Oregon governor’s resignation shows power of local media

In-state journalists brought down John Kitzhaber without national outlets' help

AP875448804778.jpgKitz Gov. John Kitzhaber takes his oath of office in January alongside fiancee Cylvia Hayes. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

The scandal that enveloped Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in recent months didn’t capture the attention of national political media the way New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s “Bridgegate” imbroglio or other state-level scandals have. A lack of proximity likely played a central role in this relatively light coverage — the New York–Washington media nexus is both geographically and politically removed from Salem, OR — as did the lack of potential ramifications for the 2016 presidential race.

But aggressive accountability reporting from local media there since since October has shown that Oregon’s political press corps didn’t need any help exposing a governor entangled in personal and professional conflicts of interest. Announced last week, the embattled Kitzhaber’s resignation became effective Wednesday. He blamed journalists for his fall from grace, saying in a statement that “it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced by the media.” (Kitzhaber and his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, are now the subjects of a federal grand jury investigation.)

“The media” to which he refers isn’t The New York Times, but rather the Willamette Week, Portland’s alt-weekly. The Week and other local outlets, including The Oregonian, spent months digging into the four-term Democrat’s ethical negligence. 

The thinning ranks of statehouse reporters has been much talked about at CJR and elsewhere, and many journalists openly worry about a potential rise in corruption as a result. Aggressive coverage in Oregon, however, forced the governor out of office just as the national media began to notice something was amiss. The work deserves praise for showing that concerted efforts by local news organizations can still pack a punch.

“You used to have somebody break a big story, and then everybody else would be chasing it with everything they had,” said Nigel Jaquiss, a reporter at the Willamette Week. “There’s been a lot less of that in the last five or six years or seven years, as newspapers have had fewer resources. But I’ve seen that come back with this story — it has the feel of what you want with different organizations competing against one another.”

It all began with a parking ticket in December 2013. The next month, Jaquiss ran Hayes’ name “just for the sake of checking in,” he said, learning that the first lady had been cited for improper use of a Oregon State Police parking permit. “It’s not a big deal, but it went to the whole sense of entitlement that I believed she was feeling,” Jaquiss told CJR. “As soon as I wrote that very small piece, I probably got three or four more tips from people.”

Jaquiss gathered more string as the November gubernatorial election approached, filing public records requests on Hayes last summer. His eventual profile of the first lady, published Oct. 8, opened the floodgates for all subsequent reporting. Describing Hayes as perhaps “the most influential first lady in Oregon history,” the piece detailed potential conflicts of interest in Kitzhaber’s office, where Hayes, a private consultant on energy and economic issues, had also worked as an adviser to the governor. 

In November, I applauded Jaquiss’ feature for spearheading coverage of the governor and his fiancee’s alleged transgressions:

In reporting the story, Jaquiss also broke news that Hayes had married and quickly divorced an 18-year-old Ethiopian immigrant in 1997 (Hayes subsequently confessed that she was paid $5,000 to do so, a federal crime). After a follow-up public records request, Jaquiss reported that gubernatorial staffers had long quarrelled over Hayes’ potential ethics violations, and eventually ‘Kitzhaber’s office shaped the standards applied to Hayes.’”

Though Jaquiss has continued to own this story, other local outlets likewise upped the pressure on Kitzhaber. Hillary Borrud of EO Media Group/Pamplin Media Group revealed on Jan. 27 that Hayes had been paid $118,000 as an energy consultant while working in the governor’s office — “That really blew new life into the story,” Jaquiss said. The Oregonian’s Nick Budnick and Laura Gunderson followed with a Feb. 3 investigation, which showed how Kitzhaber confidantes helped create such lucrative jobs for the first lady.

The Oregonian also helped extend the story’s reach. On Feb. 4, the paper called for Kitzhaber’s resignation in an editorial, which The New York Times mentioned in its morning political roundup the following day. The Times and Washington Post eventually ran full stories on the governor on Feb. 11, and the Wall Street Journal did the same a day later. Kitzhaber announced his resignation on Feb. 13.

Perhaps that national attention was the straw that broke the governor’s back. Or perhaps not. The information uncovered by local news organizations was both damning and well-presented, so much so that Kitzhaber’s parting shot against “the media” rings especially hollow.

*This article has been updated after an interview with Willamatte Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss. 

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: