Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Backing into Caldwell scandal story at The Oregonian

In a front page story on Monday, The Oregonian reported the death of its Editorial Page Editor Bob Caldwell. In the story, editors and publishers praised the popular 63-year-old editor, who had helped guide two Oregonian editorial writers to a Pulitzer.

Then, after the story appeared, the circumstances surrounding his death revealed another side to Caldwell. He had died after having sex with a 23-year-old PCC student in her Tigard apartment.

The Oregonian rightly printed a story today, but they did so in a manner that revealed how agonizingly difficult it was for the paper's staff to face and report the facts.

The story (shown here. Click on it to make it bigger.) painfully backs into the embarrassing news.

As they say in the business, the lead is buried.

The headline tells us that Caldwell died in a Tigard apartment. Is that news?

The subhead tells us that he died after “a woman called 9-1-1 to report he was unresponsive.” Is that news?

The lead tells us that Caldwell was in the woman’s apartment and that she was 23 years old.

We’re getting warmer....

Finally, in the second paragraph we learn “The woman called 9-1-1 to report that Caldwell, 63, was coughing and unresponsive after a sex act.”

Presumably with her.

The story goes on from there. “The woman told deputies she met Caldwell about a year ago at Portland Community College. Caldwell, she said, knew she didn’t have much money so he provided her cash for books and other things for school in exchange for sex acts in her apartment.”

Any freshman journalism student would recognize where the news is in the story and write a headline and lead to reflect it.

(A sodden thought: One wonders how Caldwell, once the paper's 'public editor,' himself would have written such a story involving a top Oregonian editor. Fate spared him the task. The public editor, by the way, often dealt with matters of journalistic ethics and definitions of "the news." The paper dropped the position some years ago. It seems to be time to restore it.)

The on-line commentary about today’s article raises the usual ethical arguments. “Let him rest in peace.” “Is this news?” “Is he a public figure?” “Does it matter?”

Yes, this is news, sad and embarrassing as it is. Yes, as one comment notes, the editorial page editor of the state’s largest newspaper is indeed a public figure. And, yes, it does matter.

There’s another story here and it has to do with PCC and, more generally, the plight of college students. For six years I taught journalism at PCC. Many of the students are in desperate financial straits. My guess is that this young woman was not — and is not — alone in her desperation. That's a story that still needs telling.

That Caldwell would take advantage of this student's plight is deplorable...and, yes, newsworthy.

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