Is the Oregonian Unethical?

Dan Petegorsky

Let me begin with a stipulation: I'm neither a journalist nor am I especially knowledgeable about journalistic ethics. But I do find it upsetting when our state's major paper publishes letters that contain allegations and statements it knows to be flat out false.

In the wake of a judge's ruling last week that Sho Dozono violated the rules and thus could not be qualified to received public funding for his mayoral campaign, the Oregonian published a letter that claimed the following (“An absurd spectacle,” 3/22/08 – not available online as of this writing.)

"Now it seems that if a serious candidate attempts to run for office, the leading candidate (who is relying on unlimited private contributions) will join with marginal candidates (who are spending public funds) to ensure that there will be no effective competition."

The editors must know that two statements in this letter are false. First, Sam Adams, the "leading candidate," has voluntarily limited both his contributions and his spending. This is consistent with an earlier pledge that while he supported Voter Owned elections he would not run with the benefit of a system that he voted to implement. Instead, like Dan Saltzman in 2006, he is voluntarily limiting his contributions to $500 a person and his spending to the public financing ceiling. Second, the "marginal candidates" who filed formal complaints against Dozono are all running with private, not public funding.

Why would the Oregonian print such a letter? It's standard practice to print a full range of opinions, even ill-founded ones, but is it really in the public interest to perpetuate false information? Would the paper, for example, print a letter warning enthusiastic Barack Obama supporters to shun the candidate because of his Muslim religion, even after this falsehood has been thoroughly debunked? Or is it somehow kosher if the lies support the paper's editorial position, as is the case with Voter Owned Eections?

What are the ethics about knowingly publishing letters with false information – not controversial opinions, but specific, known-to-be-false claims? I’d like to hear from BlueOregon readers as well as from the Oregonian or other journalists/editors on this.

Comments

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)
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    I'm not certain where this rant comes from. I always thought that any paper's editorial page 9including letters to the editor) was a haven for opinion and many times was not supported by fact or empirical data. Maybe thats just me.

  • joeldanwalls (unverified)
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    Let's see, The O has probably published hundreds of letters repeating the canards that Saddam Hussein was linked to al-Qaida and was pursuing an atomic bomb. So--sorry, I think you're barking up the wrong tree.

    Beyond that matter, It would be useful to know if Mr. Petergorsky involved with the campaigns of any of the mayoral candidates or if he has publicly expressed a preference in the mayoral race.

    As Petergorsky mentions Sam Adams by name, but none of the other non-Dozono candidates, one might draw the inference that his actual intent here is to try to deflect attention from Adams' role in the challenge to Dozono.

    So let's hear it, Mt. Petergorsky: are you supporting any candidate in the mayoral race at this point in time? We already know that the person who maintains this website is an Adams supporter. I hope this website is not being used a a stealth promotional scheme for Adams.

  • Steve (unverified)
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    "Is the Oregonian Unethical?"

    Compared to Sam Adams, yes.

    When this VoE systems was installed, we all decided to let Blackmer decide who was legit.

    He decides Chris Smith violated rules, but Chris Smith gets to stay in. Not a peep from Adams.

    Blackmer decides to let Dozono stay in after violating rules and all of a sudden Adams decides to spend $10K of his own money to make sure the "right" outcome happens.

    You tell me why you are so upset with a letter to the editor?

  • Steve (unverified)
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    Sorry, my bile got the better of my typing.

    "Is the Oregonian Unethical?"

    Compared to Sam Adams, NO.

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    joeldanwalls:

    I'm not working with any of the mayoral campaigns, and as you can see from previous posts on BlueOregon have written critically about both the Adams and Dozono campaigns.

  • Emily George (unverified)
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    The short answer is yes, the Oregonian is unethical to print clearly false facts, but it happens all the time.

  • Emily George (unverified)
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    The short answer is yes, the Oregonian is unethical to print clearly false facts, but it happens all the time.

  • James X. (unverified)
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    Steve, Smith wasn't running against Adams. Adams isn't the free funder of lawyers for all, he just took on a case in which he was directly affected. Also, Adams doesn't get to decide who has followed the rules and who has not. The judge decided that. Adams' concerns had merit.

    Also, the "opinion" label is not a license to contradict established, empirically demonstrated facts. Take, as a recent high-profile example, Bill Kristol claiming Obama attended Wright's "God Damn America" sermon when he did not. As you can see, there's a correction now, because you're not allowed to claim such falsehoods, even as an opinion writer.

