"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

The O wraparound


Whatever impact the Oregonian expects to have on the Measures 66 and 67 election (final voting day is Tuesday) is surely going to be minimal among those who actually pay much attention to the paper. Or what’s been written recently about it. What may be larger are the questions growing about just what’s going on at the paper.

The impact it presumably hopes to have is what’s stated in the paper’s editorials opposing passage of the two measures. In the last legislative session the Assembly passed tax measures increasing the marginal tax rates on individuals with income over $125,000 a year (or $250,000 for a household), alongside a tax cut for some lower-income people, and a measure increasing the corporate income tax rate and minimum payments for some (not all) corporations. These have been challenged in the two referenda; a yes vote sustains the legislature’s actions, and a no vote throws them out. The Oregonian on January 4 editorialized for a “no” vote, and reiterated the view since. “The Legislature can do better,” it said.

That would seem to be that – newspapers take such positions all the time – except this time for a mass of complicating factors.

One is that the paper didn’t have such a big problem with the tax increases last year, when they were passed. Editorially, it was not thrilled (like many others, there seemed a preference toward making the increases temporary), but it was generally supportive. Last June 11, it said that “You shouldn’t raise taxes in a recession. But you don’t close schools, boot thousands of students from universities and gut your public safety system in a recession, either. In a state that has little savings, it was one or the other, and the Democratic majority made the right choice.” As for the idea that in the upcoming February legislative session lawmakers might simply adjust the tax package, the Oregonian opined on September 21, “after a brutal and expensive battle leading up to a vote – and at the start of an election year – does anyone really believe that lawmakers will, or even should, tinker with a tax package that voters have either approved or rejected?”

Considering that the Oregonian now apparently thinks just that, you have to wonder what changed.

There’s a good deal more.

Just about every one of these editorials, including one today, has been counter-pointed by a column from David Sarasohn, an associate editor and editorial writer, who has argued exactly the opposite of the current view (though along the lines of last year’s view). That’s not unprecedented, but the series of edits v. columns is certainly unusual. (One is here, but today’s barbed column – “If measures go down, don’t look for safety net” – doesn’t seem to be on line though it was in print.)

Then there’s the spadea.

We call it a “wraparound,” which may be what most people do: A sheet of newsprint that wraps around the front section of a newspaper, covering about the left half of the front page – a sheet which has the newspaper’s flag at the top but otherwise is advertising space. Prime advertising space, and expensive to buy. You can see why a newspaper would want to offer it, and there are worse ways for a newspaper to bring in money. The Oregonian has offered them for a few months. From a reader’s standpoint, most commercial ads in a spadea/wraparound are quickly distinguishable by the eye from regular editorial contender.

Political ads (even with a “paid advertisement” disclaimer at the top) are less easily distinguishable, which is probably why the newspaper’s ad department had a policy of rejecting political spadea.

“Had” is the key word. The blog Oregon Media Central, which has an excellent piece on the O’s spadea, said last week that “Pat McCormick, spokesperson for Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes, says his organization inquired about the spadea before The Oregonian’s January 4 ‘vote no’ editorial. At the time, however, the paper’s advertising department told them that The Oregonian did not accept political ads in the spadea format. After the editorial, McCormick says lobbyist Mark Nelson [working for the “no” campaign”] had the campaign’s media-buying firm make another effort to secure the spadea, which they were successful at doing.”

New publisher Chris Anderson (hired last fall) said that the decision to allow political spadea was made last December, before a decision on 66/67, and said he hadn’t been aware of a policy not to accept political spadea. OMC quoted the paper’s ad director, however, said that he personally had imposed such a policy because “a political ad might take advantage of the placement and make it look like it’s a newspaper statement.”

On Saturday, after a string of “no” spadea, the 66/67 “yes” forces got theirs (there is some question about whether they had sought to buy during the batch of “no” sheets). It used the opportunity to point out the difference in editorial stance, between now and then. On Sunday, the paper’s lead editorial functioned largely as a rebuttal to that spadea. And that editorial was in effect rebutted by Sarasohn’s column.

And there was another response of sorts from publisher Anderson, in which he said he isn’t dictating editorial policy. He concluded, “So, in a nutshell, the editorial positions of The Oregonian stem from good conversation among those folks closest to formulating them. I always reserve the right as the publisher to determine our editorial position, but it hasn’t happened yet – and I doubt it will ever happen that I’ll overrule a strong consensus among the editorial board members.” (Anderson’s column did not mention at all the concurrent, and equally interesting, flap over the spadea.)

Newspaper publishers generally reserve the right to set an editorial position – that normally goes with the position, though wise publishers with good editorial boards usually avoid imposing their views too heavily. Did Anderson do that? As a matter of resume, Anderson’s previous job was publisher and CEO of the Orange County Register, which has historically been notable for its conservative and libertarian editorial views; liberals or moderates need not apply for the job of publisher of the OCR. Something changed at the Oregonian since last fall as regards 66 and 67; the measures themselves, and the circumstances surrounding them, did not. On the other hand, Anderson says he was not party to the editorial action.

Keep watching. This story isn’t over yet.

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