We love the Portland Mercury. We've loved them from their first issue, which is why we started the PMUGYG, so we could discuss all the things about the paper that we thought were brilliant, a waste of space, or just very funny.
In this article--and elsewhere in this issue-- we've decided to bring some new voices into our discussion of the Mercury. We'll not only be talking to readers, but also people who are part of the media landscape of Portland, asking them where the Mercury fits in, what they do well… and what they need to do better. Jim Francesconi is a former city commissioner who ran for Portland Mayor in 2004--and was also the subject of many controversial Mercury articles.
PMUGYG: You and the paper go way back, yes?
JIM FRANCESCONI: I've had a lot of experience with the Mercury--from being called chicken-shit on the cover, to being endorsed by them for mayor, so we've run the spectrum here.
Do you think the Mercury has an effect on the outcome of local elections?
The Mercury helped Sam Adams win, because it was close. It didn't determine the outcome of the Mayor's race. The Mercury's political forums, and Phil Busse's candidacy, helped give exposure to the Mercury. I had 20 or 30 people say they were going to vote for Tom Potter until they read the Mercury.
Not many active publications have a staff member running for office and maintaining a column during their candidacy. Do you think that raised ethical issues for Phil, or for the Mercury?
"Ethics" is a little strong, but there were times when the columns were accusing me of ethical violations, at the time Phil was running against me.
The Mercury would say you had an opportunity to respond to them in their candidate interviews last April, for the primary. Your decision to not participate led to the "chicken-shit" incident. Why did you make that decision?
I made a mistake. I was wrong. I tried to ignore the Mercury in the beginning. It was incorrect on my part, for a couple reasons. What I should have done is get over there right away and sit down with them and have it out. I made a political mistake. The tone of some of the articles led me to believe they weren't that serious, journalistically, and weren't doing their homework and investigating some things.
What else led you to believe they weren't serious?
One of the problems the Mercury has, along with the Tribune, and the Willamette Week, is that they're not there all the time. They don't have the coverage of city hall to really know what's going on, because they don't have the staff--so I should have been more understanding.
I saw they were really serious about the political forums they held, and I thought their coverage of the forums was actually better than coverage I read elsewhere. I grew to respect this group, because they had a strong political and philosophical opinion--and they didn't write the story ahead of time, unlike one of their rivals. I found them to be more open-minded.
One of the highlights of the whole campaign, and one of the highlights of my public service, was the mayoral endorsement by the Mercury. The fact they were willing to go against their constituency, to do something so controversial, because they thought it was the right thing to do--my admiration for them really grew. That took guts.
You gave them a chance, and they gave you a chance, both things that sounded pretty impossible initially.
Part of that was my political mistake in how I treated them, but part of that was also how they were willing to actually look at me--without letting me be trapped by an image that had been created.
Do you think it's the responsibility of the media to accurately reflect the nature of a candidate, or is it the candidate's responsibility to manage his image in the media?
It's the politician's job to work on their image. I didn't do enough of that. From the beginning, I tried to work on too many things, so I was perceived as being unfocused. I do care about jobs, and I do think business has got to be part of the deal. So that image [of the "million-dollar candidate"] got created for me--of only caring about business and jobs, which I do think are critical. But all the other things I've done got left out. Meanwhile, Tom [Potter] does the $25 [campaign cap], hasn't contributed to the community in 10 years, and somehow becomes "the populist." But he did a great job, politically, of helping craft an image--and I didn't.
Say a citizen gets involved in politics, and he or she wants to win a city council seat. There's very little training in "image management" for politicians. Where does one get that skill?
Well, what usually happens--and you're seeing it on this city council--you're having politicians' staff people becoming politicians. They get image training by helping others prepare, and then they do it themselves. I'm not saying that's bad, but it's bad if you don't have more outsiders on the city council.
What could the Mercury do to improve their coverage of politics?
I would say, if the Mercury's going to do the city hall stuff, try to spend a little more time covering it--so they understand some of the issues. I thought their light rail articles were good, but other times, I'm not sure they spent enough time there.
They should spend a lot more time at City Hall?
Well, the advantage of not going down there all the time is that you can keep some distance. People who go down there every day lose perspective.
You probably get better information once you have an insider relationship, but then it's going to be hard to be objective.
There are some people there who are really skilled at using the media for their own purposes… and I'm going to leave it at that.
What is the value, to you, of the Mercury's political coverage?
It helps educate people that might otherwise not care. Politics, in the sense of community, is important. They're playing an important role in motivating and politically connecting a group of young people that may not otherwise be connected. There's a mission there. The Mercury has a growing constituency with the creatives that are coming to Portland, and I think it's really healthy.
Kevin Looper was the Oregon State Director for America Votes. Here's how he claims he got screwed over by the Mercury.
PMUGYG: What is "America Votes"?
KEVIN: America Votes is a coalition of 33 progressive groups who came together in this last election to try to educate, register, and mobilize a record number of voters.
Your organization was covered by the media last October during the election cycle. What happened?
A Republican consulting firm under contract from the RNC was using our name, America Votes, to do voter registration. Why? One benefit is subterfuge--nobody would really know who they are. They needed that anonymity because it became clear these people were destroying registration cards from anyone other than Republicans.
This story became a very big story nationally, and it broke out of Oregon.
Tell me about the Mercury coverage. Did they contact you for their story?
