The Bend blogosphere is abuzz with the story of a Bulletin reporter who lost his job after complaining the paper was sugar-coating its coverage of the local real estate market.
According to an e-mail that the reporter, David Fisher, sent to Bulletin Human Resources Director Sharlene Crabtree and that has been circulating among the paper's staff, a story he wrote about the Bend Chamber of Commerce's annual real estate forecast breakfast on Feb. 25 was edited to take out comments skeptical of an imminent turnaround in the floundering real estate market.
Bend appraiser Dana Bratton told the cheering throng at the Riverhouse Convention Center that the Bend market would start pulling out of the doldrums on April 25.
"You've got 60 days to make that great buy, and then they're onto us, and Bend is going to lead the nation out of this housing recession we're in," Fisher's story quoted Bratton as saying.
Fisher's original story also included quotes from developer Mike Hollern and others questioning that scenario. But according to Fisher's e-mail, Business Editor John Stearns edited his copy "in such a way as to remove any facts or opinions that tended to disagree with [Bratton's] rosy predictions."
The official line going around The Bulletin newsroom is that Fisher was fired for lying about being sick and taking two days off. Not so, said Fisher in his e-mail: He didn't claim to be sick, but wanted time to cool down before confronting Stearns about the butchered story and asking to be transferred to a different beat where he could cover the news "without what I perceived to be the editors' emotional desire to slant coverage of the real estate market."
In his e-mail Fisher said he told Stearns that the editing of the Feb. 26 story was part of a "pattern of editing that included misleading headlines, sources being banned from my coverage, story ideas getting spiked, and odd pre-story cajoling, all of which seemed designed by the executive editor [John Costa] to generate more favorable coverage of the local real estate market than I have thought was best in the two years I have been assigned to cover it for the paper. I further told [Stearns] that, although I believed that the articles I had written for the paper were as thorough and as accurate as I could make them, the utter hack job that was done on my Feb. 26 story had led me to conclude that the paper was not willing to cover the industry as honestly as it should ..."
Fisher expressed his concerns in a meeting with Stearns on Feb. 28. On March 3, Fisher wrote, Stearns told him he had discussed his request to change beats with Costa. The next day Fisher was fired.
Contacted by The EYE, Stearns refused to discuss the reason for Fisher's departure: "I cannot comment on a personnel matter - I hope you understand that." But he denied the paper was under pressure from real estate interests to apply a positive spin, noting that the business section has recently published several negative stories. "I find it somewhat crazy to think there's some kind of link between our coverage and what the real estate industry wants us to do," he said.
The Feb. 25 real estate breakfast marked the official kickoff of the local real estate and building industry's "Best Buyer's Market in 20 Years" campaign, and - as The EYE reported a while back - one strategy in that campaign was to apply "economic influence" (read: threats to pull advertising) to make the media publish "good news" about the market.
Asked about the editing of Fisher's story about that meeting, Stearns replied: "Again, I'm not going to comment on anything related to Dave Fisher. I'm just going to tell you the notion that we are somehow beholden to the real estate industry is ridiculous."
Is it ridiculous? The EYE reports; you decide.