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     


On Sunday, May 9, the Oregonian's editorial page, still under fire for Friday's editorial bemoaning Goldschmidt's political demise, ran a column by a man, Bob Burtchaell, identifying himself as a Willamette Week founder. Burtchaell scolded his old publication for investigating Goldschmidt, saying, "This story should never have been written because there is no possible good that can come from it." The paper failed to mention that Burtchaell was Goldschmidt's liaison to the girl. That same day, another Oregonian opinion piece, this one by Associate Editor David Reinhard, concluded: "[T]he news of Goldschmidt's relationship with a high-school girl wasn't what was so sickening... What's truly sickening is that some sewer dwellers would dredge up and publish this 'news.'"

Rowe admits the Burtchaell slipup hurt: "It's unfortunate that — very unfortunate — that we did not know Bob Burtchaell's full role. That certainly fed into criticism of us."

Editorially, the Oregonian has always firmly backed Goldschmidt. Beyond endorsing him in elections, the paper's editorial voice pumped up Goldschmidt like an admirer and occasionally a defender. Take an editorial from this January during a nomination hearing for the state higher education board. The legislators were "sharply questioning Goldschmidt's integrity and ethics, and rudely dismissing [the nominees] as clubby political insiders," the editorial read. "We're not against asking nominees hard questions... Yet it wasn't necessary for Sen. Vicki Walker..to spend more than an hour alternately mixing legitimate questions with snarky comments."

"It was an embarrassing, awful night for public service in Oregon," the editorial concluded. "These are all outstanding people."

"They've been incredibly supportive of him and promoting of his career, editorially," says Richard Aguirre, state editor of Salem, Oregon's Statesman Journal, who believes the Oregonian's longtime allegiance made Goldschmidt's confession to the paper a no-brainer. "Willamette Week is like a pack of dogs after him, and he wasn't going to talk to them. The Oregonian would be more sympathetic to him, and I think that was reflected in the initial coverage. I'm convinced he went to the outlet he thought would be most understanding."

"It's fair to say we supported him politically over the years," says Editorial Page Editor Caldwell, whom Goldschmidt's PR man first called to arrange the confession. But Caldwell says the paper's support did not result in soft-pedaling Goldschmidt's crime. "It's possible to believe Neil Goldschmidt had a huge positive impact on the community, and it's also possible to believe this act had a huge negative impact on another human being. Both things are the truth."

Though Caldwell believes the controversial first editorial did acknowledge the seriousness of the allegations, he says that Goldschmidt's storied career in Portland was foremost on the minds of those writing it. "In the time that you have to react, it's true we knew more about Neil Goldschmidt's career than we did any other aspect, so it's what we focused on. It's an important element of the story. This is not Uncle Harry."

Still, on May 11, a second editorial reconsidered those heat-of-the-moment conclusions, stating, "He was, indeed, an extraordinary leader, as we said here Friday. But our critics are correct in noting that we did not adequately address the wreckage Goldschmidt caused in the life of the girl he seduced."

The Register-Guard in Eugene waited a day before offering readers a scathing Saturday editorial on Goldschmidt that opened: "Shed no tears for Neil Goldschmidt." Paul Neville, the paper's associate editorial page editor, says the extra time "allowed us to be a little more circumspect" than the Oregonian. Neville explains that when the editorial board met on Friday, "there was a very strong feeling that we look squarely at what Goldschmidt had done, the fact that this was a 35-year-old man at the time who had a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl and apparently caused substantial damage to her life."

At the time of his confession, Goldschmidt, then 63, had enjoyed more than 30 years as one of Oregon's most influential and admired citizens. As a 30-something mayor of Portland, he promoted transportation projects and economic development that, to this day, are recognized for transforming the city into a desirable place to live and work. And during those years, as his political career led him to Washington as Jimmy Carter's transportation secretary and then back to Oregon as governor, whispers of marital infidelities trailed him all the way.

Just about every journalist had heard the rumors. And because both the admiration and the womanizing tales were so ingrained in community lore, some figure it's likely that if a rumor flared up about Goldschmidt regarding a woman, it would probably have been dismissed as more of the same old thing.

In fact, in the 1980s, when Oregonian reporter Brent Walth worked for Willamette Week with Jim Redden, a reporter who's now with the Portland Tribune, the two heard plenty about Goldschmidt's stepping out — including a rumor about this specific woman. Drinking one night at the Virginia Café, Redden even saw her: "Someone turned to me, pointed to a table close to the front, saying, 'Do you want to see someone who's had an affair with Neil Goldschmidt?' I turned toward the door and looked. I saw a blonde..screaming at some guy. I thought it was recently — that she was a grown woman who'd just done this."

