Magazine article Washington Journalism Review

A Newspaper Confesses: We Missed the Story

Magazine article Washington Journalism Review

A Newspaper Confesses: We Missed the Story

Article excerpt

When the Washington Post reported on November 22 that 10 women had accused Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of sexual harassment, the lawmaker's reputation wasn't the only one to suffer. His state's largest newspaper, the Oregonian in Portland, also took some hits.

Many readers wondered aloud why the Oregonian had missed the story. The criticism increased when the paper revealed that one of its own reporters, Roberta Ulrich, had been kissed on the lips by Packwood in his office eight months earlier.

Editor William Hilliard declined to discuss with WJR the Post story or the lengthy front page article the Oregonian printed a week later to explain why it had been scooped. But he did tell the Post on December 2 that his paper "should have been a little more aggressive. ... We were worried about ruining a man's career."

According to the Oregonian's account, Metro Editor Bob Caldwell assigned a story in March after a political consultant, Julie Williamson, told columnist Steve Duin that Packwood once had kissed her on the back of the neck and attempted to pull off her clothes. Williamson would not allow Duin to use her name, so he alluded to the 1968 incident in his column by referring to Packwood as a "Northwest politician." Williamson later agreed to be named in the Washington Post story.

Soon after Duin's column appeared, Packwood kissed Ulrich after an interview. The reporter told two senior editors but asked the men to be careful about whom they told the story to" because she felt embarrassed.

The two were so careful that they didn't mention it to Caldwell or reporter Holley Gilbert, whom the metro editor had assigned to look into the rumors about Packwood. Likewise, Hilliard has said he only heard of the incident after the Post story appeared.

Gilbert said that during her investigation, most of the 25 to 30 former Packwood employees she spoke with praised the senator. A few hinted at a darker side but would not elaborate. Citing a lack of sources, Caldwell "let the story drop" after Gilbert left the paper in July to accept an academic fellowship.

Shortly before Gilbert began her research, Florence Graves, a Boston-based freelance writer and founding editor of Common Cause magazine, began work on a Vanity Fair article about sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

In April, she phoned Mark Zusman, editor of the Portland alternative weekly, Willamette Week, to ask if he had any tips. Zusman told her about Williamson's ordeal - the incident that had appeared disguised in Duin's column.

The incident was not a big secret," Zusman says. Williamson told her story frequently but "made it clear this was not a story she would go public with." Zusman says he tried to pin the story down but didn't have the resources with just three full-time staffers. …

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