The Story Behind the Story continued  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2004

The Story Behind the Story continued   

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     


Nigel Jaquiss was a Wall Street trader until he had something of a midlife crisis. In his last trade, he swapped his finance career for a master's in journalism at Columbia University. Nearly seven years ago he moved to Portland to join Willamette Week, a feisty alternative weekly, and it wasn't long before he developed a reputation for dogged investigations. In 2001 his inquiry into radon levels at a Portland middle school resulted in the school being shut down. The Oregonian courted him for an investigations position last year, but the paper didn't have an immediate opening and Jaquiss stayed with the weekly.

This February Jaquiss, 42, trained his sights on Neil Goldschmidt. The former governor was leading efforts for a firm to take over a local utility, Portland General Electric. After writing about Goldschmidt's conflicts of interest in that transaction, Jaquiss was exploring other deals Goldschmidt had his hands in. "It was shaping up to be a pretty good story," he says, "but I kept getting pushed by people... 'There's more you ought to be looking at... There's a girl..'"

Skeptical, Jaquiss thought, "I've got a good story here about tangible things I can prove. I'm not going to waste my time on rumors."

Continuing on the deals piece, in March Jaquiss called Sen. Walker, who was still quietly holding on to the conservatorship documents. She faxed them to Jaquiss. What first seemed to the reporter like wispy rumor now took on tantalizing form: "I said, 'What can I find out about this woman?'"

Jaquiss knows his way around public records. He slathered area institutions with records requests, finding the woman had been arrested in four counties. Because the cases were old, they were archived, meaning Jaquiss had to drive to various county seats and sift through dusty records. Stacks of reports piled up, and so did names of possible sources found within them.

In one sinking moment in Portland, he noticed that a file he pulled indicated that the Portland Tribune had recently viewed it. But, to Jaquiss' relief, the Tribune apparently lost interest in the tedious minutiae. Because like a reward for the patient, at the very bottom was a nugget of reporting gold: A 1986 DUI report, the only document with both Goldschmidt's and the girl's name on it. According to Jaquiss, it detailed how the woman, after drinking at the Virginia Café, had clipped the bumper of a truck as she pulled out of a parking garage. She told a police officer on the scene: "I want to personally make sure you get shit for this. Neil Goldschmidt is my best friend."

"That was a great find for me," Jaquiss says, "but didn't prove a whole lot." In Oregon City, however, he uncovered another of the woman's DUI reports. Tucked inside was an "extraordinary" five-page excerpt from a rape trial in Seattle, included as a way to prove post-traumatic stress disorder she suffered after this rape was a factor in her DUI.

A former colleague now working at a fellow alternative paper, Seattle Weekly, plowed through about 1,000 pages of court documents related to the rape case — and though Goldschmidt had nothing to do with that attack, within the reams of information was something about a prior incident and a man who was 21 years older, a family friend, a trusted neighbor. "It was all but explicit," says Jaquiss. Goldschmidt's name wasn't mentioned, but it was one more element in the building circumstantial case.

Ready to talk to people, Jaquiss started with lawyers whose names he culled from the court records. The first one? Not talking. Next, Jaquiss and his editor, Mark Zusman, hustled to the office of the attorney overseeing the conservatorship. "When we said we were here to talk about the girl," Zusman says, the lawyer "stands up and says, 'Get out of my office.' That's when I knew we really had something here."

"This was one of those cases," adds Jaquiss, "where the denial was actually confirmation."

The victim's former associates, roommates and friends came next — five or six more reiterations that Goldschmidt had had sex with the girl. But nothing from the victim herself. Jaquiss and a female colleague flew to Las Vegas in April, hoping to persuade her in person. Though she let them in, she denied everything and insisted on taping the conversation.

After getting nowhere with the woman's mother, too, "I was so depressed," says Jaquiss. "Zusman said to me, 'You're now in a reporter's worst nightmare. You know it's true and you can't get it in the paper.'"

Zusman brought in the paper's lawyer to help figure out what they needed, legally, to publish — especially if, in the end, they were left with no smoking gun and denials from the three primary sources: The woman, her mother and Goldschmidt.

"We had it, but there would have been a Mexican standoff, so who do you believe?" Zusman says. "I took a deep, deep breath, like jumping off a diving board when you don't know how much water there is in the pool."

Willamette Week's lawyer flashed the green light on Wednesday, May 5. They had a dozen people telling the same story. They e-mailed a summary of their reporting to Goldschmidt's lawyer, then waited. "It was the fight we'd been sort of dreading," Jaquiss says. "He goes and hires some attack-dog media lawyer. The stakes were very high. If you got it wrong, you'd be done as a reporter and as a small newspaper."

But those fears would be unfounded. Thursday morning, Goldschmidt's lawyer called Zusman and Jaquiss to his office, imploring them not to publish. Goldschmidt would resign from his board seats, the lawyer promised, and would cite this investigation and health problems as the reasons. Hardly back to their newsroom, a release hit the wires: Goldschmidt was resigning due to a heart condition.

