News Council Upholds Newspaper p. 10

By: M.L. Stein Northwest News Council rules against Oregon legislator
and union chief; hearing marks first time a
newspaper sends representative to defend itself sp.

IN A 2-1 decision, the Northwest News Council (NNC) ruled against an Oregon legislator and union chief, who had agreed to withdraw a libel suit against a newspaper and submit his complaint to the council.
The hearing marked the first time a newspaper had sent a representative to defend itself before the council. But perhaps even more important, according to council director Oren Campbell, is the fact that a lawsuit was averted.
"The hearing underscored the valuable role that the news council can play in helping avoid a costly legal action," Campbell said.
The NNC is one of only three such councils in the U.S. The others are in Minnesota and Hawaii.
In the Oregon case, Democratic state Senator Randy Leonard of Portland, who is also president of the Portland Firefighters Union, charged that a story by Marc Zolton in Willamette Week, a Portland alternative newspaper, used some of his quotes out of context, giving the impression that he had disparaged African Americans as applicants for firefighting jobs.
The story, headlined "The White Stuff," contended that only 10 of Portland's 656 firefighters are black, making the department the least diverse of all Portland city bureaus.
Leonard was quoted as saying he strongly favored more racial diversity in the fire department, adding that he had urged city officials to initiate an affirmative action program to achieve that goal.
But it was the next paragraph that enraged the complainant. It read: "On the other hand, Leonard occasionally displays the sensitivity of a Jimmy the Greek."
(Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder was fired as a CBS sportscaster in 1988 for alleged racist statements made during a television interview. Among his remarks was the statement, "The black is a better athlete because he has been bred to be that way.")
Leonard reportedly told Zolton: "They [city commissioners] are looking to hire physicists, chemists and future administrators today. That is inherently discriminatory to the African-American community. They [blacks] are going to achieve well in athletic things that work very well with instant judgments and thinking that relates to people."
In demanding a retraction, Leonard said the quote was taken out of context, creating for him "the most horrible, humiliating experience of my life."
When Willamette Week rejected the demand, Leonard and the firefighters union filed a libel suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court. Subsequently, both parties agreed to let the matter be decided by the NNC.
Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman defended the story's accuracy before the council, asserting it was published after five weeks of research, more than 20 interviews and five drafts.
Zusman insisted the disputed material was in the reporter's notes and said he would give Zolton an "A" for the piece.
One NNC panelist, Jennifer Brandon of the weekly Lake Oswego Review, termed the story a "good-faith effort."
University of Oregon journalism professor Arnold Ismach remarked that "there was no effort to distort" and upheld the accuracy of the material presented in the story.
The third panelist, Neal Barnett, a black community college counselor, sided with Leonard. He said he believed the newspaper tried to be fair and accurate but concluded, "I don't think the story was fair and accurate. I'd feel just as incensed as Randy Leonard did," if he himself had been portrayed that way in a newspaper.
However, all three panelists expressed disappointment that Leonard had gone to court before he had tried either writing a letter to the newspaper or exploring the possibility of redress through a guest editorial.
Leonard told E&P he was "obviously disappointed" by the NNC decision but said he does not regret withdrawing his lawsuit.
"I learned quite a lesson from the hearing ? to be very, very specific in what I say," Leonard said. "I felt good at being able to sit there with the publisher being present, but I hope their conscience bothers them a little bit for what I think were grossly misleading quotes."
The plaintiff added that he also took heart from Barnett's minority vote as representing a "public" viewpoint on the issue and from the fact that Barnett is black. He said he felt the hearing was conducted fairly but suggested the news council be restructured to include two public members and one from the field of journalism.
Willamette Week publisher Richard Meeker, a lawyer, said in an interview that his conscience was not troubled by Leonard's complaint, and he stood firmly by the story. Nevertheless, he lauded Leonard for switching his grievance to the NNC.
"If this had gone to trial, we both would have wasted an incredible amount of time and money and come up with the same result," Meeker observed.
The appearance of Willamette Week's editor and publisher at the hearing was a milestone for the news council. In the three previous cases brought before the organization, the Oregonian in Portland did not send a representative in connection with two complaints, although executive editor Sandra Mims Rowe did respond with a letter to one of them. The Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard provided documentation in answer to a complaint but was a no-show at the hearing.
The two-year-old NNC, which covers Washington and Oregon, was founded by two regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists.


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