The Story Behind the Story: How a 30-Year Secret Involving One of Oregon's Most Powerful Figures Finally Came to Light. How a Feisty Alt-Weekly Made It Happen. and How the State's Dominant Newspaper Stumbled along the Way

Article excerpt

Though other Portland media outlets were onto the story, in May Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss broke the news of a sex scandal involving former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt and a 14-year-old girl.

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On Friday May 7, a troubled Oregonian columnist made his way to the paper's morning news meeting. Steve Duin wasn't a regular at these newsroom powwows. But the day before, Portland's veritable kingmaker, former Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt, had admitted to the paper that in the 1970s, when he was 35 and the city's mayor, he had had an ongoing sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl.

Such a stunner would make for an interesting news meeting on a good day. But, to Duin, this day was anything but. The headline stripped across the Oregonian's front page parroted the term Goldschmidt had used in his confession: "affair." As in: "Goldschmidt confesses '70s affair with girl, 14." To Duin, when you're dealing with "14," you're not dealing with "affair."

Aggravating him further was the coinciding editorial. To Duin's disgust, it took the tack that the real tragedy here was Oregon's loss of a great politician. "Even now," the editorial summed up, "it is painful to watch him leave."

And to make matters worse, the Oregonian, the biggest paper in the Northwest, had been beaten on the story by a Portland alt-weekly. Though Goldschmidt did confess to the Oregonian, his unburdening that Thursday came just hours after Willamette Week confronted him with questions about the girl. When the Oregonian's story posited that Goldschmidt's "deteriorating health" and impending "media accounts of the affair" were equal parts responsible for provoking the confession, many journalists in town cried foul, saying that not only wasn't that fair to Willamette Week, it wasn't an accurate portrayal of the day's events. The weekly had been far ahead on the story and had posted its account the day before the Oregonian published its piece.

So Duin headed to the newsroom's meeting area, known affectionately as "The Well," to gauge, as he calls it, "the mood of the body politic." People were gathered around, gazing at that day's front page, with its tightly cropped image of Goldschmidt's somber, downcast expression. "They were talking about the grief on his face, the human element of the press conference, what it was like to see Neil in this setting, to watch him crumble and fall apart," Duin recalls. "I kinda lost it.

"That wasn't what we should be focusing on at that point--how this tragedy was impacting Neil. How about how it was impacting the girl? I made the Catholic priest analogy--we would not be talking about the grief or the emotions of the priest."

Duin thought the tone of that day's coverage seemed "reverential" to Goldschmidt; the timbre of this meeting only underscored that. As he continued to express his discontent, he added the one thing, the last thing, that anyone at the Oregonian ever wants to hear. "You had to realize," he said later, recalling the meeting, "that to the guy on the street, this might look like Packwood all over again. That we haven't changed at all since we covered Packwood."

Invoking the "P" word at the Oregonian is not to be taken lightly. In 1992, when the Washington Post broke the story of Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood's woman-grabbing tendencies, even though Oregonian reporters and editors had heard from at least one accosted woman--and even though Packwood forced a kiss on an Oregonian politics reporter--it was the lowest point in the paper's modern history (see Free Press, January/February 1993).

In 2000, on the occasion of the Oregonian's 150th birthday, Duin had synopsized the paper's high and low points in a story. In regards to the low, he wrote: "Mistakes? We've made a few. Packwood is the mistake with legs." Continuing, "Not because the eventual breaking of the story generated a bumper sticker--If it matters to Oregonians, it's in The Washington Post--or merits a mea culpa, but because the Packwood story symbolized the newspaper's missed opportunities and loss of reputation. …