Press Talk: When we become the story

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian editor

Published:

 

A few years back, I was minding my own business (honest!) in downtown Vancouver when the blue lights flashed behind my ’86 Prelude.

“Me?” I incredulously asked myself. “Really?”

OK, OK, I got caught going -- I think -- eight miles over in a 25 mph zone.

As I was getting the lecture -- and the ticket -- my mind quickly moved to something else:

Making sure everyone knew I had received a ticket.

So a few days later, I wrote about it in my column.

Now, driving eight miles over the speed limit is not one of the seven deadly sins and, frankly, you’d rarely see us write a story about somebody getting a speeding ticket. But still, I felt like I had to hold myself to a higher standard.

Why?

Because there are other people in this community whom I will want to hold to a higher standard.

And what’s good for them is good for me.

Say the mayor gets a ticket for speeding (yeah, right). We’d write about it.

Sure, there will be those who say, “What’s the big deal? Nothing to see here. Move along.”

But there really is an expectation -- especially for elected officials -- to always do the right thing.

Same is true for folks like police officers and firefighters.

And again -- if a journalist is expected to hold others accountable, we should be held accountable as well.

•••

I thought about this when I read a story on Bob Caldwell’s death.

Caldwell was The Oregonian’s editorial page editor. He died Saturday of a heart attack.

The Oregonian honored him with a very nice story, writing about what he meant to the paper and the community.

I would have done exactly the same thing.

The day the story appeared, more news about Caldwell’s death came out.

And it was unbecoming.

Caldwell had not died behind the wheel of his car as the paper was first told. Rather, the 63-year-old married man died in the apartment of a 23-year-old woman. They were having sex.

And that woman was not his wife.

According to the young woman, she had met Caldwell some months ago at Portland Community College. Because she was low on cash, Caldwell gave her money to buy books and other things.

In exchange, he got sex.

Faced with this new information, what would The Oregonian’s editors do? Well, they did the right thing, of course. They reported it.

Now, let’s be honest. If we were to do a story about every politician and high-profile community member who was cheating on a spouse, we wouldn’t have the room in the paper.

So it might be a more difficult decision to do a story if it was just passion run amok.

But Caldwell was paying for it.

I also thought about Caldwell’s family, the real victims here. They have to live through this exposure.

But then, everyone we write about -- who has done bad things -- has to live through the exposure.

Journalists are no better and no worse than the rest of the eclectic species we belong to.

But it is an eye-opener, for us, when we get written about.

Lou Brancaccio is The Columbian’s editor. Reach him at 360-735-4505 or lou.brancaccio@columbian.com. Twitter: http://twitter.com/lounews.