"We failed you": Former Oregonian editor apologizes to woman allegedly attacked by Wu

Kari Chisholm FacebookTwitterWebsite

Over at ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization, managing editor Stephen Engelberg has a powerful and deeply personal reflection in the aftermath of David Wu's resignation. He recounts his long-standing opposition to pursuing allegations of sexual misbehavior - and how he's changed his mind.

He also breaks some news about what happened inside the Oregonian news room with regard to David Wu.

In 2002, Engelberg joined the Oregonian as managing editor. That put him in position to fail, very badly, in missing the Neil Goldschmidt scandal.

Within a year, I was part of the management team that bungled one of the most significant sex scandals one could imagine: The story of how a former governor and Carter-administration cabinet secretary had preyed on a teenage girl and covered up his misconduct. Neil Goldschmidt was the golden boy of Oregon politics, a kingmaker with the darkest secret imaginable. We had a plausible tip on the story, but failed to follow up, allowing a competitor, Willamette Week, to break the story and win a Pulitzer Prize.

The Oregonian had also failed earlier to report the Bob Packwood scandal, despite having solid tips. After the Goldschmidt failure, Engelberg writes:

I pushed the Oregonian's reporters and editors to run to ground every tip relating to sexual misconduct by a public official.

And that new emphasis led them to David Wu. In 2004, they began an effort to follow up on a tip about the 1976 sexual assault allegation.

But over several months, reporters Laura Gunderson, Dave Hogan, and Jeff Kosseff improbably tracked down witnesses who were willing to go on the record. They found Leah Kaplan, an 82-year old former therapist at Stanford who had counseled the woman and was suffering from a fatal illness. Kaplan, still angered by the incident, breached patient confidentiality and said that she had pressed Stanford officials to take disciplinary action against Wu. ...

Just a few weeks before the election, we had a story ready for publication. Wu hired a lawyer who ferociously counter-attacked, threatening to sue the Oregonian if any story were published. Neither Wu nor the lawyer would answer questions about the incident, but they contacted Kaplan's family and made it clear they were prepared to hold the dying woman legally accountable for her conduct. Wu's campaign manager said the candidate would never respond to "unsubstantiated allegations."

Wu, of course, won re-election. And yet, there was more.

Over the next few months, we heard other stories from other women. None was willing to go on the record. It appeared to us that Wu's aggressive conduct with women may have continued deep into his adulthood. But we were unable to prove it.

In 2008, he left the Oregonian to become ProPublica's managing editor.

And then came the bombshell disclosure that an 18-year old woman, daughter of a political supporter, had called Wu's offices and left a voice mail stating that she had been the victim of a coercive sexual encounter with him the previous Thanksgiving.

And now, Wu has resigned. And Engelberg apologizes to the woman whom Wu allegedly assaulted last fall:

I apologize to the teenager whose distraught call is said to describe a traumatic experience at the hands of a 56-year-old member of Congress. Despite our best efforts, we failed you. Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that sex can be a legitimate arena for investigative reporting. It certainly was in the case of David Wu.

Discuss. (Hat tip to Sarah Mirk at the Mercury.)

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    "Over the next few months, we heard other stories from other women. None was willing to go on the record. It appeared to us that Wu's aggressive conduct with women may have continued deep into his adulthood. But we were unable to prove it."

    so now, years later, with 1 accuser coming forward, someone from the Oregonian is finally saying there was more? but doing so with no facts? i'm assuming at least one other woman will come forward before too long; that usually happens -- when these accusations are true. but this "admission" is just as disturbing as the cover-up. he failed to follow thru on stories as an editor, and now he's leveling charges without facts and what? expecting his reputation to convince us? whatever Wu's done aside, one thing we know even better now: our local "major" newspaper is not a source of trustworthy reporting.

    they didn't fail just this young woman. they've failed all of us. but i think we knew that anyway. and a mea culpa for someone with a guilty conscience won't change that one bit.

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    The interesting question is whether any of those women who didn't want to go public are now sorrow they didn't. Or all they still glad they didn't subject themselves to the publicity, loss of privacy and potential attacks on their integrity that often accompany "going public" in these cases.

    We are still a long way from having a handle on how to best handle these situations.

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      Jack, I have long read your comments here. Though I sometimes agree and sometimes disagree, I consider your input worth reading. So it bothered me when I read your column a few months ago about the 9-year-old girl who told detectives, and then recanted, a revelation that her father was sexually abusing her. Her father has been convicted of sexually abusing another child, though not this particular daughter.

