Thursday, June 21, 2007

Will The O and WWeek Quit While They're Behind on Johnson?

I won't bore you with a long rehash of all the stories we've done the past three weeks on L'affair du Betsy Johnson*, but if you're totally out of the loop you may want to peruse Carla's primer on our coverage before coming back here.

Since the stories first began to appear May 30 in Willamette Week and then The Oregonian, each has done several updates and further references to the controversy, generally expanding the story rather than retrenching on it. WW's Nigel Jaquiss in particular has continued to pump out stories--at least five that we count--that allege conflict of interest and influence peddling for her aviation friends. The O has been slightly less prolific, with what appears to be three more stories since the original one that deal specifically with her, and then another one Sunday discussing the broader question of conflict in the Leg, using Johnson as one example and focusing on her involvement in SB807. (Interestingly, an op-ed on June 10th called attempts to pin SB30 on Johnson's personal interests "cynical"; Jaquiss has been more of the reverse, exploring the SB30 angle in more depth but not burrowing as much into the SB807 part.)

While both outfits have staunchly stood by their stories in our conversations with them, it seems to us that they are no longer as aggressively investigating and reporting on the issue. Neither outlet has either publicly acknowledged LO's findings or criticisms, but after the initial flurry of stories nothing new has emerged in their pages to further support their positions, despite the obvious previous attempts to do so--such as The O's unearthing of a video where Johnson berates Port of St. Helens commissioners on behalf of developer and land-sale partner Ed Freeman, or the "disclosure" that they'd had dealings before, or the news that Johnson had written a letter on behalf of a failed candidate for the Oregon Board of Aviation.

The final straw of embarrassment may have occurred late last week, when Jaquiss attempted to extend the story to Johnson's influence over the Brookings Airport and its potential impact on Bandon Dunes Resort. Adept readers immediately commented that Jaquiss needed a new map of Oregon if he thought the airport was anywhere near Bandon (it's not), and WWeek was forced to pull the piece entirely. It's certainly not often you get to call out a Pulitzer winner for failing to do his homework, and while they did the right thing in yanking the piece (but leaving the comments up) , you know taking that step had to be extremely painful. If I'm Jaquiss' editor, I might say to him privately, "ENOUGH please on Johnson, OK? This shit we clearly do not need."

In fact, although I'm not anyone's editor, I'm willing to wager that among actual, sensible editors this would be the likely response. After all, while they've defended their work in public, they have each tacitly admitted making errors by dint of removing reference to those errors in future copy. As the famous saying goes, "if your mother says she loves you, get a confirmation before you print it"--in other words, nothing's worse than fucking up the facts. And after all the work we've done on this story, there's just no way to phrase it much more delicately without euphemizing...they fucked up the facts.

So, given that context do I think the stories are really over? Well, yes and no. If the genesis of the story was relatively normal, I'd say they are probably finished trying to run the Johnson corruption scandal up their respective flagpoles. They got a tip, they ran it, they got pushback, they defended themselves but subtly started changing their subsequent stories--done.

But what if this isn't any ordinary story tip? What if, as we are coming to believe, this was an orchestrated attempt to bring trouble to Betsy Johnson's doorstep? What if there are those who would either like to a) develop on the Metolius, b) kill Johnson's gubernatorial aspirations before they gestate, or c) both--and they are continuing to push more allegations on the media? In other words, what if their sources aren't taking no for an answer, and WW or the O aren't necessarily predisposed to tell them no?

So watch the papers over the next week or two. If nothing more comes out on this story, The O and WW will have licked their wounds in private and moved on, hoping by their non-acknowledgment of error they can escape with reputations mostly intact. But if they keep bringing her up one way or another like The O did in Sunday's piece on legislative conflict in general, we think there's gotta be some other reason behind it--some other reason being pushed by some other entity. Papers don't print stories they know may get them into trouble unless they have other reasons for doing so. While we can't show them to you because they're behind a firewall, The Bend Bulletin has also gone nearly apoplectic in their editorials about Johnson and SB30; they're wingnutty at the Bulletin but I'm not convinced they got that way on their own.

Will they quit while they're behind? We'll see. And if they don't, ask yourself--"why are they still running these stories? Shouldn't they at least try to close up the holes in the ones they've already run, before they ask us to swallow more?"

Better yet, ask them.

*don't bother correcting my French; I already confess ignorance

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