TMI: When does news become gossip?

Found the following at The Oregonian’s site tonight:

Bob Caldwell, editor of The Oregonian’s editorial pages, was in the Tigard apartment of a 23-year-old woman when he went into cardiac arrest Saturday afternoon.

 

 

The woman called 9-1-1 at 4:43 p.m. to report that Caldwell, 63, was coughing and then unresponsive after a sex act. Washington County sheriff’s officers and medical personnel responded and transported him to Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, where he later was pronounced dead.

 

The woman told deputies she met Caldwell about a year ago at Portland Community College. Caldwell, she said, knew she didn’t have much money, so he provided her cash for books and other things for school in exchange for sex acts at her apartment.

 

Caldwell had not given her money Saturday, she told deputies. They decided against pursuing prostitution charges. Deputies notified Caldwell’s family of his death Saturday evening.

 

The Oregonian previously erroneously reported that Caldwell had been found in his parked car on Saturday.

 

Caldwell led The Oregonian’s editorial board since November 1995 after a long career in Oregon newspapers. Under his direction, the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for a series of editorials about abuses at the Oregon State Hospital.

 

He was a statewide leader in newspaper professional organizations, including the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, whose causes he championed for more than 30 years.

 

#

Back in the late 1990s Bob Caldwell published some of my earliest work as a columnist. Those columns are in a file folder in my office. Bob took an early interest in my writing career. He would send me encouraging emails, or call me from time to time. Whenever I was in Portland, he would tell me to come by the office. We would walk from The Oregonian to the Oak Room at the Benson Hotel where he would order a bourbon or scotch, I never paid attention to that, and I would stick to water, with lemon, please.

To be honest, it was all quite intimidating to me. I didn’t begin my first journalism job until my 40th birthday. Really. Started my first reporting job on that birthday. I hadn’t worked on a high school or college paper. Everything I learned, I learned boots-on-the-ground.

Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of great mentors along the way. People who were always so willing to help me. I could never figure out why. What did they see in me that was worth their time? I know sitting here now with my fifth book hitting the shelves of bookstores around the country this week, that might seem like false modesty to you but it’s the truth. I am living a life I never envisioned for myself. Certainly not at age 14 or 24 or even at age 40.

I owe my success to the likes of a  lot of people. Bob Caldwell was one of them. He published my very first oped in The Oregonian long before we ever met face to face. Bob was intrigued by my southern roots, my Christian faith, and other things.

Things I didn’t notice at first. (I’m a lot more dense than I come across at times.)

I didn’t think anything of it when Bob was overtly affectionate. I’m not going into details here but suffice it to say that after a few of these encounters, and a word of caution from other mentors at The Oregonian, I kept a respectable distance from Bob.

I was saddened when Tim came home tonight and told me Bob had died. The last time we spoke Bob was working on a screenplay and I was about to publish my first memoir.

My assumption was that Bob died from a heart attack. He was a man with big appetites, as you can obviously see from the story that his own former employer ran about his death.

This sort of salacious reporting is exactly what we cover in Com 201, the Media and Culture class I teach at Central Washington University: What’s the difference between news and gossip? And when do we cross the line?

Columnist Liz Smith defined gossip as news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.

Others have defined gossip as the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid. That does seem to clarify a lot of what passes for news these days.

For me, reporting on former Senator John Edwards’s adultery seems absolutely appropriate. But giving the specific details of Bob Caldwell’s death seems mean-spirited.

What do you think?

About Karen Spears Zacharias

Author. Speaker. Journalism Instructor. Four kids. Three dogs. One grandson.

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    Agreed. And I am saddened when those who do report it justify it with the “he’s a public figure” speech.

    • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

      So James, should we have reported on John Edwards’s affair or not? He was running for president after all..

      • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

        Definitely (although some of the more salacious details could have been left out), because most voters take personal character into account as one factor when they choose one candidate over another.

        • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

          Sometimes I wonder if we have swapped out public personas in lieu of personal character.

  • AFRoger

    Here in the Rose City, there is something else to consider. I’d be very surprised if the situation surrounding Mr. Caldwell’s death were an isolated occurrence and not part of a web that people weave for themselves believing it will never come to light. We can also bet that Willamette Week is going deep on this. Given a weekly publishing schedule, WW will have the time to do so.

