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October 20th, 2004 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

The Wu Backlash

This time the O gets blasted for getting the story.

     
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When allegations that Congressman David Wu attempted to sexually assault an ex-girlfriend in the '70s hit The Oregonian's front page last week, outrage erupted:

"I was appalled."

"Reprehensible."

"Shameless."

The Oregonian's problem? Those comments took aim not at the Democratic congressman's quick admission of "inexcusable behavior," but at the newspaper itself. For the third time in recent history, the combination of sex, politics and journalism exploded in the O's face.

The story broke Tuesday. On Wednesday, reaction filled The Oregonian's letters column: Thirteen letters criticized the story, three lauded it. By Saturday, more than 350 readers had written or called to blast the paper for running a story on 28-year-old allegations, based on secondhand sources, without official documentation. On Sunday, the paper's ombudsman, Michael Arrieta-Walden, himself slammed the story. "Too many hurdles loom for me and many readers," wrote Arrieta-Walden.

Some believe the story didn't deserve airing at all. The more persistent question concerns the timing of its publication. The story hit the streets just four days after The Oregonian endorsed Goli Ameri, Wu's Republican challenger, and just three days before ballots arrived in mailboxes across the divided 1st District. Ameri, whose highly touted bid has languished in polls, used the story to savage Wu in a debate on Friday.

"The endorsement coming just before this piece--that alone draws criticism," says Tom Bivins, who teaches ethics at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism. "It looks like conflict of interest even if it wasn't."

Rumors of a college assault surfaced in 1998, when Wu faced Linda Peters, a Washington County commissioner, in a tough primary. "If we could have substantiated it, I'm sure we would have used it," says one former Peters staffer.

That same year, WW reporter Bob Young got a tip about an incident at Stanford but found the unsubstantiated claim too thin to chase. By 2000, according to Arrieta-Walden's column, whispers about Wu reached the Oregonian newsroom.

Why, then, did the paper wait until this May to launch its investigation? The O's explanation, according to its public editor, is that "new information" this spring prompted it to pursue the rumors.

Some observers of the paper offer a different explanation, summed up in two words: Packwood and Goldschmidt.

In the early '90s, the paper's failure to reveal Sen. Bob Packwood's serial harassment of female staffers led to the departure of its editor. This past May, the O took a national beating over its coverage of ex-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's admission that he committed statutory rape in the '70s.

"The Oregonian is on a political jihad," says Neel Pender, chairman of the Oregon Democratic Party. "As a result of their incompetence on the Packwood story and cozy handling of Goldschmidt, they are opening the case files and trying to find whatever they can."

(Oregonian managing news editor Peter Bhatia did not respond to WW's phone calls Monday.)

Certainly, it seems Goldschmidt and Packwood were on reporters' minds as they chased the Wu story. George Brown, a Stanford emeritus professor quoted in the Wu story, says reporter Laura Gunderson told him The Oregonian had little choice but to go after the story.

"She said that if they didn't come out with it, they'd be criticized for sitting on it," says Brown.

In the days following the story's publication, David Wu's damage-control strategy largely consisted of criticizing The Oregonian's conduct, rather than disputing its story.

The day the story appeared, Wu campaign manager Cameron Johnson told WW that Oregonian reporters lied to some of the story's sources, and he suggested the paper broke medical confidentiality laws by reporting comments from a now-deceased counselor who worked with the woman in the case. Johnson declined to provide names of sources who felt they'd been misled. None of the story's sources WW spoke with this week said they felt Oregonian reporters lied. California authorities say the counselor may have violated state law. But according to First Amendment lawyers, journalists aren't bound by such restraints even when sources are.

Still, journalism ethicists contacted by WW voiced deep qualms about the story.

"This is absurd," Bivins says. "It doesn't meet the relevance test. And when I read what they went through to get this, I was appalled, because in the end they couldn't prove anything. It was all hearsay."

Unlike most intra-journalistic spats, the question of whether The Oregonian did right by dredging up Wu's past will have an empirical answer of sorts: election returns. And one poll released last week showed Wu moving up the day The Oregonian's story broke.

 
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