    But LTEs can be treated differently. If lots of uninformed letters come in claiming outrage based on falsehoods, should the newspaper reject all those letters and create the false impression that the outrage doesn't exist? Should the newspaper take the unusual step of rebutting those LTEs? Rebutting LTEs is often frowned upon, because the LTE section is meant to be a vehicle for the reader's voice. The publisher's voice has the whole rest of the publication as its vehicle.

  • (Show?)

    While working at newspapers, there were typically two schools of thought on this topic.

    The first was that letters that had obvious falsehoods were not printed. We didn't investigate every letter, but when it was obvious that it was false, such as the letter shown here, we didn't print it.

    The second was to print the letter with an editor's note correcting the obvious falsehoods. In this case, you'd point out Adams' limiting his campaign and that the other candidates are not running with public funding (assuming of course the info given above is correct - I don't know all the facts in these cases since I live outside Portland).

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    Dan, what I would consider unethical would be if the Oregonian did not print a letter responding to the letter you quote with the facts you adduce. Have you sent them such a letter? The do regularly print letters responding to previous letters. Evidently the letters section is much read so having a lively one is in their interest.

    Regarding your first point, I don't think it is strictly untrue. It would be more fairly put that Adams has "potentially unlimited" private funds, and even fairer to acknowledge that he has set limits for himself as you describe. But he could change those self-imposed limits, and sensu strictu he does have access to unlimited private funds in a way that publically funded candidates simply don't.

    Basically I don't see this piece of spin as very different from the kind of opinions traded about "Sho should haveknown/must have known & is being disingenuous/has to obey the rules" vs. "Sho didn't know/shouldn't be punished for someone else's actions."

    As to the second point, I don't personally have knowledge of who most of the other mayoral candidates are, much less how they are getting their funding. It may the that the letters editor of The Oregonian should know about their funding, but it would not surprise me if he or she did not. At the level of choices to print specific letters, this choice is made by a single editor, or possibly approved by one person based on recommendations from subordinates.

    I suspect that the letter was printed because it expresses the opinion that it is kind of sucky for Adams to play this kind of hardball politics to prevent competition rather than defeating it. There are obvious counterarguments which begin with the fact that Sho's loss in court does not actually mean he's out of the race, along with the one that whatever Adams' motives, it is necessary for the longer run health of VOE for Gary Blackmer's erroneous opinion to be reversed. But I think a lot of people who interpret these actions in light of probably pre-existing opinions that Sam Adams is too ambitious in the wrong sort of way, & that is what The O was wanting a letter to reflect.

    It would be interesting to know if The Oregonian>/i> has a policy regarding truthfulness of letters and if so what it is -- one could then evaluate the policy, and also whether this case and others fit it.

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    close italics. darn those pesky <'s anyway.

  • joeldanwalls (unverified)
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    it is necessary for the longer run health of VOE for Gary Blackmer's erroneous opinion to be reversed

    I used to support VOE, but right now I'd say, put a stake through its heart. The deception, manipulation and potential for fraud it was supposed to eliminate have instead become the highlights of the system.

    I think a lot of people who interpret these actions in light of probably pre-existing opinions that Sam Adams is too ambitious in the wrong sort of way...

    Or as my neighbor likes to put it, the most dangerous place to be in Portland is between Sam Adams and a camera.

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    I very much approve of the second school of thought Jenni mentions. It seems like a win/win to me.

    If I might distinguish it from what James said right above her comment, editorial correction of objective facts is quite different from editorially trying to tackle subjective sentiments such as outrage. I agree that the LTE section is meant to be a voice other than that of the newspaper. And with the exception of clear falsehoods editors ought not to meddle with letters.

  • James X. (unverified)
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    Newspapers rarely publish their editorial policies. I'm not sure why that is. All I can think of is that they don't think their policies would be popular, or that they don't want outsiders saying they're violating their own policies.

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    Kevin:

    Yea, when I was managing editor, that was my policy. If I knew it to be false, or one of my reporters pointed it out as such, we'd run an editor's note with the letter. If we didn't know, published it, and then got information about the falsehood later, we'd either run a LTE from someone else correcting it, or put in a little editor's note correction ourselves. It was an extreme rarity for us to not print a letter for any reason other than too many letters or lack of room.

    This way people still got to see what was coming into the paper, but we weren't passing along obvious untruths either.

