August 13th, 2009 5:33 pm | by JAMES PITKIN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP

MONKEY BUSINESS: Reporting on OHSU's Primate Lab


Reporters get used to dealing with difficult sources. Professional spokesmen paid to provide information to the public usually aren't among them.

But we hit some turbulence today trying to report on Oregon Health & Science University's National Primate Research Center.

The center, home to about 4,200 nonhuman primates, has been the subject of past coverage in this newspaper, including a 2001 cover story about an employee who leaked unsavory details about the facility.

That former employee, Matt Rossell, is now Northwest director of the nonprofit In Defense of Animals. Rossell opposes animal research, and we've written before about his efforts to act as a watchdog over the primate center.

On Tuesday Rossell called WW with a tip. He said OHSU has applied for millions in federal stimulus money to build a new addition onto the primate center, including housing for more monkeys. Obviously, Rossell is opposed to spending any money on such a venture.

So far, this was a pretty straightforward example of news-gathering. Reporters can't be everywhere, so we keep contact with people who give us tips about matters they follow closely. Realizing everyone has an agenda, we first verify if their information is accurate and then put it in context.

So this morning I called Jim Newman, OHSU's media spokesman. Newman is no fan of our coverage of animal treatment at the school — as evidenced in his comments to this story about a former lab assistant who went public with criticism of the university's rodent research.

I told Newman I was interested in writing about the primate center's grant application. Newman confirmed the school had applied for such a grant. Then he started asking questions of his own — including where I got my information.

I repeated my requests for a tour of the center and an interview with someone about the grant application. A few minutes later Newman sent an email that said in part:
I would be curious as to why this is of interest. This sort of feels like another attempt by IDA to use Willamette Week in their campaign against OHSU – I hope that is not the case.

I wasn't sure how to respond, so I didn't. Less than an hour later, Newman called back and was exceedingly polite, never mentioning the email. We're scheduled to meet tomorrow for a tour of the lab and interviews with the director and head veterinarian.

It will be interesting to see which Jim Newman meets me at the monkey house.
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