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April 23rd, 2008 12:00 am NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories

Blue Flames

Oregon’s must-read website for progressives turns red-hot with anger.

SCREEN SCREAMS:Go to blueoregon.com for hot D on D action.

The mission statement on the state’s leading political blog says “BlueOregon is a place for progressive Oregonians to gather ’round the water cooler and share news, commentary, and gossip.”

As the political season heats up, that water cooler at blueoregon.com is more like a bar fight.

Over the past couple of months, Democrats who visit the site have been trading barbs faster than Triumph the insult dog. The issue? The dual role of BlueOregon co-founder Kari Chisholm.

Chisholm is the den mother of the political blog and owns Mandate Media, a website development company that has amassed an impressive list of Democratic clients.

Among them: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden and Gov. Ted Kulongoski. But his hottest-button candidates are those in contested Democratic primaries: U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Merkley; secretary of state candidate Kate Brown; congressional hopeful Kurt Schrader, attorney general candidate Greg Macpherson and Portland mayoral hopeful Sam Adams.

The barbs and questions being raised deal with whether Chisholm’s work for some pols compromises what appears on his blog.

Chisholm, who co-founded BlueOregon in 2004, is one of the site’s three editors. That makes him a gatekeeper for what does—and does not appear—on the site, which sets the pace in Oregon with 9,000 page views a day.

Although there are no established rules governing conflicts of interest or balance on blogs, critics say BlueOregon slants information to favor Chisholm’s clients, amplifies criticism of his clients’ opponents and ignores information that does not help his clients.

In a searing post March 11, Jake Weigler—spokesman for Steve Novick, who is running against Merkley, Chisholm’s client—called BlueOregon “a rigged game.”

State Sen. Rick Metsger (D-Welches), running against Brown for secretary of state, says BlueOregon “is struggling right now because of its advocacy for certain candidates.”

Chisholm says critics miss two key points: He discloses his affiliation with candidates explicitly when he posts on the site, and his client list is a public record because clients also file expenditure information with the secretary of state.

Second, Chisholm says, a blog’s purpose is advocacy, “not journalism.” “We don’t pretend to be objective,” he says. But Chisholm’s response doesn’t address a different issue: Do some candidates secure work with him to get preferential treatment on a blog that influences Oregon politics?

“Absolutely not,” Chisholm says, a response one of the site’s other editors, Jeff Alworth, echoes emphatically.

There is ample evidence, however, that BlueOregon has posted pieces that portray Chisholm’s paying clients favorably.

On April 10, for instance, KATU released a poll that showed voters favored Adams over Sho Dozono in the mayor’s race by a razor-thin 39 percent to 38 percent, a substantial erosion of Adams’ lead since a February poll.

When Chisholm blogged about the poll, however, his headline read, “In a new poll, Democrats and liberals back Sam Adams for Mayor.”

In his post, Chisholm included his customary disclosure, “my firm built Sam’s website, but I speak here only for myself.”

He says that should alert readers to his bias.

Tom Bivins, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, calls it commendable that Chisholm discloses his allegiances. But Bivins says simply doing so may not be enough, wondering, “Let’s say he pitches his website to a candidate who says, ‘No thanks.’ How does BlueOregon cover that candidate in the future?”

Chisholm says when he’s wearing his website-developer hat, he first decides which candidate he supports in a race and then solicits that candidate.

“If they decide not to hire me, I don’t work in that race,” he says.

Kris Alman, a Southwest Portland activist, doubts Chisholm’s good faith.

Chisholm and other editors frequently write posts on BlueOregon, but the site actively solicits outside submissions. In those cases, Chisholm and fellow editors Alworth and Charlie Burr are the gatekeepers, deciding what gets published and what doesn’t.

After the February special legislative session, Alman submitted a piece criticizing Merkley and Senate President Peter Courtney.

“I was particularly appalled with the fizzled attempt to tighten mortgage lending rules,” Alman wrote in the article.

Chisholm rejected the piece after initially saying it was “good.”

“His candidate support [for Merkley]...led to his decision not to print it because I wouldn’t edit my position critical of Merkley’s leadership.” says Alman, who has contributed money to both Merkley and Novick.

Chisholm says he’s proud of BlueOregon’s role in stimulating conversation. He’s also trying to address critics’ concerns with such steps as routing submissions that could create a conflict through the site’s other two editors and re-designing the site to make the distinction between news and opinion clearer.

Does Chisholm think BlueOregon helps him get clients?

His short response: “No,” he says, laughing at the idea.

FACTS: Oregon political candidates have reported paying Mandate Media, the website company Chisholm runs with his wife, $83,000 since November 2006. That total does not include Mandate’s work for federal clients such as Sen. Ron Wyden and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Darlene Hooley.

Chisholm also does work for the Democratic side of major ballot measures.

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