Oregon has been front and center in the national media for the past week as Gov. John Kitzhaber announced his resignation, effective tomorrow. I have watched with dismay for the past four months as the state’s largest newspaper, The Oregonian, has decimated his reputation over the actions of Cylvia Hayes, his “first lady” and fiancé. In the Online Journal of Public Theology, described as “The Place for Protestant Pastors and Scholars,” Ed Knudson has written about a conservative publication’s success in viciously destroying a leader who supports clean energy policies. The entire piece is here.
Some years ago I remember seeing a movie about an Australian family on a camping trip whose child was abducted by dingo dogs. In television interviews the mother of the child did not appear to be emotionally devastated by the event. Press speculations about this led to a widespread accusation that the mother was a witch or a satanist who may have assisted in her child’s death. The press essentially created an angry crowd, a self-righteous mob out for blood which was not going to be satisfied without a public sacrifice. It turned out, finally, that the mother had a very strong religious faith which led her to believe that her dead child was in the hands of a loving God. So it was not necessary to have an emotional breakdown in front of the television cameras.
Notice that the media in this case itself created an hysterical mass judgment against a person and then required action against that person…. [Kitzhaber] has just been drummed out of office by a newspaper which didn’t like his policy proposals for energy and the environment.
It was the Oregonian newspaper editorial board which decided it could demand the resignation of the governor. It smelled blood in the life story of Cylvia Hayes; concerning Hayes it felt it found a weak spot in the governor, a vulnerable place to go after this governor. The paper could attack her over and over in article after article. The paper could accuse her of abusing her office of “first lady” for her own benefit, getting paid for influencing government. And then after saying this day after day for weeks the paper can claim that the governor is “too distracted” to govern….
The paper itself was responsible for the constant attacks on Cylvia Hayes. The paper was the first to call for resignation. But now the paper was happy to be able to say that it was these “Democratic leaders” who were now calling for his resignation. This is a terrible moment for the Democratic Party of Oregon. It sacrificed its own popular governor.
And this is a terrible moment for democracy. For a democracy to work the people have to be able to elect leaders who have the perspective and fortitude to stand up against what may otherwise seem to be obvious public opinion generated by a self-interested media. Kitzhaber himself in a verbal message his office has just released did not accept the verdict of the press. He said it concerned him that the media could become both judge and jury in forcing him to resign. But he was doing so because the whole matter will take months to reconcile. I am sorry he decided to do this. But his friends appear to have abandoned him. It’s a terrible thing, really bad….
I want readers to understand something about Oregon and its primary newspaper. The paper does not represent the culture or values of the people of Oregon. The people of this state love the incredible beauty of the mountains and rivers and forests and deserts and beaches of this part of the world. The large Columbia River marks the northern boundary of Oregon and the people here know how much they are gifted by such close access to the absolutely gorgeous Columbia River Gorge. But the Oregonian newspaper minimizes the importance of these gifts of nature. This newspaper is completely out of touch with the people of this state.
Now there is a big threat to this gorge. It is coming in the form of coal and oil trains, possibly hundreds of them every month. The big business oil interests have a huge stake in trying to provide for a “movable pipeline” for oil in Canada and North Dakota to come right down our gorge, especially if the Keystone pipeline is denied as it may well be. Already there are lots of trains moving through the little towns and cities along the gorge. And already there are large groups of citizens worried about major oil spills and other environmental impacts of oil trains. These citizens are organized in several important groups and have been trying to minimize the impacts of oil trains. And this has a lot to do with state government and the issue of permits for various facilities needed by the oil trains.
In editorial after editorial [The Oregonian] takes the side of business over the environment. Not long ago it wrote an editorial saying it was not going to say anything about climate change because that is not a local issue and they are only going to speak on local issues. What a complete farce that is. They, of course, take the side of the oil interests outside the state in supporting permits for oil facilities. The real reason they don’t want to talk about climate change is that they know they would be out of step with the people of Oregon, the people reading their paper. So they avoid it.
But the paper wants to get after the governor. They want to especially go after his policies on the environment and energy. And along comes an article about Cylvia Hayes which opens up a real weak spot. And big business really likes to go after weak spots; it’s one of the ways they make money, lots of money. It’s a jungle out there in the business consciousness, go after the easy targets. Cylvia Hayes turned out to be an easy target.
The first stories about her told about how she received money by getting married to an African immigrant who wanted to become a citizen. Then she was said to have bought a farm which was to be used for raising marijuana. So in the public mind now Cylvia Hayes has been vilified, a disreputable character if there ever was one, certainly not a person who should be the wife of a governor. Once that stuff was out there the story line was clear and the Oregonian demanded more and more emails and documents, and the more information they got the more they interpreted details according to the story line that Cylvia Hayes was disreputable and was abusing her access to the governor and state government.
But the Oregonian wanted more and more documents and claimed that Kitzhaber wasn’t providing enough. That is another big media power play these days. Plenty of politicians don’t like to provide incriminating data. But it is not just a matter of data, it is how data is interpreted. And the Oregonian was not a neutral arbiter of facts. It was a paper on a mission, a mission to take down a governor who cared about the environment. And they had found a weak spot.
There is a final lesson in all this about liberal politicians in general. Liberal politicians tend to be genuinely good people. That is, they want to do good in the world…. John Kitzhaber started his career as an emergency room physician, doing good for people. His decision to become involved in politics was to do good for people. His leadership has meant that thousands more Oregonians have access to health care. He will be remembered for this and the other good he has done.
I think John Kitzhaber appeared confused and uncertain in these last few days because he genuinely had difficulty believing that the Oregonian newspaper would actually do what it was doing. The people on the editorial board are really mean and nasty people. They believe their storyline, Cylvia Hayes is dangerous for Oregon…. And they knew that she was a weak spot, a way to get at a governor, a way to demonstrate they were the real power in the state, not those elected by the people.
The Oregonian, its writers and editorial board, do not represent Oregon or its people, their real interests and values…. This paper is not worthy of the people of this state.