Earlier this week, a respected Oregon newsman passed away suddenly.
He left behind a wife and three daughters. Unfortunately, he also left behind a scandal that came to light because of the manner of his death and the subsequent firing of an editor at the paper where he worked who apparently tried to conceal the information.
It began on Saturday, when Bob Caldwell, the 63-year-old editor of The Oregonian’s editorial pages, died of a heart attack. Tributes from co-workers and former colleagues began coming in. Jim Romanesko reported that one former colleague called him “a real old-fashioned, kick-ass journalist in every respect” under whose leadership the paper’s editorial pages won a Pulitzer.
But more details of his unexpected passing also emerged in the very newspaper where he worked for more than two decades. At some point along the way, the paper reported that the departed had been found in his own car, citing the source of this information as an unnamed “friend of the family.”
It turns out that the source was legitimately a family friend, but was also a colleague at the paper, and that the information this colleague provided was false. The false reporting, which was intended to spare the feelings of Caldwell’s friends and family, led to that person’s termination on ethics grounds.
An understandable, though ironic stance for the paper to take, considering that it did report what now appears to be the true circumstances of the death: the newsman died in the apartment of a 23-year-old woman after an alleged sex act between the two. The woman told police he first met her about a year at Portland Community College, and since she didn’t have much money, he had been providing her with cash for books and living expenses in exchange for sex acts at her apartment.
The Oregonian reported the details about what really happened, certainly aware that it would only hurt the man’s family and friends, while choosing to fire the editor who made an attempt to spare them this additional pain.
As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.
At the time, I questioned why the newspaper should have reported such a story. Police investigated the situation and decided against filing any charges related to prostitution since as far as anyone could tell, no money changed hands. So other than the death itself, there really was no story here.
Specifically, I asked this simple question:
“Who is served by reporting this?”
Relatively soon after I posed the question, someone who I assume is also in the news business tried to justify the report, pointing out that the newspaper had no choice but to go into such detail because it would have reported such tasteless truths about other people of note. To not do so, he suggested, would have been hypocritical.
Well, yes, I get that.
And given some of the subject matter I cover — and considering that coverage of double standards has its own category here, I certainly did not mean to suggest that the newspaper actually attempt to hide behind one.
My point was more of a “bigger picture” question: if this person hadn’t been well-known — and one can argue all day how “well known” any local newspaper editor can actually be — would such circumstances have been reported? Probably not.
If the figure was better known, and these facts could be proven, the newspaper would have been even more likely to spread the word about the victim’s “final moments.” Tabloids like the National Enquirer make a fortune reporting such stories.
And therein lies the rub: it’s the tabloids that report these kinds of stories.
The question isn’t “Why shouldn’t the paper have published the details considering it would have done so for anyone else of relative prominence?” The question is, “Why is there a need to publish such details about anyone?”
The best answer anyone can possibly come up with, of course, is that they report it because the audience wants to know. Consider the National Enquirer’s tasteless stunt of publishing a photo of Whitney Houston lying in her casket right on its front page. If there were no audience for such things — and the Enquirer sold more than 6 million copies of that issue alone — the media wouldn’t report such things.
Then there’s the note the man’s widow posted on her Facebook page, as reported by NewsBlues:
“I fear today’s news about the circumstances of Bob’s death may have caused you more sadness. I apologize on his behalf. Bob was a kind, loving and fair man. He would have understood why The Oregonian needed to print the story and he also would have regretted the anguish that it caused to those he loves — both outside and inside of the newspaper. We love him unconditionally.”
The widow apologizes? Seriously? If there were a “last person” who had anything to apologize for, she would be it.
What’s going on in the Pacific Northwest, anyway? Is Oregon in some alternate universe?
If anyone owes an apology, it’s the audience that hungers for this level of information, who can’t get enough of what falls into the “TMI” category.
The media doesn’t have to report it. But if the audience is there and will pay for those who will report it, sooner or later, it will get reported.
Before the media can take the high ground, the audience that brings it revenue must insist upon it. Too many in the audience aren’t willing to do so.