BlueOregon is a political blog where many Democrats get their daily fix. The website's original posts and links to reporting from numerous media outlets make it, as BlueOregon itself says, "the water cooler around which Oregon progressives will gather."
"Lots of politicians and their staffs and lobbyists and advocates read BlueOregon daily," says Kari Chisholm, the site's co-editor and owner. "It's a regular stop for them."
Chisholm has been paid nearly $400,000 by Democratic candidates in state and local races since 2006. His business has grown steadily, and Chisholm says he brings in nearly as much from federal candidates and nonprofits as from state and local candidates.
His dual role as BlueOregon editor and paid consultant creates a conflict of interest. Chisholm says the conflict—running a news website while being paid by candidates he writes about—is not a problem. "I'm not a journalist and don't pretend to be," he says. "But I work hard to get all voices out there."
WW's analysis of BlueOregon's recent coverage, however, suggests favoritism toward at least one Chisholm client—Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who's running for the Democratic nomination in the special 1st Congressional District election to replace U.S. Rep. David Wu.
Avakian's chief rival in the race is state Sen. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Beaverton), who's found herself on the sharp end of BlueOregon posts.
On Sept. 28, Chisholm attacked Bonamici for refusing to tell the AFL-CIO where she stands on proposed U.S. trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Avakian said he opposed them, as did the third major Democratic candidate, state Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie). Chisholm's post: "While Bonamici dithers on trade, Witt and Avakian stake out strong, progressive stands."
"[I]f you believe that these trade deals are unequivocally bad deals for Oregon workers, then it seems to me that your candidate is one of the two guys named Brad," Chisholm wrote. "Meanwhile, I guess we'll just wait for Suzanne Bonamici to figure out what her position is."
Chisholm usually includes a comment to relevant posts disclosing a politician is one of his clients. He says his writings are not part of a quid pro quo. "It shouldn't be a surprise that I write about the things I care about," he says.
"[BlueOregon] presents itself as a forum and a tool for advocating Democratic interests generally," says state Rep. Chris Garrett (D-Lake Oswego), a Chisholm client who supports Bonamici. "When it is then used to attack certain Democrats on behalf of others who are paying clients, that creates a real tension."
BlueOregon has recently ignored a raft of unflattering news about Avakian. The site's news scroller, "Water Cooler: Oregon News Headlines," links to political news reported by Oregon media outlets.
But in August, Oregonian columnist Steve Duin wrote two columns alleging dirty tricks against Bonamici on the part of the Avakian campaign.
On BlueOregon? No mention of, or link to Duin's column. Chisholm says Duin's columns were about campaign staffers. "We don't usually cover those," he says.
But there's more. On Sept. 8, The Oregonian's Jeff Mapes reported unflattering behind-the-scenes machinations aimed at gaining Avakian a coveted labor endorsement. No BlueOregon link.
On Sept. 14, WW reported that creditors have sued Avakian four times, that the Internal Revenue Service filed a $13,120 lien against him in 2005, and that while a state legislator, he hit up lobbyists for a job ("Not Paying His Dues, WW, Sept. 14, 2011).
No BlueOregon link to that story, or to a Sept. 19 National Journal report that Avakian still hadn't paid off his student loans 21 years after finishing law school. Nor did BlueOregon link to a Sept. 20 Oregonian Politifact story by Janie Har that labeled as "false" Avakian's claims about how many housing discrimination cases his agency investigates each year.
Chisholm denies censoring anti-Avakian reporting on BlueOregon. He faced similar criticism during the bruising 2008 U.S. Senate primary between Jeff Merkley (a Mandate Media client and the eventual winner) and rabble-rouser Steve Novick.
Novick, a BlueOregon contributor who is now running for Portland City Council, says Chisholm's website pounded him when he faced Merkley.
"BlueOregon looks like it's supposed to be independent," Novick says. "I think Kari should acknowledge that he does use BlueOregon to the benefit of his clients."