Rick Seifert believes that reporters tapped into what he calls "the political class," a strata of movers and shakers, would be more inclined to see celebrated politicians like Goldschmidt for what they are. Because the Oregonian doesn't have a great handle on this class, theorizes Seifert, a Portland Community College journalism teacher, it tends to give it "a free ride." No stranger to criticizing the Oregonian — in 1992, after the Packwood debacle, Seifert printed the now-infamous "If it matters to Oregonians, it's in the Washington Post" bumper stickers — Seifert says, "I frankly think any metropolitan newspaper worth its salt needs to infiltrate that class and expose it."

Rob Smith, editor of the Business Journal of Portland — part of a company owned by Newhouse's Advance Publications, which also owns the Oregonian — understands Goldschmidt's spell. At the time the scandal broke, the Business Journal was preparing a 20th-anniversary package that would anoint the city's 20 most influential executives of the past 20 years. Goldschmidt had a prestige spot on the list and editors were forced into some serious soul-searching about whether or not to take him off after learning his secret. They ended up removing him from the list and explaining the tough choice in an editor's note.

Still, Smith calls the Oregonian's handling of the story "pretty deplorable." "They basically let Neil speak without a lot of context or tough questioning of him," he says. "I can sympathize with the shock and awe, but from a paper that purports to be what it is, I think the city of Portland deserved a more thoughtful and measured response."

Among journalists, a contentious aspect to the Oregonian's first-day story was the perceived dearth of credit for Willamette Week.

Not that the Oregonian didn't mention the paper at all. In the third paragraph, while explaining why Goldschmidt finally confessed, the story states: "He said deteriorating health — heart arrhythmia and blocked arteries — and knowledge that media accounts of the affair were about to unfold, made him come forward." Willamette Week gets specific mention in the 31st paragraph: "Local newspapers, including The Oregonian, have been looking into the affair. Willamette Week sent Goldschmidt questions about the affair and published a story on its Web site Thursday that describes the relationship. The Portland Tribune also was working on the story."

Critics say that doesn't begin to explain the reality of the situation. "The only complaint I have of the Oregonian is they didn't give credit where credit was due," says Aguirre of the Statesman Journal. "It's sleazy and unprofessional... It would enhance [the Oregonian's] credibility" to credit the weekly.

Oregonian editors argue the notion of credit is petty and certainly not the news of the day — that, Rowe says, was obviously Goldschmidt's admission, the Oregonian's exclusive. Moreover, the idea that Goldschmidt came to the Oregonian hoping for kid-glove treatment is absurd, she says. "Do you think someone's going to go to the largest newspaper in the state or an alternative weekly? Our only agenda is to get good stories and get them into the paper without spin. I think time will show the Oregonian didn't pull any punches."

"It isn't about the Oregonian and what it knew, and it's not about Willamette Week, no matter what they think," Rowe adds.

Jim Moore, a political analyst who does commentary for a number of Portland radio stations, says that after reading Willamette Week's piece online Thursday night, the first thing he did Friday morning when he got his Oregonian was flip through, looking for mention of the alt-weekly. He didn't find much. "They had a story that left out the prologue or the back story of how we got to where we are," he says.

And Jacob Lewin, a reporter for KINK-FM, calls the Oregonian's omission "dishonest." "What matters is Goldschmidt's reason for coming forward. It's the 'why.' You won't find that in the Oregonian until the 31st graph. It's extremely misleading."

Adds the Business Journal's Smith: "If you just woke up that day, you'd think the Oregonian had that story."

Oregonian Managing Editor for News Bottomly questions whether Willamette Week beat her paper on the story. "If Goldschmidt had not come forward, how soon would they have published?" she asks. "I don't take anything away from Willamette Week. I'm sure they're very unhappy Goldschmidt came to us. I'm sure they felt very stung and we ended up getting it in newsprint first."

But not everyone in the Oregonian newsroom feels that way. One reporter who worked on the story and was afraid to speak on the record says, "There's great angst in the newsroom about a lack of graciousness and exaggeration of our knowledge and pursuit of the story."

