Boom! Here's the first Truth Bomb in my who-knows-how-many-parts series, described in "Salem, open your eyes."
I'm out to say some things I haven't said before about what needs to change in the city I've lived in or near for 37 years. And to resay more bluntly what has been blogged about previously. First up...
The Statesman Journal is failing Salem. It has stopped being a reputable community newspaper. I've lost trust in the paper's executives. News is censored for "political" (using that term broadly) reasons.
I have first hand experience of this. Here's the story of how there came to be no story in the Statesman Journal, even though an important story was written and needed to be published.
The Statesman Journal is part of the Gannett media empire. For many years Salem hasn't had a locally controlled newspaper. Top executives at the Statesman Journal, such as the publisher and executive editor, are put in place by Gannett central.
In 2013 Michael Davis was brought to town. As the new executive editor, he said the right things. I was hopeful Davis was also going to do them.
I just pulled out a folder where I'd put two clippings of opinion pieces written by Davis in June and August of last year. Here's what he promised -- but has failed to provide. In "A focus on watch-dog reporting," executive editor Davis said:
Watchdog reporting is Gannett's top priority for its newsrooms across the continent, and ours is no exception. Our continuing mission is to hold individuals, businesses, agencies and institutions accountable for their action or inaction.
The Founders believed that a vigorous free press would expose wrongdoing or malfeasance by individuals, charities, public officials, public agencies, institutions that serve the public, or by those who do businesses [sic] with the government or public.
At a time when some media companies are backing away from investigative journalism, Gannett is betting its newspaper future on it, offering training, tools and cash awards to reporters who excel at getting to the bottom of things and exposing what's there.
Well, to paraphrase a news organization I rarely quote, I'll report, you decide -- if those Michael Davis platitudes are anything other than empty words.
In May of this year I released my tell-all report about the outrageous removal of five magnificent trees in Salem's Historic District.
Entirely appropriately, I called it "Outrage: Salem's U.S. Bank tree killings. The true story of how City officials and the bank president cut down five large, healthy, beautiful downtown trees for no good reason, and misled citizens about why they did it."
In the above-linked blog post (where the report can be downloaded), I said:
This is a case study of how city government shouldn't work.
Here the Public Works Director, Peter Fernandez, ignored the law, facts, expert advice, advisory committee recommendations, and lots of public testimony so he could keep a back-room verbal promise to the U.S. Bank president, Ryan Allbritton, to cut the five large, healthy, beautiful trees down.
The extra-legal promise itself is bad enough. Worse, Fernandez made that promise two years before the bank started the required process of filing an application to remove the trees.
Even so, Public Works Director Fernandez was all set to order that the trees be pruned, rather than removed, until bank president Allbritton reminded him of that "just between us" deal they'd made together. It didn't matter that Albritton was unable to give a single coherent reason why the trees needed to be killed.
After Fernandez spoke with the bank president, everything changed.
Allbritton got an unusual second chance to argue his extremely flimsy tree-killing case. He lobbied city councilors, who weren't bothered by Allbritton's mention of the verbal promise.
Maybe because this is the way the City of Salem habitually does things under its current leadership -- working out deals with special interests behind the scenes, then going through a show of holding public hearings and issuing a formal decision.
Sure sounds like the sort of "wrongdoing or malfeasance" by public officials the Statesman Journal executive editor said the newspaper would vigorously dig into, right?
My report wasn't only about the untold story of how the U.S. Bank trees came to be cut down based on $726.61 worth of heretofore unreleased public records documents I paid to get from the City of Salem. It also provided a window into how big decisions are being made these days at City Hall: behind closed doors, kowtowing to special interests, ignoring facts and the law.
On May 2, 2014 I emailed Statesman Journal investigative and environmental reporter Tracy Loew. She, I want to emphasize, was a delight to work with. By and large I have no problem with the newspaper's worker bees.
It's the Queens of the journalistic hive, the editors and executives, who are failing Salem. After contacting Loew it didn't take long for me to realize this.
Initially, though, I was encouraged.
I've had lots of interactions with reporters over the years. My biggest coup was getting a top journalist at the Wall Street Journal to come out and do a story on Oregon Health Decisions when I was the publicist (and later executive director) of this bioethics organization.
Loew related to me just as I'd come to expect a competent journalist to act: honestly and forthrightly. I had news for her, investigative reporting news. Even better, I'd already done the investigating.
I'd pored through many pages of public records documents (including emails) and distilled them into ten fact-based conclusions in my report which didn't make City officials such as Public Works Director Peter Fernandez or the U.S. Bank president, Ryan Allbritton, look good.
I got a reply from Loew when I told her about the soon-to-be-released report: "Brian, I'll be really interested to see it!" Then, after she had read "Outrage," Loew asked, "Would you be willing to share the documents you received in response to your records requests?"
Of course I would. I took the big stack down to the Statesman Journal offices.