    For The Oregonian to remain silent on the subject would completely discredit the paper as biased and blind to news staring them in the face. Sadly, these rather spare details of the situation that seem mean spirited and excessive up front may prove to be only a superficial dusting. It’s likely the editorial staff chose not to print additional information that they have as a sort of juggling act between respect for Mr. Caldwell’s family and colleagues on the one hand and complete journalistic negligence on the other.

    On another note, today seems like a good day for everyone to stand before the mirror and ask two questions: 1) Am I also engaging in some kind of destructive self-deception? 2) Does someone I know or work with keep giving off danger signals, and is it time for me to say, “I’m concerned about some things I see.”

    • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

      Great points Roger. Yes, I it would be wrong for them to cover it up. And you are correct that the WW will cover it more in-depth. But Bob’s issues were well-known within the paper, thus, those who warned me. Yet, we all know people on a self-destructive path, or someone who thinks they can color outside the lines all the time. We can talk to them until we run out of breath and it won’t dissuade them from their path. The irony is that Bob, the journalist, became the headline because he lived a reckless not-so-secret life.

      • AFRoger

        I will disagree on one point from personal experience. We whould not expect to be moral supremacists who with three phrases will work miracles. Years ago I was on a self-destructive path that came, I generously estimate, within two weeks of ending my life. My demon involved nothing like Mr. Caldwell’s. Depression had me, and I had a plan. I had designed the plan to work. It would not fail. I had designed like an engineer. It’s what I do.

        I still remember lying on the lving room floor in an inert black hole and my sweet, shy wife in tears saying, “I fear for your health” because she was so scared she could not bring herself to say, “I fear for your life.” She had every reason to fear. It was real. No, a cub reporter or someone in ad sales may not have had a chance. But the man in question had a boss, or bosses. We have no control over the lifelines we throw once they leave our hands.

        And every now and again, they do haul in a drowner. I’m one.

        • AFRoger

          …and the boss or bosses or peers may have done their level best. I hope so, but I don’t know.

        • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

          It’s the one you save that we have to remember when we feel overwhelmed by the numbers we lost. Glad Jean talked you out of the darkness.

  • Sheila Hagar

    I, too, was mentored by Caldwell, although only through phone conversations and emails. I also was blessed by other mentors at that paper. All took a similar — and seemingly delighted — interest in my work and here I am today, sitting in a newsroom that I initially had no “cred” for. Caldwell was a generous teacher and a patient listener.

    I think I’ll just remember that part, if its OK. I am so sorry for his family and that young woman. I am sorry for Bob. I wish we weren’t all so damnably human. But there you have it — the reason we need to leave here eventually.

    • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

      Shelia: Yes, he was a generous teacher.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pastorr Scott Orr

    There is a price to pay for fame – and that is part of it. You ‘are’ the news. I agree that it’s sad for his family and friends, but if you are among the elite, you are fair game. Sad, but true.

  • John in PDX

    Wow,
    Didn’t think you were going to touch this one. I did read yesterdays front page article and then saw the real details elsewhere.
    The thing that bothers me is the coverup. It was originally reported that he died in his car by the Oregonian. Probably shouldn’t have made it front page news if you were trying to cover it up. I didn’t need to know about his personal life.

    • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

      John, really? You didn’t think I’d touch this one? Why?

      • John in PDX

        Not your usual area.
        How about the new details about his drunk driving? Does that really need to come up to? I picked that up on a foreign news feed. Let me know if you need back up.

  • Realgoldie

    I worked at The O for years and never heard rumors about Bob. He was a good, kind man, a mentor to many at the paper. My guess is The Oregonian had to print today’s story, because they had previously printed a lie fed to them by a family friend. If the friend hadn’t told the paper Bob was found in his car, and the paper hadn’t printed it, then they wouldn’t have had to print the corrected, salacious version we read today. Was Bob a public figure? Well, he gave speeches about journalist ethics, so I have to believe he was a minor public figure, and that he would have been in favor of printing a story to correct the record. On another note, I heard that Bob and his wife are close friends with Neil Goldschmidt and his wife, Diana. If so, Diana may be able to comfort Bob’s wife, both having had to deal with the sexual escapades of their husbands.

    • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

      Realgoldie: Bob was kind, and he did, indeed, mentor many a journalist. He was also smart and honed keen critical thinking skills. But like all the rest of us, he had his blind spots. Still, I think the Oregonian was going to run the story as they did, with or without the misinformation. There’s just no way to keep such information private in this world. The Willamette Week and bloggers would pick it up and run with it. I’m like John in PDX, tho, I just don’t need to know all that stuff about anyone. Even the details they gave about Clinton and Edwards seemed far too much for me.

  • Skeeter

    “” People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks.” If he wanted transparency from public officials, should he not hold himself to the same standard? My condolences to the family for the loss of their loved one.

    • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

      Skeeter: It’s been my experience as a journalist that the last people prone to transparency are those who run newspapers. Take Murdoch for example…

  • Disappointed

    Well, as somebody who knew Bob well and who read your blog post as his family is preparing for his funeral, I would say that you took the occasion of his death to glorify yourself and shame him. And I would say that is TMI.

    • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

      BizMike: How does this glorify me or anyone else? The question is a serious one and one that those of us who work in the information business need to consider more carefully.

      • Guest

        I think you gave TMI by adding your comment about over affectionate. Congradulations you made Koin TV. A little plug for your new book? Talk about wrong. I would hate to be remembered for my vices or mistakes I made. This man did far more good than bad in his life time, and folks like you trying to get attention is twisted and wrong Karen.

        • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

          FYI: I had no idea about the KOIN “news” story. News directors there didn’t bother to contact me by phone or email or otherwise. I was dumbfounded that they would use a blog post as “news”, which in many ways just contributed to the very issue I raised in the original post. Since when doesn’t a journalist have to call and verify information before building a story with it?
          I don’t see how your claim about writing this piece in anyway helps build a market for a book about child abuse. But then I’m a writer, not a marketing/pr person. Perhaps you have some insights I lack in this matter?
          Yes. I would hate to be remembered for the mistakes I’ve made, too, which is why I raised the question — how is the Oregonian’s report news?

  • Mwalther

    I would like to believe that an upstanding paper like The Oregonian wouldn’t have published such garbage if they hadn’t printed misinformation first. Oh, and then I woke up. I see absolutely no reason why this should be in the media other than people like to feel better about themselves so it sells. How on earth does this impact our community except for embarrassing this man’s family?

    • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

      Not sure who made the decision to run all those salacious details. Seems like you could have accomplished the same thing by just saying he was found dead at such and such address. And a 23-year-old female made the call to 911. That seems to be the facts. The other appears to be gossip, the kind of stuff that law enforcement tells in the back room over coffee in the mornings.

  • http://katdish.net/ katdish

    Sadly, I think much of the news has become gossip, and the public eats it up.

  • Pdxd Jones

    Karen, you coming out now and saying he was “overtly affectionate” is shameful on your part. What are you trying to accomplish here? Shame on you. Obviously your journalist skills show no purpose or point here. Gossip and hearsay and saying things like you are now, when he is gone, shows your lack of integrity also.

    • Zachauthor

      Perhaps or perhaps it shows an integrity in restraint for what I didn’t tell you

      • Pdxd Jones

        I guess I don’t see the relevance of either.

  • Anonymous

    This crossed the line from news to gossip. Are they competing with blogs or something? In college, I took a number of Journalism classes. If I had handed in something like this for the university paper, it would’ve been returned with heavy criticism.

    Ha, so much for journalistic integrity.

  • Fracas

    Check out the latest W Week. Reporter at O got fired. She was the friend who told the “found in the car story”.

    • http://karenzach.com Karen Spears Zacharias

      Here’s the link to the WW story:
      http://www.wweek.com/portland/blog-28370-the_oregonian_fires_editor_who_provided_false_information_about_the_death_of_bob_caldwell_the_papers_editorial_page_editor.html

      This whole story just gets more and more complicated and, tragic, for the many involved. I completely understand the motivation behind Ms. Glanville’s decision to “cover up” the circumstances of Bob’s death. I once had to write a similar sort of unsavory story about a man my husband coached with. In this case, the coach, a school counselor, was married and had a daughter. Oregon State Police found him with a 15-year-old girl in a compromising situation. He was in his 40s. In hindsight, I should have removed myself from the story because of my husband’s friendship. Glanville probably should have done the same. I remember fielding a call from that coach that morning pleading with me not to run the story. “Think of my wife and daughter,” he said. “I wish you had,” I replied.


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