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Dubious Achievements:
The Oregonian 1974-1999
At times, Portland's daily has been
practically indefensible.

BY PAUL KOBERSTEIN

Of all the institutions that have shaped this city in the past 25 years, the one that has received the least attention from the largest newspaper in this state is the largest newspaper in this state.

Willamette Week has taken special pride in covering the dubious achievements of The Oregonian, which is owned by the Newhouse family, a dynasty that controls one of the largest media empires in the world. Of course, the Big O has had some journalistic triumphs. Its 1990 investigation of Dominion Capital, a shady mortgage broker, led to a state probe of racketeering and federal charges of mail fraud. And earlier this year, reporter Richard Reed was deservedly honored with journalism's highest tribute--a Pulitzer. But the $400 million-a-year company has had its share of fits and starts. Below is an effort to help you read between the lines.

1975
July 2--The Oregonian's editorial page blasts Gov. Bob Straub for killing what the paper calls the "safe and sensible" Mount Hood Freeway, which would have devastated several Southeast neighborhoods. Eventually, the freeway is sacrificed for light rail, a decision the paper now applauds.

July 20--Fred A. Stickel, 53, then The Oregonian's general manager, is promoted to president and publisher.

1976
July--WW offers a discouraging account of The Oregonian's affirmative-action record. Only one African-American and one woman are among the 16 top newsroom executives. The record later improved significantly. Future editors would include an African-American, William Hilliard; and a woman, Sandra Mims Rowe.

1979
June--The Oregonian refuses to publish a full-page ad for the Union of Concerned Scientists. The ad, pointing out safety problems at nuclear plants after Three Mile Island, is published by the New York Times, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and others.

1980
Oct. 19--A front-page retraction, "Ray interview full of inaccuracies," tells Sunday Oregonian readers that editorial writer Wayne Thompson had fabricated quotes in a profile of Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray. Thompson said he wrote the story from memory after his tape recorder failed. Unbeknownst to him, Ray also taped the session; her machine worked. Thompson gets his job back after a two-month suspension.

1982
April--Stickel names Hilliard and Robert Landauer co-executive editors. Hilliard eventually would win a power struggle between the two, with Landauer relegated to heading the Editorial Page.

Aug. 8--Twenty years after purchasing the Oregon Journal, the Newhouse chain announces it will shut down the afternoon daily. Sinking for years under declining readership and ad revenues, the Journal nonetheless was the more lively (at times sensational) of the two papers. The Journal's demise silenced a leading liberal voice in the state. In essence, the paper that endorsed Dewey, Nixon and Reagan had swallowed the paper of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Carter.

1983
January--The Oregonian finally drops "With all the features of the Oregon Journal" from its masthead, four months after the merger.

1984
The Oregonian moves its FoodDay publication date to Tuesday, the same day This Week, a free shopper competing for advertising dollars, is delivered to area homes. Newhouse purchases This Week in 1986 and kills it in 1995.

1985
May--Columnist Jonathan Nicholas is suspended without pay for "representing material from the New Yorker Magazine as his own," Hilliard writes in a letter to Oregonian readers. A Nicholas column on May 15 had plagiarized a "Talk of the Town" item from the May 6 New Yorker concerning events in Nicaragua.

November--The "New One-Cup Edition" of The Oregonian appears on newsstands. Hyped as "Hot news for busy people," the emphasis on short stories imitates USA Today. An internal memo reveals the thinking behind the new look: Circulation is not keeping pace with population growth, and younger people are not reading the paper.

1986
August--The Oregonian introduces its new entertainment tabloid, A&E, only to be drawn into a legal dispute with the Hearst Corporation, owner of the cable channel by the same name. Both sides soon settle.

1988
February--Editors kill a Bloom County cartoon, apparently because it contains a reference to condoms. As the AIDS epidemic gains momentum, Stickel is already on record against running ads for condoms; he says they promote promiscuity.

October--A month before the presidential election, the paper drops a Cathy cartoon strip for a week because it criticizes Republicans on day care and urges voters to support Dukakis.

1989
The Oregonian destroys tens of thousands of copies of a Sunday paper because an article told readers how to sell their homes without a real-estate broker. News trucks on the road are ordered to return undelivered copies to the home office. Editors feared the story would have worsened relations between the paper and local brokers, so they spiked the story and demoted the editor in charge of it. (The Wall Street Journal would report the incident in February 1992 in an article that described how The Oregonian and other papers soften business coverage to appease advertisers. Today at The Oregonian, weekly sections about real estate and automobiles are produced by the advertising department.)

