The Story Behind the Story
How a 30-year secret involving one of Oregon’s most powerful figures finally came to light. How a feisty alt-weekly made it happen. And how the state’s dominant newspaper stumbled along the way.
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor
On Friday May 7, a troubled Oregonian columnist made his way to the paper's morning news meeting. Steve Duin wasn't a regular at these newsroom powwows. But the day before, Portland's veritable kingmaker, former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, had admitted to the paper that in the 1970s, when he was 35 and the city's mayor, he had had an ongoing sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl.
Such a stunner would make for an interesting news meeting on a good day. But, to Duin, this day was anything but. The headline stripped across the Oregonian's front page parroted the term Goldschmidt had used in his confession: "affair." As in: "Goldschmidt confesses '70s affair with girl, 14." To Duin, when you're dealing with "14," you're not dealing with "affair."
Aggravating him further was the coinciding editorial. To Duin's disgust, it took the tack that the real tragedy here was Oregon's loss of a great politician. "Even now," the editorial summed up, "it is painful to watch him leave."
And to make matters worse, the Oregonian, the biggest paper in the Northwest, had been beaten on the story by a Portland alt-weekly. Though Goldschmidt did confess to the Oregonian, his unburdening that Thursday came just hours after Willamette Week confronted him with questions about the girl. When the Oregonian's story posited that Goldschmidt's "deteriorating health" and impending "media accounts of the affair" were equal parts responsible for provoking the confession, many journalists in town cried foul, saying that not only wasn't that fair to Willamette Week, it wasn't an accurate portrayal of the day's events. The weekly had been far ahead on the story and had posted its account the day before the Oregonian published its piece.
So Duin headed to the newsroom's meeting area, known affectionately as "The Well," to gauge, as he calls it, "the mood of the body politic." People were gathered around, gazing at that day's front page, with its tightly cropped image of Goldschmidt's somber, downcast expression. "They were talking about the grief on his face, the human element of the press conference, what it was like to see Neil in this setting, to watch him crumble and fall apart," Duin recalls. "I kinda lost it.
"That wasn't what we should be focusing on at that point--how this tragedy was impacting Neil. How about how it was impacting the girl? I made the Catholic priest analogy--we would not be talking about the grief or the emotions of the priest."
Duin thought the tone of that day's coverage seemed "reverential" to Goldschmidt; the timbre of this meeting only underscored that. As he continued to express his discontent, he added the one thing, the last thing, that anyone at the Oregonian ever wants to hear. "You had to realize," he said later, recalling the meeting, "that to the guy on the street, this might look like Packwood all over again. That we haven't changed at all since we covered Packwood."
Invoking the "P" word at the Oregonian is not to be taken lightly. In 1992, when the Washington Post broke the story of Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood's woman-grabbing tendencies, even though Oregonian reporters and editors had heard from at least one accosted woman-- and even though Packwood forced a kiss on an Oregonian politics reporter--it was the lowest point in the paper's modern history (see Free Press, January/February 1993).
In 2000, on the occasion of the Oregonian's 150th birthday, Duin had synopsized the paper's high and low points in a story. In regards to the low, he wrote: "Mistakes? We've made a few. Packwood is the mistake with legs." Continuing, "Not because the eventual breaking of the story generated a bumper sticker--If it matters to Oregonians, it's in The Washington Post--or merits a mea culpa, but because the Packwood story symbolized the newspaper's missed opportunities and loss of reputation."
By spring 2004, with Packwood nearly 12 years behind it, the Oregonian had earned back its reputation and then some. In 1993, a new editor, Sandra Mims Rowe, arrived to kick the paper from its defeated funk by reconfiguring the newsroom and reinvigorating its sense of possibility (see "A Brand New Ballgame," November 1994, and "Riding High," March 2000). The paper snared a Pulitzer in 1999, then followed it up in 2001 with two more. Packwood was a hazy, distasteful memory, or as Duin wrote in the birthday story, a symbol, a landmark for how far the paper had come.
So at that Friday morning meeting, when Duin conjured the specter of Packwood on a story with a similarly potent mix of politics and sex and harm, he touched a nerve.
Though this situation's similarities to Packwood are largely in the eye of the beholder, what most people agree on is that the Oregonian's initial strides in covering Goldschmidt's scandal were not among its finest. And the story of how this story, hushed for nearly 30 years yet within the grasp of many Oregon media organizations, finally saw light leaves plenty of culpability to go around.
About 20 years ago, a 40-something Phil Stanford was typing away at his column in the Oregonian's downtown newsroom. As he worked, he caught a snippet of conversation drifting by – something about Neil Goldschmidt, a girl..a rape. "A woman drunk in a bar telling stories about the most powerful guy in the state," he recalls. "It seemed like an impossible thing." He kept typing.
Though he ignored it then, that overheard chatter lodged in Stanford's mind and occasionally, through the years, it surfaced. He'd perhaps turn to whomever he was drinking next to and ask, Goldschmidt and a young girl? A rape? Ever hear anything like that? And once, at the Virginia Café, a dark and history-laden watering hole frequented by Portland lawyers, someone actually answered, yeah, he'd heard that. But, the man cautioned, it was rape, but not like you think – a younger girl.
Again, Stanford didn't pursue it. "I still had no idea how young," he says.
Stanford, who'd been with the Oregonian for nine years, was pushed out in 1993 as the paper's new leadership came on board. In 2001 he joined a fledgling twice-weekly, free paper called the Portland Tribune. Last fall he wrapped up a book project, "Portland Confidential," about the city's secret mobbed-up past.
"I thought, 'What's next? What's the next big secret?'" says Stanford, now 62. He thought about the one that had rattled around in his head all those years and returned to the guy who'd confirmed it that evening at the Virginia Café. "I ask him more about it and I got more," he says. The name of the girl. That there were papers detailing a settlement of sorts in a nearby county.
In Washington County he pulled a conservatorship document that showed that a fund had been set up to help the girl, now a woman, take care of herself. Though the ex-governor's name appeared nowhere, the papers showed the girl had gotten money from an injury sustained over a three-year period in the '70s, when Goldschmidt was mayor and she would have been 14, well within Oregon's limits for statutory rape.
This time, Stanford kept at it. Someone he chatted up at a vintage clothing store pointed him toward a roommate of the victim from the time Goldschmidt was governor. The roommate remembered her friend "would come home..in the morning, call the governor, and scream, 'You raped me. You owe me,'" Stanford says.
At this point, "I knew with moral certainty this was true," Stanford says. "I had to try to find out how to make this libel-proof."
So he called the woman. After he explained his business, she handed the phone to her husband and "I could hear her howling" in the background, Stanford says. "I knew I could not force this thing." He then tried her mother, who was working for the government overseas. She never responded.
Frustrated, depressed and seeing nothing but brick walls, Stanford stalled. "I was sort of stuck. I didn't know what to do," he says. "I thought I'd end up writing a damn novel about it."
But instead an idea struck him of how some good might come of his findings, an idea that would make most journalism ethicists cringe. As the new year approached, so did Goldschmidt's nomination hearing for a seat on the Oregon Board of Higher Education. At the same time he was under the gun for taking home nearly $1 million as a consultant for the State Accident Insurance Fund. At least one state senator, Vicki Walker, wanted to use the hearing to grill the ex-governor on what he did to earn that money.
Stanford called up Walker, saying, "I know something you ought to know." He then mailed her the conservatorship documents.
"I was hoping she could figure out a way to use it to force Goldschmidt to admit it," Stanford says. Walker didn't. But she gave it to someone who could.
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