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February 5th, 2003 The Nose | The Nose
 

Dodging SUVs at the Big O

     
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What's the purpose of journalism? Is it to chronicle the tragedy of falling spacecraft? To provide directions to the nearest Thai restaurant? To create a sense of community? To track the asinine behavior of professional athletes? To find a used Volvo with less than 110,000 miles on the odometer?

The Nose has no idea. But apparently the gargantuan company that owns the daily newspaper in this city thinks journalism's purpose is not to get involved.

The Nose learned of this position last week when The Oregonian (owned by the same company that brings you Vanity Fair, Women's Wear Daily, Supermarket News, Vogue and Modern Bride) announced, through the paper's public editor, Dan Hortsch, that the paper was killing the syndicated column of Arianna Huffington.

Huffington is a Greek-born intellectual who married an ultra-conservative California zillionaire and convinced him to run for the U.S. Senate; they divorced after he lost. She became a screaming liberal, dining with Warren Beatty and blasting President Bush's war on drugs. In addition to her column, she's written books on everything from Maria Callas to her current tome on corporate greed, Pigs at the Trough.

This month, Huffington made news with her support for something called the Detroit Project, an anti-SUV campaign which has been running television spots that equate buying a Ford Explorer with financing terrorism.

This was simply too much for the state's largest daily newspaper, which determined that such activity falls "outside of standard journalistic ethics" according to Hortsch.

In his Jan. 25 column, Hortsch quoted Doug Bates, the associate editor who oversees the commentary page, as saying, "She has dragged herself across the line from being a commentator to being an activist."

To which the Nose responds: OH MY GOD!

Have the creaky editors at this state's largest daily forgotten that Walter Lippmann, America's preeminent political columnist for much of the 20th century, once wrote, "The hallmark of responsible comment is not to sit in judgment on events as an idle spectator, but to enter imaginatively into the role of a participant in the action"?

Is the Oregonian braintrust so tanked on Metamucil that it's forgotten that its employees "drag themselves across the line" on a regular basis?

Why, just last week Oregonian columnist Steve Duin and cartoonist Jack Ohman were on the three-member media panel that matched wits with a trio of local politicians during the Portland Roast Festival.

By all accounts, Duin & Ohman were amusing. Duin questioned Diane Linn's taste in men. Ohman did his JFK impression. In the process, they


helped the Portland Schools Foundation collect $200,000. That's right: The roast is a fundraiser for a nonprofit advocacy group.

And Ohman ended his one-liners early so he could climb on a soapbox to verbally behead the folks who campaigned against Measure 28. He drew a standing ovation.

To which the Nose responds: OH MY GOD!

If the Oregonian's cartoonist can cross the line to rail against the folks he thinks are destroying public education, why can't Huffington drift across the median to pick off the folks she thinks are destroying the environment?

Huffington told WW none of the other newspapers that carry her column--and there are more than a hundred--have reacted this way. She has a theory that is unprovable, but dark.

"In no way do I feel that I crossed an ethical line," insists Huffington. "In the end, I think what this whole thing boils down to is pressure from a major advertiser." In fact, according to one source, 18 percent of local newspaper advertising comes from car dealers. Huffington concluded her banishment from the Big O "is not about 'ethics,' it's about ad revenue."

So is that the purpose of journalism?

Crossing the Line
Interview with columnist Arianna Huffington

Last month, the big wheels at The Oregonian unceremoniously dumped syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington and accused her of crossing the line between commentary and activism. Her crime? Raising money for the Detroit Project, which produced a series of TV ads critical of octane-thirsty SUVs. WW contributor Emilie Raguso caught up with Huffington last week to find out more about the news behind the headlines.

Willamette Week: Oregonian associate editor Doug Bates accused you of dragging yourself across the line from being a commentator to being an activist. Is he right?

I donÕt accept the premise that there needs to be a line between being a commentator and being an activist.
ThereÕs been a long history of journalists moving outside the confines of their newspaper work in an effort to affect change. People like Tom Paine, Frederick Douglass and Upton Sinclair. Or Ida Wells with her crusade against lynchings, or Margaret Sanger with her fight to make birth control widely available.
For me, most of the things I write about in my column are fueled by a sense of outrageÑoutrage at injustice, corruption, unfairness, the dishonesty of our leaders. The outside projects I become involved with are just another way of expressing that outrage, another way of trying to make a difference on the issues that matter most to me.
ItÕs what IÕm doing with the anti-SUV campaign.
And even the people at The Oregonian say this is fine, that "all is fair in the opinion game." Their only problem is that as part of the Detroit Project, I helped raise money to get our anti-SUV ads on the air. So my "crime" is that I was trying to get my messageÑthe same opinions I had expressed in my columnÑto as wide an audience as possible.
With all due respect to print journalism, not everyone reads. Many people only get their news from TV. And thatÕs why we needed to raise money to fund the ads. In modern times, its not enough to be a pamphleteer. If he were alive today, Tom Paine would be raising money to get his message on TV.

Have you shifted your political position since your column began appearing in The Oregonian? Did this have an impact on your dismissal?

I have indeed undergone a transformation in my political thinking. YouÕd have to ask The Oregonian if this had any impact on their decision.

Do you feel you crossed an ethical line?

In no way do I feel that I crossed an ethical line. In the end, I think what this whole thing boils down to is pressure from a major, major advertiser. Look at the number of ads car dealers buy in newspapers. It might not have been direct pressure; it might just have been the paper preemptively running scared.
If the problem was merely that I had, as The OregonianÕs editor told me, "moved from the sidelines, where a columnist belongs, to being a participant," why didnÕt they drop my column when I helped organize the Shadow Conventions in 2000? I certainly wasnÕt on the sidelines then. And, yes, we raised money to help pay for the Shadow Conventions, too. [EditorsÕ Note: Huffington convened two conclaves during the Democratic and Republican conventions in Philadelphia and Los Angeles that focused on poverty, money in politics and the war on drugs.]
Could the difference be that with the Shadow Conventions we werenÕt stomping on the toes of a major media advertiser? As Watergate taught us: When in doubt, follow the money.

Has any other newspaper responded the same way?

No other papers have even raised the issue.

Did The Oregonian give you any warnings or suggest simply not running your columns on SUVs? Have you had any other differences of opinion with them?

No, they never gave me any warningsÑnor have we had any differences of opinion that foreshadowed their decision.

Is this a case of The Oregonian trying not to antagonize its advertisers?

As I said above, thatÕs what I think it is really about.
ItÕs the same kind of thing the Detroit Project faced when we tried to buy airtime for our ads. A number of stations refused to air them because they were supposedly "too controversial." Of course, many of the stations that refused to run our ads continue to run the drug-war ads our ads parody. WhatÕs the difference: that ours were paid for by contributions from ordinary citizens, while theirs were paid for by taking money from taxpayers? Or is it that automakers are TVÕs biggest advertisersÑand the stations were afraid of ticking them off?
The auto industry spends $15 billion a year on TV adsÑ$1.5 billion on SUV ads alone. And you can see what kind of ad space in newspapers car dealerships buy.
This is not about "ethics." ItÕs about ad revenue.

 
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