Oregon Controversy: Owning It All
By Christopher Sherman
Robert Pamplin Jr. owns Portland, Oregon's Ross Island. He owns the Ross Island Sand & Gravel Co., which has mined the island down to a horseshoe-shaped fraction of what it once was. He owns the twice-weekly Portland Tribune, which organized a boat tour of the island for local officials and published a front-page feature based on the event. The only thing missing is a radio station defending the paper's coverage.
Christopher Sherman is a former AJR editorial assistant.
No, wait, he owns that too.
"It is an example on a small scale of what is happening on a larger scale with media conglomerates," says Paul Husselbee, an assistant professor of communications at Southern Utah University and member of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee. He likens the perils of common ownership in Portland to the conflicts of interest created when multinational corporations buy major media outlets.
The April 20 Tribune story, titled "Rebirth of an island," focused on the sand and gravel company's plans to restore the island and turn it over to the city. Tribune environmental writer Ben Jacklet, who came up with the idea for the boat tour and wrote the piece, says, "I set it up as a way of profiling the island." There were a lot of questions surrounding the island, so bringing all of the involved parties together for a dialogue seemed like a good idea, he says.
Brian J. Back, a reporter for Portland's weekly Business Journal, wrote a May 4 column criticizing the Tribune's coverage. "I'm not confident that it
really delved into the more controversial issues surrounding Ross Island," he says. Characterizing the headlines as "very glowing" and the pictures as "very nice," Back says, "it seemed [slanted] in one direction."
The second half of the story discussed some of the debated environmental issues involved in the turnover, including how much fill Ross Island Sand & Gravel will have to replace and an ongoing Oregon Department of Environmental Quality investigation.
On a May 18 talk radio show on KPAM, Back told host Victor Boc: "I think that it certainly raises ethical questions just as I'm sure...your listeners might be noting now that this is a Pamplin-owned radio station defending a Pamplin-owned newspaper article about a Pamplin-owned business."
Boc countered: "There is zero influence on what we say over these airwaves here.... I could get on here and trash Ross Island Sand & Gravel all I want."
Tribune Editor Roger Anthony defends the story, saying that the paper tried to be "very candid" and that "the sense in the newsroom was that this was a story we needed to do."
Doing or not doing the story is not so much the issue, Husselbee says. "This paper has the responsibility to report on the issue."
The real concern is how the paper informs readers of the common ownership, Husselbee says. "If they're going to run the story on the front page...then they need to make an effort to pull that disclosure out of the story and draw attention to it." The Tribune story noted in parenthesis, before the jump but in the 10th paragraph, that the paper is owned by the same person who owns Ross Island Sand & Gravel Co.
"It must be done with enough fanfare that the average reader is going to see it and not have to go 10 or 11 paragraphs in," Husselbee says. "That's not enough."
Jacklet says there was no pressure from above but admits that he was nervous. His editor even returned his first draft to him, saying that it was too soft, Jacklet says. He can see how there might be a perceived conflict of interest if the piece was laudatory but does not think that is the case here.
Pamplin says that he never reads Tribune stories before they run and the Ross Island piece was no exception. He did not even know about the story until editors called him the night before and said that it was fair, balanced and accurate, he says. In terms of honesty and integrity in covering the owner, Pamplin says: "I bet that what we're doing at the Tribune should be the industry standard."
Under a subhead proclaiming the island's potential to become "Portland's next great nature reserve," the lead is an account of local waterfowl. "Downtown Portland is just a mile downstream. But from the front deck of a slow-moving tug in Holgate Channel, you don't see the city. What you notice are the birds: a pair of bald eagles, three osprey, a great blue heron like a sentinel in the mud. Below the rookery in the cottonwoods, heron eggs will be hatching soon."
Another issue is the April 13 boat tour organized by Jacklet that was the basis for the story. Jacklet says it took a month-and-a-half to set up a boat tour around the island for about eight people involved in the island's transition from Pamplin to the city, including the mayor, representatives of Ross Island Sand & Gravel and state environmental leaders. The story doesn't say the Tribune organized the tour.
Husselbee says that this kind of organized trip reminds him of a practice more common to public relations representatives than to news organizations. Steve Geimann, member and former chairman of the SPJ ethics committee, says that when the newsroom organizes this type of event it crosses the line between serving the community and being an advocate for the owner.
A sidebar should have been included explaining the conflict of interest and the origin of the boat tour, Husselbee says. "It's unconscionable to me that they wouldn't disclose that they organized this event."###