  • James X. (unverified)
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    Kevin: I meant to suggest the idea of correcting falsehoods, not outrage. That is, if readers were outraged because they believed a falsehood, should the publication print the letters and then correct the falsehood?

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    Seems to me that the whole point of VOE is to open up the process to potential candidates who do not have access to networks of wealthy donors, and who do not wish to spend half of every campaign day "dialing for dollars."

    Viewed through that lens, I would say that the system seems to be working reasonably well, especially considering how new it still is. Human nature being what it is, people will try to find a way to game ANY system, but that doesn't mean this is a bad one -- only that perhaps it needs some fine tuning.

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    I think it's unethical of newspapers to print false data as fact, whether it's in a news story or in an opinion piece or letter.

    If the Oregonian was to print a false statement in a news article, they would be ethically responsible for printing an official correction when the error was brought to their attention.

    However, in the realm of the opinion page, all bets are off. Even when they print a response to a letter or opinion article, there's no call by the opinion editor as to whose facts are correct, so the dispute sits in the realm of the one person's word vs. anothers.

    I've gone back and forth with the editorial page editors and the paper's former public editor on this issue a few times in the past years, and the Oregonian's policy is that the opinion page is simply that: opinion. Facts are whatever who's writing says they are. Those opinions don't have to have any basis in reality or truth. They don't have to print a response to anything if they don't want to. And really, with columns and op-eds, does a letter to the editor refuting a fact get the same placement as the original piece?

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    Letters to the editor have far lower standards for accuracy than anything else in the paper--including opinion. The O checks to see if the letter-writer is real and verifies they've sent in a letter; beyond that the words of the writer are the writer's.

    If the comment were egregiously false (Obama's a Muslim, for example), I would expect the O to ignore the letter. But the standards are far different. Readers should know this, too--and let "reader beware" be their guide.

  • bye bye Smith (unverified)
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    Me-Me–Media Sam should remember that the vernacular names for the tram cars are “Up” and ”Yours”.

    The VOE is important. We are lucky to have it. We the public now own the election process. And we can consolidate that ownership with some positive, committed maintenance. Learn and adjust to the loopholes and mistakes as they appear. So what if things go wrong, things go wrong anyway. At least with the VOE they go wrong in public, not behind closed doors. It is very easy to follow the money. Instead of following our instinct for turning everything eventually into garbage, let’s take care of and nurture this process. At its worst, it’s a lot better than private, special interest money owning our election process. It belongs to us.

    Anybody that believes the O is much interested in what we think of as journalism or the truth, or truth and journalism together, is probably a David Reinhard fan.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if the O were run on the same philosophy as KBOO?

    This looks like a good start to me, a radio station and the local election process.

  • BOHICA (unverified)
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    Facts are whatever who's writing says they are.

    That's why David Reinhard keeps his job.

    During the Swiftboating of 2004, I stood outside the Oregonian with a cardboard sign that read: "Will fact check for food." They didn't take me up on it.

  • Warren (unverified)
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    If "TAX'em SAM" Adams becomes mayor, we're going to get tons of taxes heaped on us!

  • If it matters to Oregonians ... (unverified)
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    ... then you'll read it in The Washington Post.

    Never forget, The Oregonian buried the Bob Packwood scandal, which they'd known of for months, in the middle of a election cycle because they knew it would tank this Republican's re-election.

    So, is The Oregonian unethical? They've proved it. Which is why I dumped my subscription years ago and avoid reading it even now. Other papers have far better local coverage, and anything regional or beyond is covered far better online.

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    The O checks to see if the letter-writer is real and verifies they've sent in a letter...

    Actually, they don't even do that in every case any more. I had an emailed letter printed in Friday's paper (about David Reinhard's column on Rev. Wright) and they never called to verify it as they used to.

    Of course, they're probably pretty used to/sick of letters from my email address. A friend who saw it asked what my hit ratio was and I looked at my Out box and figured that this may have been the first or second LTE they've published out of something like 40 in the past three years. It's why I have a blog (where I've written something like 800 entries in the same period).

    I actually got an email back from Reinhard claiming that Wright's sermons sounded pretty "anti-American" to him, but then I'd have to ask what to the left of a GOP fax machine doesn't sound anti-American to David Reinhard?

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    Is the Oregonian unethical?

    Clearly the answer, as it is for every real world human organization, is "sometimes".

    I know this won't satisfy the purity troll brigade - the left's equivalent of smug right wing holier-than-thou church ladies. But it does for me.