Loew and I spent a pleasant hour or so thumbing through the documents. I pointed out the "good stuff," the most egregious examples of how the public interest took a back seat to closed-door special-interest dealmaking, which eventually led to the five marvelous U.S. Bank trees being cut down for no good reason.
Reporter Loew copied quite a few documents. She then asked me some follow-up questions, which caused me to give her some additional information. We did all this on Monday, May 5.
On that day Loew gave me a heads-up about the story she was working on. This is common, if not typical, in my considerable experience working with reporters. Again, good journalism is a partnership. I had news; the Statesman Journal is in the business of reporting news.
I wrote the "Outrage" report on my own. Loew was writing a story about the report on her own. I didn't expect to know what was going to be in the story until it was published. But I appreciated being told when it was going to run.
Brian, this is going to run on Sunday so it will get better play.
Excellent, I thought. Over the next few days Loew asked more questions, and got some additional information from me. Then Saturday came. I heard from Loew that the story would be on hold for a week. Curious, I asked her why.
With the May primary election coming up, I threw out to Loew a conspiracy theory hypothesis that her editors didn't want criticism of City Hall close to the election. But I was told:
Brian, the truth is it's being delayed because we are so short staffed that I have to work Sunday, so had to take Friday off and didn't get the story done (wrote six other stories last week). And, because they want me to have enough time to make it a really good story.
Again I thought, excellent. Better to do the story right than to do it quick.
Eight days later, though, still no story. When I checked in with Loew, she told me she was on vacation, so probably the publication date would be June 1. OK, that was another Sunday. I put "SJ story?" on that day in my Mac's Calendar.
However, on Sunday June 1 I went to our paper box and found... no story. This is when reality knocked on my head and said, "You realize what is happening, don't you?" That day I emailed Loew:
Tracy, I really appreciate your interest in my US Bank tree report. I have good feelings toward you and all of the other Statesman Journal reporters. You’re doing a good job under rather tough situations. In my view, overworked and underpaid.
This started off a series of communications with executive editor Michael Davis. After emailing him on June 1, he wrote back to me and said:
Naturally I was encouraged by this.
Ah, Loew would be spending more time with the story, not less. Davis recognized that the real story is about how power is exerted in Salem. I was back to feeling good about the Statesman Journal's commitment to investigative reporting.
On June 12 of this year, Davis and I met at the IKE Box coffeehouse close to the Statesman Journal offices. We had a pleasant conversation.
But it bothered me when Davis told me that he wanted the U.S. Bank trees story to be more of a human interest piece. Well, a tree interest piece, really, since he thought it could be told from the perspective of the trees. That didn't sound like investigative reporting to me.
Executive editor Davis also asked me only one question about the report, whether I thought Public Works Director Peter Fernandez did anything illegal. I replied, "Probably not, given Oregon law. But unethical, yes."
I recall that Davis said a story should be published in the next few weeks. Again, I was encouraged. Until June came and went. Then July came and went. Nothing. Loew's story had been crushed, stomped on, suppressed.
I then figured that if the Statesman Journal was going to squash a story about "the way power is exerted in Salem" -- the executive editor's words -- the newspaper should at least publish an opinion piece from me about why no story.
I've attached the 500 word opinion piece as a continuation to this post. Here's a PDF file.
Download SJ guest opinion 7-31-14 PDF
Guess what? (I bet you can.)
I never got a response from Davis or editorial page editor Dick Hughes about the opinion piece either. So not only did the Statesman Journal trash a story that had been written about my "Outrage" report, the paper refused to tell the story about why there is no story.
Geez, what's a citizen activist to do when his community newspaper refuses to act in the community's interest?
Use his own blog to tell the truths that the Salem Statesman Journal doesn't want citizens to know about. Of course, many fewer people read my blog than read the Statesman Journal. And of those, even fewer are going to read all 3,200 words or so of this post.
Which suits the Gannett-appointed executives at the Statesman Journal just fine. Along with officials at City Hall and the Salem Chamber of Commerce -- the other two legs of the triumvirate that does its best to control how this town is run, and who learns about how that control is exerted.
It's really disturbing, how the Statesman Journal is shirking its journalistic responsibiities. Again, I don't blame the reporters. I blame the publisher, executive editor, editorial page editor, and other higher-up folks at the paper.
Democracy doesn't work when people are kept in the dark about what is going on.
Be sure about this: just as Salemians won't read in the Statesman Journal about my tell-all U.S. Bank trees report, they also aren't learning about a lot of other unethical stuff going on at City Hall.
The Statesman Journal does do some investigative reporting.
But not any that would offend its major advertisers or local politicians who support the powers-that-be in this town. (U.S. Bank president Allbritton, who wanted the trees cut down for no good reason, was the incoming Chamber of Commerce president in 2013; no wonder the Statesman Journal killed a story critical of him killing those trees).
Today is when I believe a new out-of-town publisher, Terry Horne, starts what likely will be a brief stay at the Statesman Journal. I noticed a tweet by a SJ staffer.