No. Their piece was about two weeks behind the other local media. [Our research shows that it was covered in the local media eight days before the Mercury piece. --PMUGYG] What was amazing was that they came late to a story that they apparently didn't read themselves. They told their readers that a group named America Votes was seeking to register voters and destroying progressive registration cards.
It read as if your progressive organization was destroying Democratic registration cards?
The real story was that we were having our name usurped by this nefarious plan to disenfranchise progressive voters. The Mercury succeeded in making us even more of a victim by reporting to our progressive base that we were the ones engaged in this activity.
This was problematic for us, because we were seeking to put ballot drop boxes around Portland, in trusted businesses, and we began receiving phone calls from some of those businesses. Some of the employees at Powell's, for instance, had the impression, as a result of the Mercury coverage, that they had been working with this clandestine operation to disenfranchise progressive voters.
When we followed up with them, the Mercury did run a follow-up piece, a very small paragraph, as corrections almost always are.
Did you hear anything from the author of the story?
The explanation we received was [along the lines of], "Yeah, we're sorry. It was an intern who wrote the story. This stuff happens."
The most amazing thing to me was that if you'd just typed in the words "America Votes" into Google, you would have found a fascinating story that every other news source in the country found. That was, Republicans were trying to masquerade as progressives in order to destroy registration cards.
I don't think most problems come back to people, they come back to systems. Who's assigning, supervising, and editing what an intern does, before it goes out as truth? And I understand, even the New York Times can't keep people from making stuff up, but it would be nice to think that they would try. And if they tried and failed, they would feel very bad about that, and would want to then tell the story correctly. Jim Redden writes for the Portland Tribune. He formerly worked for Willamette Week, the Portland Mercury, and his own paper, PDXS.
PMUGYG: Give us your thoughts on the Mercury from a journalist's perspective.
When the Mercury first came to town, it was a different media situation. The Tribune hadn't started. There was really a need for another newspaper in town. The Oregonian was not doing very much local news coverage. They had gotten very lazy, and so had Willamette Week. They weren't trying very hard.
But once the Mercury actually started coming out, I realized that serious news wasn't something they were very interested in. They're much more interested in hip, flip, sarcastic, young feature-writing stuff. And they do that just fine--but it's not anything that interests me. In my mind, cynicism isn't a political stance.
Some of their feature stories are funny, some are just weird--like [Marjorie Skinner's] kidnapping story. I didn't know how to take that. It's like they want to be risk-taking and out there, but how risk-taking is it to be kidnapped by a friend or play with a dildo? [She was actually kidnapped by a stranger she found on Craigslist. --PMUGYG]
The only thing they're doing that I consider to be real reporting is their questioning of Basic Rights Oregon, and their strategy in the gay rights stuff. I think that's really good, and I applaud them for that.
What's different about their BRO coverage, from your point of view?
It's really good they're willing to question an organization that most of their readers would typically accept as walking on water. That's a definite role they could fill. They could do some serious reporting on the activist groups in town. Who are the leaders, who are the followers? What did they accomplish?
Generally, how do you view the Mercury's news coverage?
It's unclear for the average reader how seriously to take their news. Is it genuine reporting, or cynical reporting? I think it's really exemplified by Phil Busse's run for mayor--which I personally think was ill-advised. If you're simply going to run for mayor as a laugh, to generate attention for the paper… okay, I understand that. It's a marketing ploy, have some fun with it. But that isn't what he did. He really ran a serious campaign. He got volunteers; they went door-to-door. He said some serious, thoughtful things in the public appearances I saw. So was I supposed to take his campaign seriously? What did the paper think, and what did he think, about the fact that he didn't get very many votes? I don't know, because he didn't actually write about that.
I think the Mercury is reactive. They're reacting to the biggest story of the moment that they think appeals to their demographic, but they often don't follow it up. With the Kendra James and the James Jahar Perez shootings, they wrote quite a bit about how bad the cops are, the relationships between the police and the black community, and so on. But they haven't written a thing about it since. If it's as bad as they say, it shouldn't be hard to find more examples of behavior that nobody else is reporting.
Like with Basic Rights Oregon--they're being proactive, rather than reactive.
Yes. Of course, there's a risk of alienating some of your readers with that kind of coverage. Portland is so small. Everybody knows everybody else, [the local media and progressive activists are] all friends, and they're not willing to criticize their friends. And they seem to think they're under siege from the far right, so if they write a critical story, they're contributing to the siege, instead of saying, "An organization we're supposed to trust is screwing up, and here's how." That has real value.
The Mercury is clearly on the same side as Basic Rights Oregon, and other liberal groups.
I think the Mercury's politics are kind of confusing. Maybe on the news page, you're going get some left-wing stuff, but in the rest of the publication, I'm not sure what its political bent is. I think it's amoral. It wants to embrace strippers and binge drinking, and--sure, fine, go ahead. But isn't there kind of a downside to the stripper world? Isn't there a downside to excessive alcohol consumption? I know it kind of destroys the party to bring it up. But they do big features on, "Let's get shit-faced."
But what am I supposed to think that there's no mention at all about drunk driving fatalities, or bar fights that start because of drinking, or the down side that everyone truly knows is out there? At some point, you turn 17, and you begin to realize that everything has a down side, and you're not being a sellout to deal with it.