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Wednesday, April 06, 2005  

News: Local weekly wins Pulitzer

A weekly newspaper in Portland, Oregon, has made history. This week it became the first medium of its kind to win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The New York Times reports.

Willamette Week in Portland, Ore., an alternative weekly with a circulation of 90,000, won the award for investigative reporting. Nigel Jaquiss, 42, who began his newspaper career seven years ago and is one of four reporters on the staff, exposed the long-concealed sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl by a former governor of Oregon, Neil Goldschmidt, almost 30 years ago.

A small paragraph for a large achievement. WW's staff of four reporters competes with the Oregonian, which has the power and resources of the Gannett Corp. behind it. More often than one would expect, the weekly breaks stories that the Oregonian has missed. One reason a shoestring operation can best deep pockets is that said chain newspaper avoids controversy like the plague. The most famous example is the saga of former U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood. The Oregonian ignored a major story in its backyard while the Washington Post scooped it. Packwood was a powerful person and the 'O' defers to the powerful. Packwood's long history of sexual harassment of women was well-known among the upper crust. He was forced to resign from the Senate in 1995. The same characteristic explains why there are smiles in the cramped offices of WW this week, and consternation in the spacious quarters of the 'O.'

I blogged the situation that has won Willamette Week its prize last year. Let's revisit that entry.

Goldschmidt betrayed all

A regional story I'm following is about a former Portland mayor, Oregon governor and member of President Jimmy Carter's administration. Neil Goldschmidt carried on a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl while he was in his thirties and mayor of Portland. The local alternative weekly finally reported what happened last week -- 30 years after the events. The Oregonian, known for its chummy relationship with the business community, provided a platform for Goldschmidt to try to wriggle out of responsibility. Once he learned another medium was about to publish a well-researched article about the sexual predation, Goldschmidt hurriedly 'confessed'. The crafty old power broker used the Oregonian to color the molestation an 'affair.' He masterfully spun the episode and coverup so that he appeared to be the victim. Molestation of a minor is a felony in Oregon.

The woman's life went down the drain after the three-year period of molestation and a subsequent rape. She is permanently mentally disabled. Meanwhile, Goldschmidt prospered, becoming an extremely wealthy lobbyist for big business.

The effects of the exposure continue. Goldschmidt had been the local henchman for an ill-conceived scheme to sell Portland General Electric to a firm in Texas. Their plan was apparently to loot the assets of the Enron subsidiary and resell it in five years, leaving ratepayers much worse off. Without the silver-tongued Goldschmidt to finesse the deal, the plan failed to pass scrutiny by the Oregon Public Utility Commission last month.

I have mixed feelings about the reporter who won the award. Nigel Jaquiss worked doggedly on the series of articles exposing Goldschmidt. Despite his own liberal politics, he was not reluctant to reveal the dirty laundry of a Democratic politician. Having stopped participating in an Oregon blog partly because of its refusal to be evenhanded regarding pols, I applaud Jaquiss' willingness to go where many a liberal fears to tread. But, I also have found him opinionated and partisan toward causes, if not political parties.

WW has redirected attention to what even a paper with limited resources can accomplish. My hope is that newspapers, large and small, will recall that what is being swept under the rug by the powerful is fertile ground for newsgathering. In the current atmosphere of cautiousness, many a similar expose is likely going unreported.

Read the award-winning series at Willamette Week.

9:48 PM