Recipe for success from new SJ Publisher Terry Horne: Care about each other. Care about the community. Care about great journalism. #SJNow
That made me want to barf.
On August 28 I emailed Michael Davis again, telling him that I'd be writing about the story of no story, and asking him to give me reasons for the killing of Tracy Loew's piece. If he did, I'd include his reasons with the story of no story.
Michael, after Labor Day I’m going to be engaging in another phase of my effort to (1) reveal the general truth about what is happening with backroom deal-making and decision-making by our so-called “public servants” at the Salem City Hall, and (2) what is happening specifically with the unnecessary removal of street trees.
My unpublished opinion piece submitted to the Statesman Journal can be found below.
I’ve lost trust in City Hall and the Statesman Journal. After living in the Salem area for thirty-seven years, this disturbs me. I used to believe that City of Salem officials were committed to serving the broad public interest, not special interests, and our community newspaper had the same goal.
Not any more.
In May I released a report on the notorious 2013 U.S. Bank tree removals, where five marvelous Japanese Zelkovas in the Historic District were cut down. The report is based on public records documents I requested, including emails that previously had been hidden from view.
The title and subtitle tell the tale of what I found: “Outrage: Salem’s U.S. Bank Tree Killings. The true story of how City officials and the bank president cut down five large, healthy, beautiful downtown trees for no good reason, and misled citizens about why they did it.”
(The 18-page report can be found at www.usbankkillstrees.com, or via a Google search.)
I discuss ten reasons why anyone who cares about trees, the environment, and ethical government should be outraged about how the Zelkovas came to be turned into stumps.
The biggest outrage is that back room dealmaking between Public Works Director Peter Fernandez and U.S. Bank President Ryan Allbritton led to the tree killings, even though facts, expert arborist advice, public testimony, and the law all demanded the trees be saved.
In other words, City officials bowed to a special interest rather than fulfilling their duty to serve the general public. Is this still happening? Sure seems so.
Howard Hall is one example. Once again, a citizen committee (this time, the Historic Landmarks Commission) voted to preserve a cherished part of Salem. Once again, City officials sided with a large corporation (this time, Salem Hospital) in overturning that vote.
So my report is about a lot more than the U.S. Bank trees debacle. It provides a window into how the Mayor, City Manager, and others at City Hall generally are handling important policy decisions. In short, in an untrustworthy fashion.Here’s why I also no longer trust the Statesman Journal. An investigative reporter was intensely interested in my “Outrage” report. A story was written. In early May I was told the story would run on an upcoming Sunday. May became June.
Now it is August. No story. Just a question: “Why no story?”
Well, the reporter’s editors have squashed it. Just as no one at the City of Salem or U.S. Bank could come up with a good reason why the Zelkovas needed to be cut down, I haven’t gotten a good reason why readers of the Statesman Journal have been kept in the dark about the outrageous actions of City officials.
I want to feel like I can trust City Hall and the Statesman Journal to do the right thing for Salem. I hope this feeling returns. For now, though, my trust is as dead as the U.S. Bank trees.
My own more limited experiences with the SJ mirror yours very closely.
Have you read the book, "The Chain Gang", by Richard McCord? It gives a great deal of attention to Gannet's arrival in Salem and presents a corporate picture that I found to be "must" reading.
I had a strong personal tendency to attribute failings of the SJ to individual editors and publishers.
The book is one of the things that convinced me this was a mistake. Most publishing decisions are driven by the Gannet corporate model, a system these -mostly men- have indentured themselves to usually out of a passion to be involved in paying journalism.
Deals with such devils are expensive. Mostly, I feel sorry for them. They have nowhere else to go.
Posted by: TjPfau | September 19, 2014 at 10:46 AM
Yes, I've read "The Chain Gang." In fact, I'm re-reading the chapters about Salem to refresh my memory about how Gannett unethically forced the Community Press out of existence many years ago.
Gannett plays tough. Illegally tough, it seemed, in this and other instances when it tried to squash competition. Salemians need to realize that the Statesman Journal isn't a community newspaper. It is a Gannett holding that happens to be in this community.
The SJ web site now is a clone of USA Today's and all other Gannett newspapers. Much of the content of the SJ comes from USA Today. The new publisher has been brought in to do Gannett's bidding, not to pursue journalistic excellence.
Posted by: Brian Hines | September 19, 2014 at 10:57 AM
The Gannet business model for a "community" paper is a symbiosis with that community's C of C businesses.
It is the localized version of "what's good for GM is good for the country."
At its best it is sincerely held and appears to be able to fund a paper that actually does have some local news coverage. The economics of producing such a paper are brutal and getting worse.
But at its worst, naked, pocket lining cronyism is often the result.
It is interesting to watch your own efforts to develop some semblance of an alternative voice.
Keep up the good work.
Posted by: TjPfau | September 20, 2014 at 04:37 PM