning came when Cover Oregon said Oregonians would be able to look online for insurance plans beginning Oct. 1, but wouldn’t be able to enroll in coverage or tax credits for the first few weeks without an agent or community partner.

Moreover, Rocky King, former executive director of Cover Oregon, has said it became obvious during the summer that the website wouldn’t be fully ready by Oct. 1.

But on Dec. 14, 2013, Kitzhaber said he’d been just as unaware of Cover Oregon’s technical problems as other Oregonians and didn’t learn until Sept. 30 that the Oct. 1 website launch would be cancelled.

Kitzhaber, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader have done the expected, blaming Oracle, —, and insisting that the company make good on its commitment to producing a working website. Late last year Kitzhaber admitted at a press conference, “I think I should have been more engaged on this project,” but now he’s clamming up, refusing interview requests from The Oregonian in connection with an article on the chaos associated with the website.

Meanwhile, Cover Oregon’s website still proclaims, “We’re one of the first states to build our own health insurance marketplace. We’re setting the standard for making health coverage more accessible and easier to understand.”

Not so much.