February--Greg Nokes, son of a previous editor, J. Richard Nokes, takes control of the investigative-reporting team and is rumored to be heir-apparent to Hilliard. Nokes would never reach the top job; eventually the "I-team" would be disbanded.

April--Newsroom sources tell WW that Stickel himself spiked a Phil Stanford column about a judge nodding off in court. Hilliard tells WW he knew nothing about the spiking. Two days later, he circulates a memo taking credit for the act.

1990
February--The Oregonian kills a story about the Arlington Club and its effort to delay action on a city ordinance requiring it to admit women. Stickel is a member of the club.

1991
March--Nokes, now an assistant managing editor, kills a cartoon by Jack Ohman showing Portland cops beating up on a jaywalker.

March--Higher-ups in the business section spike a column by Mike Francis critical of Fred Meyer's closure of two neighborhood stores.

April--Editors spike a Phil Stanford column on the ethics of Sen. Mark Hatfield.

May--After sitting on the news for 18 months, The Oregonian publishes an investigative piece by James Long about Roger Meier, chairman of the Oregon pension-fund board, who helped steer huge sums of money to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Co. in a leveraged buyout of Fred Meyer, a major Oregonian advertiser. After leaving the board, Meier collects $900,000 in a business deal arranged by KKR. Media critics speculate that The Oregonian published the piece only after it learned that the New York Times Sunday Magazine was preparing an article about Meier's dealings and The Oregonian's failure to report them.

September--Editors decide not to run Dave Barry's column about circumcision.

1992
June--Business reporter Nena Baker obtains confidential internal details about G.I. Joe's finances. Nokes strikes the information from a story on the retailer, an important Oregonian advertiser.

August--For the first time ever, The Oregonian endorses a Democrat for president: Bill Clinton.

November--A Steve Duin column chiding Bob Packwood is spiked.

Nov. 22--The Washington Post story, "Packwood accused of sexual advances," leads to the senator's resignation two years later, as well as to questions about The Oregonian, which failed to break the story. In his book Media Circus, Howard Kurtz of the Post says rumors about Packwood had been around for years, but the Portland daily had "proved almost comically inept in pursuing them." Soon, bumper stickers are seen around town proclaiming, "If it matters to Oregonians, it's in the Washington Post."

Dec. 4--The Oregonian stumbles again on the Packwood beat. This time, Packwood smooches its own Capitol Hill reporter. Mike Royko tells about the kiss in a column, which The Oregonian refuses to publish.

1993
April--Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., is named editor, replacing Hilliard, who retires. The hire is unusual for The Oregonian, which in the past has almost always promoted from within. Speculation abounds that The Oregonian's failure to break the Packwood story led to the management shakeup.

August--Peter Bhatia is hired from the Sacramento Bee as managing editor under Rowe, replacing retiring Peter Thompson.

1994
April--The paper retracts a Phil Stanford column about a man killed in a police raid. Stanford is reassigned to the cops beat. He quits the paper in October.

July--Kathie Durbin, a nationally award-winning reporter who was dropped from the environment beat, quits the paper, leaving the book Clearcut on her desk on her way out.

1995
August--Newhouse purchases the Business Journal chain, including the Portland Business Journal.

1997
August--Washington County Sheriff's deputies respond to a complaint about "two very drunk males in a vehicle...loud and cussing at each other." The driver of the parked vehicle turns out to be District Attorney Scott Upham, who, unlike his passenger, Deputy DA Robert Heard, isn't clearly soused. He is, however, belligerent, repeatedly telling the officer to shut up. Although The Oregonian is tipped off to the story and requests the sheriff's report, the paper never reports the incident. Two years later, a now-retired Upham is charged with drunken driving and leaving the scene of an auto accident.

July--Investigative work by WW's Bob Young produces the story behind the crash of an Air National Guard plane. The Oregonian's follow-up fails to credit Willamette Week for breaking the news.

1999
May 3--All the news was fit to shrink. The Oregonian reduces the width of its pages by an inch, meaning "a slight reduction in the space available for news" but also fewer trees cut down to deliver it.

Paul Koberstein is a former Oregonian reporter who now publishes the Cascadia Times.


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Willamette Week | originally published November 10, 1999

 

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