For those of you who don’t remember, Bob Packwood was the first.
On Nov. 22, 1992, the Washington Post reported that 10 women had accused Sen. Bob Packwood of sexual harassment. Even though one of The Oregonian’s own reporters was among the 10, and the paper had gotten tips about Packwood’s behavior, incredibly it had failed to aggressively pursue the matter. The Oregonian’s failure to break the story was mortifying for the entire paper.
Adding to the shame was a bumper sticker that began appearing around Portland:
Oregonian editor, Bill Hilliard, later told the Washington Post, in a massive understatement, that his paper “should have been a little more aggressive… We were worried about ruining a man’s career.”
Neil Goldschmidt was second.
Nigel Jaquiss, a reporter at Willamette Week, was researching the role of former Oregon Governor, and later power player, Neil Goldschmidt, in efforts to take over Portland General Electric. He was making good progress on the story, but got hints there was more.
“It was shaping up to be a pretty good story,” Jaquiss told the American Journalism Review, “but I kept getting pushed by people… ‘There’s more you ought to be looking at… There’s a girl..'”
Jaquiss’ aggressive digging eventually revealed that Goldschmidt, when he was the married Mayor of Portland, had begun raping a neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter on a regular basis over a three-year period. Sources said Goldschmidt often took the girl to her parents’ basement, to hotels and other private spots for sex.
When Willamette week posted a summary of the story on its website, it spread like wildfire. The Oregonian had been beaten again.
Not only had The Oregonian been beaten again, this time by a local alternative weekly, but The Oregonian made things even worse. When it ran the Goldschmidt story it appeared to many readers to soft-pedal Goldschmidt’s actions as “an affair” with “a high school student”. Oregonians went ballistic.
A memo of a staff meeting at the Oregonian revealed that there was a lot of internal angst, too. The memo noted: “Steve Duin felt strongly that our coverage today was too reverential. We are dealing with a child molester. He made a very impassioned plea for doing the who knew what when story — lots of people became rich riding Goldschmidt’s coat tails — and why they kept it secret. He suggested that readers might think we’d learned nothing from Packwood and that we are hands off people in power.”
And now the Kitzhaber-Cylvia Hayes scandal.
Again, it was Nigel Jaquiss and Willamette Week that broke the story and followed up with bombshell after bombshell.
The Oregonian followed up with some revelations, but it was late to the party. It’s most significant role in the evolving saga was to run an editorial on Feb. 4, 2015 calling on Kitzhaber to resign, arguing, “…it should be clear by now to Kitzhaber that his credibility has evaporated to such a degree that he can no longer serve effectively as governor.”
What’s happening to The Oregonian, once the state’s dominant paper of record, now a mere shadow of its former self?
It may sound hackneyed, but great newspapers like the Oregonian were once the indispensable guardians of our freedom. Seasoned reporters have served as watchdogs to ensure good government and reinforce good citizenship. The Oregonian has been a key ingredient of civic dialogue and discourse in the state.
David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who created the award-winning HBO series The Wire, warned at a U.S. Senate hearing on the “Future of Journalism”, that “high-end journalism is dying in America.” Oregon can’t afford for The Oregonian to be among those at death’s door.
Disclosure: I worked as a reporter at The Oregonian during the 80s and 90s.