Saturday, June 23, 2007

Must We Say "Told You So?"

What did we say? We said if more stories on Betsy Johnson come out without any seeming reason for their appearance, start believing that it's not a coincidence of newsworthiness that's behind it. Yesterday The O (along with other outlets at least including KATU by personal observance) ran a short brief noting that Standards and Practices agreed to conduct an investigation into the filing of Johnson's required forms; we're not talking about that--there's a completely legitimate reason to run that story. The fact that this is almost literally the only thing Johnson has admitted fault for makes it a rather unexciting story overall, but it's certainly worth reporting.

The one we're talking about is a six-page (online) retrospective and review of the allegations against Johnson, also displaying further reportage on the pass-through issue and land-sale circumstances in the context of the airport's development history. They make a new allegation--that a previous developer with a similar plan as Ed Freeman's (the Johnson buyer), had his application denied because he wouldn't play ball with Johnson in opposing a gravel mine venture on the same land she would come to sell a decade later. We'll have more on this next week, but the Johnson family denies that threat was made, and contend that the applications compared were not the same either in purpose or quality. In fact they claim the denied application wasn't even clearly aviation-related, so that should give you an idea of the quality of this new charge by the paper.

But again, pull back from the nuts and bolts of the story--if only because the various charges and deals or bills under scrutiny make this such a complex case to discuss. The O's editors are not deaf and blind; they know very well what we've written and what deficiencies we've made clear in their reporting. They also have watched the WWeek's coverage--and one theory given by a longtime Oregon political reporter is that this all started with The O's panic at being scooped yet again by WWeek--and surely saw the latest attempt to push the story retracted in embarrassment. Do they really think this new allegation, or the continued strength of the existing ones, merits six more web pages? Or is someone expressing a strong desire to see this set of non-stories continue?

Ask yourself, for instance, why reporters from The O continue to refer to a "fast $119,000," noting both some element of speed and that it was at least $100,000 that Johnson made. Now we've said this many times: the costs of rezoning, replatting and resurveying the land over the years by Johnson reduced actual profit to the $45,000 range--a little less than 6% on the sale, certainly nothing outrageous even in three months. And The O knows it too; in the broad retrospective piece the reporter mentions deep in the story the $45,000 figure. But up front, above the fold as it were, he calls it a fast $119,000.

And guess what? So did the blurb announcing the investigation, the one that we linked above. But as you'll see now, the $45K figure has been inserted there. The cached version--the one we saw yesterday--doesn't have it. Curious, that they just can't seem to remember to make that qualification so as not to mislead people. (Julia Silverman of AP can, by the way--here's her piece, and she's got both figures there.)

Oh, one other thing Silverman mentions is that "she reported the sale of the April of this year," which The O doesn't seem to want to relate to people either. In the profile piece they call it "a land deal with a developer she has repeatedly aided. She then failed to disclose the deal as state law requires." Well, not quite--unless you make sure to interpret the phrase as "not disclosing it as state law requires," rather than "not disclosing it, as state law requires." Even then, the truth as we'll discuss this week is that the sale was in fact disclosed, although the holding was not at the time. And we'll also go into our discussion with state ethics employees who admit the system is extremely hard to follow properly at times.

New (and shallowly explained) allegations, rehashes of old ones, accusatory language and avoidance of exculpatory evidence--where's the line? When does it stop being simply lazy reportage, and starts becoming active attempts to fulfill and agenda?

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