"I called up his lawyer and asked where's the mention of the investigation?" Zusman says. "He said, 'Oops.'"

"We felt like we'd been lied to," Jaquiss says. "And it was even more clear they were going to do what they were going to do."

What they were going to do was confess to the Oregonian.

Last December Oregonian politics reporter Jeff Mapes got a tip. That much is clear. But the precise nature of the tip and what the paper did about it is not.

According to various top Oregonian editors, Mapes, who declined to be interviewed for this story, heard that Neil Goldschmidt had had sex with a teenager, possibly a babysitter — and the name of the woman was included. There might have been hints at a settlement. Mapes passed the information on to editors, who say they asked someone to check it out.

How much checking went on is foggy. The paper did not know, for instance, the exact age of the girl — or how critical an element of the story that was — until Goldschmidt's May 6 confession. That would indicate that they hadn't pulled — or at least hadn't read — some of the key court documents related to the case. And without the documents, they wouldn't have known the names of other key players. Or, if someone at the paper had discovered any of those things, the reporting effort was disorganized so that everyone involved wasn't working with the same set of facts.

According to Oregonian Public Editor Michael Arrieta-Walden, there was confusion about who had responsibility for what. "There was a misunderstanding about how far along they were with the story," Arrieta-Walden says. "Some editors thought there was more progress than there was."

And top Oregonian Editor Sandra Mims Rowe knew nothing of the tip or the story until the day of Goldschmidt's confession.

Steve Engelberg, hired from the New York Times in 2002 as the Oregonian's managing editor for enterprise, says: "We got something very old, a very cold trail, a low-probability thing... Looking back, it was enough to go at it much harder than we did... This was not perceived as a five-alarm fire, and it should have been treated as one."

It seems that the alarm at the Oregonian finally tripped Wednesday, May 5, when word of Goldschmidt's impending board resignations leaked. That's when editors turned to investigative reporter Brent Walth — Walth immediately booked a Thursday morning flight to Las Vegas to find the woman.

With Walth in transit and the Oregonian's reporting machine churning, the story abruptly shifted gears.

Goldschmidt's public relations rep called Oregonian Editorial Page Editor Bob Caldwell to say his man wanted to confess to a relationship with a teenager. Caldwell took that news downstairs to Rowe and Executive Editor Peter Bhatia, where they got the PR guy on speakerphone to discuss logistics of the confession. Goldschmidt's people did not want a photographer but Rowe says she insisted. They preferred one reporter, but she negotiated for two.

Along with Engelberg and Managing Editor for News Therese Bottomly, editors decided that Rowe, Caldwell, photographer Mike Lloyd and reporters Harry Esteve, who'd covered state politics, and Gail Kinsey Hill, a business reporter familiar with Goldschmidt's recent dealings, would witness it.

Neither Esteve nor Kinsey Hill knew of the story before that morning. Esteve rushed back to the newsroom from another assignment. Kinsey Hill says, "They tell me about Goldschmidt and that in two or three hours he's going to say he had a sexual relationship with this underage girl. I sort of liken it to covering a disaster. That's what it felt like, crisis mode all day long."

As the Oregonian scrambled, the rest of the state's media world read the release on the ex-governor's health issues. The Oregonian reporters wanted to ask Goldschmidt about the truth in that, Esteve says, then pry as much information about the relationship and the settlement as possible. "We have an exclusive with the ex-governor, regardless of what Willamette Week says," Kinsey Hill says. "Our clear advantage in this story was access."

Later that afternoon, rushing to make the 6:30 deadline for the state edition, editors told the reporters that they wanted the story to be very clear about Goldschmidt's admission, but in context — who was this guy, the impact on Oregon. "They wanted it to be reasoned, not shrill," Esteve says.

Initially, the story included the word "affair," Goldschmidt's term, numerous times. An assistant team leader who moved the story to the copy desk suggested a head, also with the term, Rowe says. The first version of the headline included "affair" and "teenager." When Rowe looked at page proofs later that night, she said "teenager" seemed "way too general and didn't express the seriousness of it." She wanted it re-done to get in "14."

At about 9 p.m., Bottomly met Rowe at the elevators as editors fine-tuned the final edition and handed Rowe a copy of the article so she could call in any last-minute fixes. Reading the story at home, Rowe circled "affair" in the headline, then phoned Bottomly, who told her they'd remove it. Bottomly passed the request on to a line editor, Rowe says, who gave it to a copy editor. The copy editor assumed she wanted more appearances of the word in the copy removed — as if it was a stylistic quibble rather than a word-choice issue.

Rowe went to bed assuming the headline was affair-free. The next morning, she says, "When I pulled the paper out of the bag at home, I just went, 'Ugh.'"

Ughs reverberated through the Northwest that morning.

