In Hall Monitor this week, I wrote about how a good day for Charlie Hales' mayoral campaign last week quickly turned bad—after the Oregonian published an article that accused him of having to "explain another falsehood." What was the "falsehood?" It was a letter—printed in the St. Johns Review before the primary—that lifted passages from a 2009 O article and, worse, had Hales claiming to have participated in a tour he never actually joined.
When we sat down Tuesday, Hales wouldn't comment on the flap. But late last night, he called to explain why. At the time we spoke, Hales and his campaign were deep into a behind-the-scenes, full-throated push for a correction. Hales doesn't dispute the plagiarism, attributing it to a volunteer, but complains the paper didn't dig deep enough into the claim about his joining the tour. Hales' team implied that the letter was edited incorrectly by the Review and said the Oregonian never bothered to address that possibility.
The campaign dug up drafts it previously hadn't shared—including the draft (pdf) it says it sent to the Review. It even sent a former campaign staffer to the O's offices with a laptop to show that the draft was the genuine article and not cooked up in haste by the campaign.
But by Wednesday, when Hales didn't get what he wanted—despite an exchange of emails with editor Peter Bhatia (pdf) and publisher Chris Anderson (pdf)—Hales decided he'd had enough. He opened up to me and also to the Portland Tribune, releasing emails between the campaign and the paper and copies of the drafts that were provided.
"We provided the Oregonian with proof that the letter we sent to the St. Johns Review did not make any such claim. It did not claim to have me on a tour that I wasn't on," Hales says. "The Oregonian has refused to take responsibility for that error. Every day that stays uncorrected, it doesn't just damage me. It also damages the community. Because Portlanders out to be able to rely on the Oregonian to report the truth or at least admit it, like anyone else would, when they fall short."
Bhatia, when we spoke today, was still rankled by the plagiarism. But he told me "Charlie Hales has every right to do what he's doing"—talking to other reporters and going public with his complaints. However, "the story we published was correct."
"We have seen or found nothing that suggests anything wrong with any of our journalism," he said, also explaining earlier in the conversation that he was minding the content of his comments because "it's still an ongoing story. We're still reporting on it.... We'll no doubt publish something further."
In Hales' defense, there is a noticeable difference between the draft the campaign says it sent to the Review and what the Review published (pdf). But in reading the two, you can begin to understand the Oregonian's reluctance.
The published version opens with an explicit statement, "I recently spent some time St. Johns resident Tom Stubblefield, who gave me a tour of his neighborhood." The draft clearly never goes that far, or specifically makes that claim—although it's fuzzy enough that a careless reader might still be left with the same impression, that Hales joined Stubblefield on the tour.
Spend some time with six-decades-long St Johns resident Tom Stubblefield, and you’ll see community policing sprung to life. Stubblefield grew up here - he attended Sitton Grade School and Roosevelt High School. Twenty minutes into a tour of a neighborhood where he's lived for six decades, he spots a cop. “That’s Sarah,” he says.
The person, I think, everyone needs to hear from is Gayla Patton, the publisher of the Review. She can verify whether any other drafts might have been sent to her paper (Hales and his team say no) and she can also explain why the letter her paper published said what it did. Did she misread the draft and think she was making it more clear? It's a question worth asking.
But right now, no one seems to have that answer. The Oregonian didn't mention whether it tried to reach Patton (Bhatia says he wasn't sure if reporters tried to reach her before the first story). The Trib said it tried but never heard back. Hales' campaign also says it's tried. And I've tried, too, leaving several messages and sending emails, all to no avail.
Hales also didn't help himself in his response to the O in its original story. Hales, instead of gathering the facts and the other drafts before commenting, told reporters: "This was something that somebody here wrote that I signed." His campaign now says he might not ever have seen it before it was sent off to the Review, electronically.
He claimed he was "ambushed" by reporters who showed up at his HQ, just hours after his campaign-finance pledge, and who said they wanted to talk only about his stance on community policing, the primary subject of his Review letter.
"In my shock and confusion," Hales said, "I didn't have the good sense to say, 'Wait a goddamned minute. This is a different subject. Let's talk this over first.' Mea culpa. I was not prepared to be ambushed."
Why is Hales fighting so hard? He has to. This will make impossible-to-ignore fodder for a hit piece come October, and even if voters don't remember the specifics, they'll remember the sense they got from it all. Here's what I wrote this week:
The stakes are incredibly high. This flap brings to mind the time he had to take down TV ads that took credit for a city hall school bailout that happened in 2003, a year after he left office. And it exhumes the stink of his Washington vs. Oregon tax issue.
Hales was called a liar at worst, an absent-minded manager at best, and, maybe I'm stating the obvious, but neither of those are good for a politician.