A week ago, the Oregonian made a rash declaration: A month into his new term, Governor John Kitzhaber should resign. The editorial threw fuel on a smoldering fire. For the past four months, the governor has been dogged by questions about his ethics and responsibilities for some questionable, if not outright illegal, decisions made by his partner, Cylvia Hayes. (Kitzhaber and Hayes are not legally married.)
Questions about Kitzhaber's involvement in the potentially illegal activities of his partner were first raised in October by the Willamette Week, a Portland-based weekly that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2005 after revealing a buried story about former Gov. Neil Goldschmidt's ongoing statutory rape of his babysitter while he was mayor of Portland. Yet, in spite of the allegations late last year, Kitzhaber skated into an unprecedented fourth term of governor. Even so, the questions have continued to bubble up since then—and broke into a furious boil this past week.
Although associated with his partner, ultimately, the possible improprieties reflect back on the governor, both in terms of ethical and legal responsibility. Really, it is a wreck that just keeps stacking up the cars: Allegedly, Hayes sought consulting contracts that conflict with her official duties as the governor's partner—as much as $200,000 over the previous three years from a now-defunct nonprofit that consulted with the governor on energy policies. Hayes also allegedly solicited money from a lobbying group and used State employees to help her run her private consulting firm.
In general, the allegations fall under an umbrella of whether she has improperly—and potentially illegally—used her relationship with the governor for financial gains, and whether he has knowingly allowed and abetted these improprieties.
Moreover, until last week, Oregon's Attorney General also has sidestepped any responsibility for investigating the allegations—and at this point, with no public officials taking spearheading an inquiry into the matter, it is the media's most cherished and important role to serve as a watchdog to public officials. However, how the media acts as a watchdog—whether frothing-at-the-mouth or calmly scratching for facts—is critical.
Interestingly, the Willamette Week, which has often been accused of crusading journalism, has played perhaps the most noble role. Their restraint is especially intriguing—if not slightly ironic—considering that the public official responsible for an investigation into Kitzhaber is Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who is married to Richard Meeker, the publisher of the Willamette Week. In a story about bedfellows and the ethical lines between spouses' professional responsibilities, Willamette Week has taken a 180-degree different tact from the governor, going so far as to call Rosenblum "AWOL" on the case, as, until last week, she hadn't announced that she would investigate the matter. (We would love to be a fly on the wall for dinner conversations at the Rosenblum-Meeker household!)
But proving it is a fine line between responsible watchdogging and journalistic crusading, the Oregonian has been pulling hyperactive political stunts that would make William Randolph Hearst proud—that is, they have been trying to make the news rather than report it.
On February 4, the day after Kitzhaber's press conference, the Oregonian editorial board skipped past any calls for fact-finding—and past the concept of innocent until proven guilty—and simply demanded that he resign. It was a column that even the most rabid, hotheaded and trigger-happy blogger should regret.
In reporting on its own editorial board's declaration, the Oregonian likened its call for a resignation to the Eugene Register-Guard's recommendation that the governor appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations—an observation that truly shows how much trouble the Oregonian has discerning between fact-finding and frenzy-creation.
With the announcement (albeit belated) by Rosenblum this week that she will pursue an investigation, we hope that the Oregonian can simmer down and follow journalism standards that coverage should be driven by the facts, not by hype.