      Neither you nor I will ever know the truth about what happened in that home. I tend to think her family was acting out a typical dysfunction in which the mother made her recant and deny abuse that was very likely happening, given the father's creeptastic tendencies with children.

      It seemed to me at the time that you were throwing the girl under the bus to score political points against John Kroger when you said she had “wrongly accused” her father. It’s true that there was no conviction following her accusations, but there’s a very real possibility that there’s a now-grown girl out there who rightfully told the truth about a horrible secret and then was told she was "wrong" -- by her parents, by attorneys, by elected officials, by political foes of elected officials, by Oregonian columnists, etc.

      Your comment today about the women who may have been in compromising situations with David Wu seem sympathetic to the backlash that women face when they come forward with accusations. I’m not sure whether you see that the 9-year-old girl experienced that backlash herself. But in any case, I’m sorry that I overstated things when I said at that time that it was creepy that you were siding with her dad. I think you were thinking more politically than personally at the time. Careless, maybe, but probably not creepy.

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        Very well said Jennifer.

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        The issue in that case was the conditions under which the girl was questioned, i.e., by a DHS (not school) official and in the presence of an uniformed sheriff's deputy. After denying the accusations for an hour, she then recanted and, as she later claimed, "told them what they wanted to hear" so that she wouldn't miss her bus.

        The legal questions before the court, and which Kroger was defending, was whether that form of questioning was appropriate. The Supreme Court subsequently punted and so we still don't know.

        If, in fact, her recantation was false and the accusation correct, then all the greater tragedy that the manner in which the interrogation took place caused the charges ultimately to be dropped.

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    "We Failed You ..."

    Sounds more like the Oregon Democratic message to the citizens of Congressional District 1 for ignoring, defending and enabling David Wu for more than a decade.

    stand by while I don flame-retardant suit...

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      Careful... I don't think that suit is gonna protect you from the flames shooting out your nether regions.

      Unless, of course, you have some evidence that Oregon Democrats had more knowledge of what is alleged to have been happening than the Oregonian did.

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    I don’t know who knew what about the sex scandal, should we learn any actual verifiable facts of other people knowing about this and not saying anything, or covering up after the fact that would be bad. Who knows.

    But I do know that many knew about the “weird behavior” including sending e-mails to staffers in the voice of his children, sending a picture of himself to staff members dressed in a tiger suit, talking his way into the secure area of PDX to politically evangelize, and taking prescription drugs without a prescription. It wasn’t that long ago that he took so much Ambien and Valium that he ended up in the hospital. And it got so bad that at one point his own staff asked that he seek psychiatric help. Unfortunately not a single one of his staffers or anyone else in the democrat party that was aware of these things going on decided to step up at the time and let the public know, so that wu could get the help that he clearly needed. I know the political reasons, they were afraid that would mean that wu would lose in the very close race between him and Rob Cornilles. But within weeks after these problems occurred, this incident described as “aggressive, unwanted” sexual encounter by this girl occurred. Had people stood up and said there was a problem earlier, maybe it could have been avoided. And that lack of coming forward about all the other problems until after the election and this young woman was hurt, that could still bite the whole democrat party at least a little bit.

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    I think that the Democratic Party can use this as a time to reflect and decide if character matters.

    The Oregonian failed us, but so did the Democratic Party for aiding and abetting character assassination against accusers of your candidates and nominees. I remember the Clinton years when any woman who brought up accusations was subjected to personal attacks and ridicule.

    Now we have another example in a long line of Democrats behaving badly. Fortunately for the 1st district, you all had already decided to throw Wu under the bus. Otherwise, I am certain that Oregon's Democrats would be closing ranks around him and trying to shoot the messenger.

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      Nice logic there.

      We would be defending him if we hadn't already decided to stop defending him?

      See: tautology.

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      Wu was never "on the bus" so we couldn't throw him "under" it.

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      I don't even know where to begin with this post... On Character Mattering: Who is arguing the opposite? Strawman. Character Assassination: Overgeneralization. This one is a real mess. So only Democrats defend their own? Or are you honestly saying that an event that happened a decade ago has much bearing on this one? I wasn't aware that anyone had attacked Wu's accuser...

      Long line of Dems acting badly: Another false equivalency. There has been a long line of POLITICIANS acting badly, which pretty much goes back to paleolithic times where certain chiefs used their power to influence the young girls of the tribe. If you really, really, want we could go into a contest to see which party has a longer list of politicians getting caught in scandals, and I have a hunch that it isn't the Dems that would win that. But I'd rather focus on what needs to be done rather then making baseless attacks based on party affiliation.

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