Outrage and incredulity flamed as Oregonian readers and journalists made their way through the Friday paper. They decried the A1 headline for glossing over the ugliness and criminality of Goldschmidt's actions. They slammed the editorial for failing to properly consider the victim. And they castigated the paper in general for burying Willamette Week's role in forcing Goldschmidt's confession. After all, they surmised, Goldschmidt came to the Oregonian for a reason. Or, as the Washington Post would later put it in an A1 story, if Goldschmidt confessed to the Oregonian in hopes of an easier ride, his strategy appeared to pay "coverage dividends."

"They essentially wrote his press release as their story," says Frederick Taylor, a former executive editor of the Wall Street Journal now retired and living on the Oregon coast. "Goldschmidt put out a statement, and the Oregonian sort of took it at face value. His health? My God, I wonder whether his health had anything to do with it at all. They didn't show any independent reporting.

"They booted it. It's as simple as that. They just flubbed the story."

Susan Paynter, a columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, zeroed in on the headline, offended by the use of the word "affair" — a pitfall her own paper hit as well. In a column a week later Paynter wrote, "When I first saw the headlines, I erupted like Mount St. Helens... Let's not forget to call what happened to her by the right word. It has four letters and it's rape." The Oregonian's initial piece was "somewhat shocking," Paynter added in an interview. They were "extremely soft."

The perceived easiness on Goldschmidt upset Dennis Becklin, a businessman who writes an online community news column from the town of Grants Pass in southern Oregon. "The initial article that was published was widely panned by most everyone who read it as not being a serious piece of journalism," he says. "For the newspaper of greatest stature in the state to deal with the disclosure of scandal in the way they did leaves one wondering if there was favoritism or bias."

And former Oregonian City Editor Judson Randall, who's now Portland State University's adviser for student publications, says the story read to him like it was treating "the situation between Goldschmidt and the 14-year-old as a kind of misstep." "Readers really picked up on it," he says. "And to the Oregonian's credit, [Editorial Page Editor] Bob Caldwell published" their angry letters.

By Friday the Oregonian had already gotten 61 letters on the Goldschmidt coverage — and most of them were angry. "Until the Oregonian runs a headline with 'Goldschmidt' and 'rape' together, it cannot claim to be an independent news reporting source on this story," read one. "I am appalled at the Oregonian trying to paint Goldschmidt as a weepy, grieving victim," went another. "An 'affair'?" one questioned. And another: "Shame on the Oregonian!"

Oregonian editors and some reporters take extreme umbrage at the insinuation that they somehow went soft on Goldschmidt. Yeah, they got scooped, most admit. And yeah, the headline was extremely unfortunate. But, they insist their initial news stories were fair and straightforward. And that whatever sympathy for the ex-governor appeared on the opinion pages was only that: Those feelings didn't pervade the news/editorial firewall.

Moreover, they tend to dismiss the criticism as potshots tossed by the usual, and unreliable, sources.

"Did we make some missteps? Yes. In the heat of deadline, yeah," Rowe says. "But nothing makes me question our integrity.

"We're the big institution in town, the largest daily in the Northwest — it's natural others are going to take shots at us. Just because people are criticizing doesn't make it factual."

Esteve, who cowrote the main first-day story, says he feels good about the piece, even re-reading it the next day as some of the complaints pelting the paper found their way to his personal inbox. "It's disappointing. Things take on a life of their own," he says. "It's as if we were trying to somehow protect Neil. It's just totally wrong."

Bottomly and Engelberg admit that the paper didn't move aggressively after receiving the tip, and they each take blame for that.

"Who could have made a difference here?" Bottomly asks. "I'm one of those people... I should have helped make it more of a priority, pushed for updates along the way... The news was in our hands, and we weren't aggressive enough."

It was the headline rather than the story under it that sparked readers' ire, Bottomly says. "That's obviously the one thing that readers really focused on and we were wrong... It's possible if readers see the word 'affair' in the headline they might see that as an indication we're downplaying the seriousness of what occurred, but I don't think the story read like that."

"I take issue that it was sympathetic to Goldschmidt," Engelberg says. "In the cold light of day, that story makes me want to throw up... Where would you walk off thinking he is a good guy?"

The matter of getting scooped wasn't something most critics dwelled on. Though some, like former Wall Street Journal editor Taylor, found it lamentable that the paper had the tip for so long and was still beaten to the punch. "If I'd heard of it, my God, I would have pulled out all the stops," he says. "They didn't... And then when it was given to them, they did a very poor job reporting it."

On a competitive beat, says Engelberg, you get a lot of stuff everyday — at the time the Goldschmidt tip came in, he says, they had learned of two similar rumors. "If you're any good at all, you discover when you're beaten on a story that you know something. If you walked left instead of right, you would be the hero... I could have had Iran/Contra nine months before everyone else. It's always damn clear in retrospect."


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