    Further, when the Oregonian does err, I'm relatively satisfied that they do so in approximately equal measure. I loved that beautiful front page picture of Obama in relief in their reporting on his history making address about racial reconciliation. So much so, that I bought a second copy. But deep in my partisan heart, I also knew that it was editorialization plastered on the front page.

    Not so strangely, all the partisan hacks nursing their decades old charges of bias seem to have missed that. Nary a word here. Instead, they're talking about the Oregonian failing to police the assertions of letter writers who hold opinions different than theirs. As if the Oregonian's readers take letters to the editor as gospel.

    Oh, but purity trolls never see their own hypocrisy.

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    Funny, how some people seem to find complaints about bias in a discussion of the ethics of a newspaper allowing editorial pages to be used to spread facts that aren't facts.

    The exchange I linked to with the Oregonian's public editor, for instance, was about a syndicated James Lileks column in which he claimed that Sandy Berger had been trying to cover up Clinton administration failures when he destroyed copies of documents he'd taken from a national security archive, a claim that had been debunked long before the Oregonian printed the Lileks column.

    By printing the column, the Oregonian promoted the impression that an official in the Clinton administration had attempted to cover up a their failure to catch Osama bin Laden before the 9/11 attack. The claim was allowed to stand as if it were fact. No correction ever appeared.

    Now, I have no great love for the Clinton administration, but I didn't think the Oregonian should be giving a platform to people who are pushing lies couched in their opinion andy more than I think John McCain should be allowed to claim that Iran and al Qaeda are in league without correction.

  • Richard York (unverified)
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    I would think that most of the posters and respondents are over mature enough to understand both the First Amendment and politics in general.

    The Opinion page is for, guess what.....OPINIONS!!

    If all opinions were entirely based on facts, i.e. rational, half the problems of the world would disappear.

    Now the Oregonian is probably no better or worse than any other paper in the world when it comes to reporting the News. How many scandals have there been in the last ten years at The New York Times, a newspaper with resources which dwarf the Oregonian?

    Finally, people are prone to acting badly in their own self-interest. Sam Adams is no exception. I am not privy to Dozono's thought processes. But, it seems to me to be elementary common sense for a previously non-political person to try to determine if he or she has enough name recognition to run for an office. The poll is part of the decision making process a potential candidate must undertake in deciding to run for political office (note the word potential). It is not part of the election. And if the potential candidate can get someone else to pay for it, why wouldn't he?

    Frankly, the posting makes no sense to me. It seems to display a lack of understanding of how the press works, and, an extremely idealistic view of both humanity, in general, and politicians in particular. Dozono was probably naive, but Adams has been rather cynical about his application of the VOE law.

    Rick York

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    On only letter to the editor I ever sent, they did check back with me--but this was some years ago ('04?). I had my facts all ready for their verification, and was shocked to learn that they didn't verify anything but my name. So not I mainly read only letters from authors I know. Since dead-paper media has no hyperlinks, it's worse than the rumor circulating the internets...

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    The Opinion page is for, guess what.....OPINIONS!!

    Sure, but when someone writing their opinion about, say, whether we should go to war in Iraq or not states that there is incontrovertible evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- when in the real world there was no such evidence -- that goes beyond the realm of opinion.

    When someone writes on an op-ed page that Barack Obama is a Muslim or that Hillary Clinton killed her former law partner or that the US government planned the 9/11 attacks, those are not statements of opinion, they're assertions of fact. But they're all garbage.

    I don't care if people have different opinions than I do, but I won't stand back and let them spread lies and misinformation. Deride that as purity if you wish, I can live with it.

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    I feel like Richard R. and others here are missing the key point of my post. It's not that opinions writers present controversial opinions; of course they do. It's that papers like the Oregonian receive enormously more letters than they print, and the process of selecting what letters to print means that there is an editorial selection at work.

    Because of that, I think it's fair to raise the question of why an editor would select for print a letter that contains patently false information - especially when that 'information' serves to buttress a position that the paper's editorial board has been promoting with particular ferocity.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)
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    Our paper includes an editor's note when there is an issue of established fact or the issue is about relatively unknown facts. I have no idea if they cut letters out for inaccuracy.

  • bp (unverified)
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    <h2>I don't care what they do on their editorial page so much as the rest of the drivel they call news. Their reporters ignore facts and slant articles frequently. I know of so many cases of this, involving many different people, that I've given up reading the rag. At least Willamette Week is free and no one pretends it offers legit. news.</h2>

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