Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Oregonian's ethical conundrum

The campaign for the the tax measures 66 & 67 have run rough shod over the truth and ethical considerations. But, that seems to be situation for any election issue. At a minimum, the goal is to stretch the truth. That is commonplace and citizens seem to take it in stride. [Ethics as “in accordance with principles of conduct that are considered correct, esp those of a given profession or group.”]
So where do we go for the facts so that our vote can be made on some other basis than false ads? Often, as is the case regarding the tax measures, the state offers non-partisan information. However, this information is available on their website which unless you are referred there – it will remain available and unread.
Of course, there is the voters' pamphlet. I wonder how many people actually wade through information that is statutory content or is so brief its value is suspect? I think people look to the newspaper for help. Problem is that the papers often shun that responsibility.
Some papers by their size and reputation have more of a responsibility than others. One expects more from the Oregonian than from the Tribune or the Week. The Oregonian is well positioned with their resources to provide an analysis of the tax measures and of campaign tactics. But, they have thus far abandoned that responsibility.
The Oregonian in its Jan 4th and Jan 9th editorials supported a position without one shred of evidence as to the claims made therein. It was nothing more than a campaign ad whether that was their intention or not.
Of course, an editorial is merely an opinion but being in the position of reaching so many citizens – their editorial should have gone beyond an opinion without facts. I believe it is safe to safe to say that a majority of the editorial readers assume that the Oregonian is basing their opinion of some homework.
Not only did it not do its homework, it sought to amplify the effect of their opinion by a revenue decision to print the Sunday edition with what is called a Spadea – a removable wrap typically around the front section. It is effectively a three full page wrap. One can only imagine the cost.
The Sunday wrap was an ad for the no on the tax measures campaign and includes excepts from Oregonian editorials. It has all the trappings of an Oregonian newspaper endorsement not just an editorial opinion. It is a mutual support package.
Interesting in that the Oregonian refused in its response to readers comments the amount paid claiming that it was a private matter, but then stated the advertiser paid a normal rate. If a normal rate – why not disclose that? Or is “normal” different depending on the advertiser?
The Oregonian must have had a twinge of ethics in their decision because it felt compelled to announce in advance why it sold the space. Making sure to imply they would sell the space to the proponents, “”subject to our final approval.” They noted too that the proponents had not sought to buy the wrap.
I found it interesting too that in the editorial blog the publisher were quite active in defending their decision against criticism. One might think they are protesting too much.
Arguably, a rather ordinary decision to sell space but drawing the 'best defense is a good offense' response reflects their concern about the ethics of printing this ad because of its prominent placement and content with little differentiation between the advertiser and the Oregonian.
Nobody would have trouble differentiating between a wrap advertiser like Safeway and the Oregonian. Moreover, the same ad in the Thursday Tribune would pose no issue for either the public or the Tribune.
I am not sure that the Oregonian made an incorrect or unethical decision to print this wrap, but I believe they had internal doubts which in of itself ought to have been a sign not to publish.
Different story if the Oregonian had previously objectively analyzed the tax measures and reported factually on the analysis. Column writer David Sarasohn did point out the flaws in the opponents advertising, but his writing is more opinion than factual analysis. Clearly the position of his piece in the print edition was not as prominent as the wrap. My reading shows that he was alone.
It is not that the decision was in fact unethical or irresponsible, but it gave the appearance of impropriety. Perception is often truth. Doesn't a newspaper, especially one with the quality of the Oregonian, have to be especially guarded against losing its mantle of objectively by failing to separate itself from editorial opinion and objective journalism?
[As I was about to publish this I noticed that the Week had a relevant article you might want to read.]

No comments:

Post a Comment