Is the Willamette Week carelessly assailing and impugning the reputation of U.S. Senate candidate and House Speaker Jeff Merkley? Judging from the sloppiness and one-sided nature of today’s article “Merkley’s Rental Health“, one can only assume so.
Just two weeks after accusing Kari Chisholm of roguish behavior through his ‘machine politics’ support of Merkley, the Willamette Week has rounded up a story on some rental properties that Merkley owns. This story seems to be a continuation in the weekly paper’s series of poorly-investigated exposés into the so-called Democratic ‘establishment’, from state Sen. Betsy Johnson, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Chisholm. And like those other forays into investigative journalism, this one comes up short.
The problem? The Willamette Week takes great pains to point out small problems in the various properties, but does little in the way of investigation to determine where those problems arise and where the responsibility for them lies. By just reading the article, you get the sense that WW hunted around for negative details concerning the properties and figured that anything that turned up could be simply attributed to the owner–Jeff Merkley.
If the Willamette Week wanted to take Merkley to task for his stewardship of rental properties, then why wouldn’t the paper assure thorough reporting to ensure accuracy? As it stands, there are some glaring problems with the article.
The first problem is the number of sources (a class of people that apparently does not include Jeff Merkley). WW mentions that Merkley and his wife own as many as 10 rental units, and the paper notes that they talked with six of the renters. However, only three of the renters have quotes in the article, two of whom are cohabitants in one unit. If, as WW writes, “Merkley’s tenants were eager to speak about problems in their units”, then where are the other angry tenants?
Furthermore, the article’s conclusion that Merkley tolerates a good level of ‘shabbiness’ for his tenants seems to be based on somewhat speculative reasoning. One of the three quoted tenants, Bryan Marsh, has done some work on his unit, but WW doesn’t tell us why Marsh thought the work was necessary:
Marsh says he’s patched the walls of his unit, installed baseboards and replaced the screen door without getting compensated by Merkley.
The sentence does not show that Marsh requested work to be done by Merkley or that he should be compensated for work performed. It is possible that each of these items could have suffered damage beyond normal wear and tear, in which case Merkley would not bear responsibility for the cost of repair or replacement. Leonard’s sentence does not indicate the nature of the need for repair, but it does provide a convenient citation for the larger argument of the article.
WW also relies upon hearsay to conclude that Merkley withholds the provision of water services to tenants in the following sentence:
Marsh [. . .] says an on-site manager told him Merkley wouldn’t pay for water Marsh wanted to use on the lawn.
Is water included in the rent payment? From the article, the reader cannot tell, though it does stipulate that no ‘violations’ were found.
The article completely lacks any accounts, positive or negative, from the Holy Cross Associates or Lutheran Volunteer Corps tenants that occupy the two houses that Merkley owns and rents out.
Overall, the flaws in reporting and the weight given to negative accounts of Merkley’s property stewardship over any possible positive accounts imply that the author or his editors had a predetermined outcome. In trying to paint Jeff Merkley as careless, however, Willamette Week forgot the basics of reporting and the higher standards of journalism that come with exposé-like investigative journalism. For one, you have to conduct an actual investigation. A reporter cannot simply slink around someone’s house, peer through someone’s windows, and then write up a hatchet piece to justify his time.
Yet, this trend of sloppy sleuthing is entirely, and regrettably, consistent with recent Willamette Week work. The Good, Bad, and Awful survey of state legislators earlier this year based its conclusions on the anonymous submissions of 30 agenda-driven lobbyists, basically providing cover for the lobby to fire back at any lawmaker that had ever crossed them. Just one month ago the weekly newspaper all but impugned the motives of Governor Ted Kulongoski in the state pardoning process. And let’s not forget the month-long collaborative smear of state Sen. Betsy Johnson by Willamette Week and The Oregonian, who were called out by local blog Loaded Orygun for lacking accurate facts.
But then again, the Willamette Week has run out of real enemies. With the Republican villians vanquished by the 2006 Democratic takeover of the Oregon House, the weekly has been starving for policy-based controversy and must find new fodder for its scandal-driven circulation. And so it has begun to cannibalize its former friends, starting with Tina Kotek as Rogue of the Week and continuing with this classless critique of Merkley’s property management portfolio.
Let’s tell them that Portland and Oregon won’t stand for their messy brand of smear journalism. Contact the Willamette Week here.