In the Oregonian's Friday morning news meeting, when Steve Duin worried that Goldschmidt might become known as Packwood Part Two, Dee Lane felt obligated to step forward and slap that down. If anyone knows the embarrassment of Packwood, it's Lane, who, after the Washington Post story broke, had to pick up the Oregonian's dropped ball.

"It's the same only in that it's a public figure, it's about sex and we got beat," says Lane, now the Oregonian's Portland editor. "That's where the connection ends." With Packwood, she says, editors flat-out knew the senator harassed women, one in their own office no less, and, with eyes open, they passed on a story that could have affected his re-election. With Goldschmidt, "Pure and simple, it was a story we were beat on," she says, adding that though Goldschmidt brings back bad memories, "the consequences are different, the impact of the story is different. The whole systemic nature of the Packwood problem is not there.

"There was not an editor who wanted to go soft on Goldschmidt. There is nobody who, for lack of a better example, didn't get it as there was with Packwood. One was a failure to execute, the other a breach of public trust."

Engelberg and Arrieta-Walden point to the skeptical treatment the paper gave Goldschmidt's deals with SAIF, the state insurance fund, as proof that, institutionally, the Oregonian spared Goldschmidt nothing. "For us to be judged solely or largely on the mishandling of this story does a disservice to a lot of fine work," Engelberg says.

Sandy Rowe sees Goldschmidt as a series of "missteps." No more. As the editor who stepped in after Packwood to erase the residual tarnish, she knows that failure certainly left a mark. But the paper has moved beyond that, she says. "Is this the same place? No. Are these the same people? No. [With Goldschmidt] editors immediately said go for it. It's not the same. There is nothing to be ashamed of here.

"When I came here the newsroom was demoralized and didn't believe in itself. What you have now is 300-plus people believing we really can keep getting better... Whenever I feel we aren't as good as we can be, it's disappointing. And this is one of those times."

That seems to be the Oregonian consensus, and, aside from the paper's harshest critics, a view held outside the paper as well. Though the Packwood and Goldschmidt stumbles share eerie similarities, deeper consideration shows that while Goldschmidt exposed certain Oregonian flaws, none were as insidious as those Packwood did.

"In state, the initial anger over the [Goldschmidt] coverage was in part due to a perception of the powerful protecting the powerful," says University of Oregon Journalism Dean Tim Gleason. Though that's a "credibility issue" the paper must address, he calls the Packwood comparison unfair. "They were watching the fall of a major political figure in the state. I don't think they stepped backward and said wait a minute..that's hardly uncommon."

The Packwood barbs flabbergast Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Amanda Bennett, the Oregonian's managing editor for enterprise until September 2000. "I've been reading the stuff on Romenesko and it's such a crock, and it does not reflect in any way what that place is like... I don't know what is happening there, but what happened is not this."

Packwoodesque or not, the Goldschmidt story put some at the Oregonian on notice that even when you're the biggest game in town, you can't breathe easy. Though editors reject charges that their initial coverage went soft, clear lessons are emerging in the Goldschmidt dénouement — foremost, that the paper must act with more urgency, rev its competitive spirit, play hungrier.

"I think it caused people to wake up and sort of recognize what would have been obvious if we had daily competition," says Engelberg.

Aguirre of the Statesman Journal used to work at the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald, where, he says, staffers considered the Dallas Morning News "the big, lumbering beast." "Sometimes," he says, "I think of the Oregonian as a big lumbering beast. Their position is: It's news when we report it."

The Oregonian — and every Oregon paper — -Aguirre says, should have asked more questions.

Gleason speculates that readers aren't only disappointed in the Oregonian, but at "everyone involved in journalism in our state." "Why didn't we know this before? You presented to us one Neil Goldschmidt when there was this other Neil Goldschmidt we didn't know anything about."

Steve Duin sees painful truth there.

In a state, in a city, at a paper so taken with Neil Goldschmidt, the columnist says, everyone "stepped back" when it came to him. "Simply because he was involved, everyone got out of the way. [We weren't] self-critical about our perspective of Neil...

"Including me," Duin says. "Please underline the including me. To me, the much bigger story is the free pass almost everyone in town gave Neil Goldschmidt for years."

The Oregonian's Friday morning paper symbolized the paper's failure "to take real measure of Neil Goldschmidt," Duin says. "He sort of took advantage. He seduced us all."

Hopefully, next time, the Oregonian will see more clearly, challenge the institutions, aggressively chase the seemingly impossible story, he says.

"However you grade us on Neil Goldschmidt, the real test for us is confronting our next blind spot."


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