A Newspaper Confesses: We Missed the Story
By Cheryl Reid
Cheryl Reid a reporter for the Daily World in Aberdeen, Washington.
When the Washington Post reported on November 22 that 10 women had accused Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of sexual harassment, the lawmaker's reputation wasn't the only one to suffer. His state's largest newspaper, the Oregonian in Portland, also took some hits.
Many readers wondered aloud why the Oregonian had missed the story. The criticism increased when the paper revealed that one of its own reporters, Roberta Ulrich, had been kissed on the lips by Packwood in his office eight months earlier.
Editor William Hilliard declined to discuss with WJR the Post story or the lengthy front page article the Oregonian printed a week later to explain why it had been scooped. But he did tell the Post on December 2 that his paper "should have been a little more aggressive... We were worried about ruining a man's career."
According to the Oregonian's account, Metro Editor Bob Caldwell assigned a story in March after a political consultant, Julie Williamson, told columnist Steve Duin that Packwood once had kissed her on the back of the neck and attempted to pull off her clothes. Williamson would not allow Duin to use her name, so he alluded to the 1968 incident in his column by referring to Packwood as a "Northwest politician." Williamson later agreed to be named in the Washington Post story.
Soon after Duin's column appeared, Packwood kissed Ulrich after an interview. The reporter told two senior editors but asked the men to "be careful about whom they told the story to" because she felt embarrassed.
The two were so careful that they didn't mention it to Caldwell or reporter Holley Gilbert, whom the metro editor had assigned to look into the rumors about Packwood. Likewise, Hilliard has said he only heard of the incident after the Post story appeared.
Gilbert said that during her investigation, most of the 25 to 30 former Packwood employees she spoke with praised the senator. A few hinted at a darker side but would not elaborate. Citing a lack of sources, Caldwell "let the story drop" after Gilbert left the paper in July to accept an academic fellowship.
Shortly before Gilbert began her research, Florence Graves, a Boston-based freelance writer and founding editor of Common Cause magazine, began work on a Vanity Fair article about sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.
In April, she phoned Mark Zusman, editor of the Portland alternative weekly, Willamette Week, to ask if he had any tips. Zusman told her about Williamson's ordeal – the incident that had appeared disguised in Duin's column.
The incident was "not a big secret," Zusman says. Williamson told her story frequently but "made it clear this was not a story she would go public with." Zusman says he tried to pin the story down but didn't have the resources with just three full-time staffers.
Zusman says that so many women went on record in the Post story is a testament to Graves' reporting skills. As an example, he cites one source, Mary Heffernan, whom he knows. "Not only did Mary never tell me this story, but Mary's husband, who freelanced here, was never told the story until it appeared in the Post," he says. Graves said the women each agreed that speaking out would serve a greater good.
After a dispute with Vanity Fair over her contract, Graves spent the summer researching the story independently. She says she was somewhat surprised the Oregonian didn't beat her to it. "Something seems amiss when a person living in Needham, Massachusetts, working on her own, financing it herself, could develop a story to the point where she had identified enough women to make it credible. I considered at one point contacting the Oregonian, but several sources said, 'If you take it there, they will figure out a way not to publish it.' There was a serious lack of trust that the paper will take on the state's power brokers."
In September, Graves contacted the Post. After checking her references and sources, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. assigned reporter Charles Shepard to help nail the story down.
Downie says he had heard rumors about Packwood's indiscretions. But he says none included charges of sexual harassment.
Indeed, many Washington reporters say the whispers that drifted their way were similar. "I only heard that he was a skirt chaser, a cheater," says National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg. Evan Thomas, bureau chief for Newsweek, says he "heard from one person a while ago that he had some tendencies" towards inappropriate behavior. And Al Hunt, bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, says he "didn't have any doubt that Bob Packwood was lecherous [but] I didn't also know that he was a sexual harasser. That's different." Thomas concurs. "God knows there are a lot of senators over the years who have drunk too much and groped."
Downey says his impression was that many people in Oregon knew of more serious allegations, and most of the paper's reporting took place in the state, he says. Adds Graves, "When I started, I knew only one person in Oregon, Mark Zusman. Think of all the people [the Oregonian] must know."
Downie declined to criticize the Oregonian. Instead, he says he hopes the story sparks more interest in examining powerful people. "It's a textbook example of the fact it can be done."