Wehby, Merkley and a cowardly newspaper in Oregon

The Oregonian, Portland’s no-longer-daily newspaper, recently exhibited the sort of editorial cowardice that is symptomatic of an industry in decline.

The paper’s editorial board chose not to endorse in Oregon’s U.S. Senate race between Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley and Republican Dr. Monica Wehby. It printed a non-endorsement endorsement.

The Oregonian doesn’t like Merkley because he’s a progressive Democrat. It doesn’t like Wehby because … well because she’s just that terrible of a candidate.

Watching Wehby’s campaign implode has been fascinating. Just a few months ago, George Will held her up as the sort of strong female candidate Republicans need, and proclaimed her slogan, “Keep your doctor/Change your senator,” the best bumper sticker of the year. The Oregonian itself endorsed her in the primary.

Then came the police reports of stalking filed by her ex-boyfriend and ex-husband, the two plagiarism incidents, and her hiding from the media and debates.

Monica Wehby

Monica Wehby

Most embarrassing of all for everyone who jumped on the Wehby bandwagon early, is that she proved a complete policy lightweight. Perhaps she’s a good doctor, but on the substantive issues people might expect their senator to be versed in, Wehby is out of her depth.

Even a partisan editorial board could not endorse her. Well, at least not The Oregonian’s.

Merkley will win, Wehby presumably will go back to neurosurgery, and The Oregonian will continue its sad slide into irrelevance.

The Oregonian is not the only newspaper that eschews controversial endorsements. In Virginia last year, few papers could bring themselves to endorse über-conservative Ken Cuccinelli, or his challenger Democrat Terry McAuliffe, in the race for governor. Newspapers have written none-of-the-above endorsements in congressional and even presidential races in recent years. Columbia Journalism Review has a good report on the papers that are abandoning editorials — and the few returning to them.

Some editors and publishers fear that anything controversial will lead to canceled subscriptions, hastening their doom. Others simply don’t want to deal with phone calls and emails from irate readers And still others think they somehow demonstrate wisdom and nuance by beind fearfully neutral. They have weighed the options and found both sides wanting, so they choose not to decide.

If only voters had that luxury. Individually, they can under-vote. But unless they do so en masse (including convincing the candidates, their friends and family not to vote), someone will emerge victorious on Election Day, or after a recount.

I’ve written editorials for newspapers for more than 15 years. One of my first editors had a philosophy that stuck with me. “If the voters have to decide, we have to decide,” he’d say. We endorsed in almost every contested race from president down to the local library board.

Sometimes we didn’t like any of the candidates, and we’d say so. Then we’d hold our noses and recommend the one who was least bad.

The Oregonian lacked that courage. (And it’s not like the Wehby-Merkley race has two bad options. Merkley actually is quite good.)

Sometimes the best candidate isn’t even a Democrat or Republican. In its haste not to endorse, The Oregonian ignored three candidates in the race. The Pacific Green, Libertarian and Constitution candidates might be long shots to win, but if the major party candidates were so bad, they at least deserved consideration.

There’s a case to be made that newspaper editorials, and endorsements in particular, are an anachronism, that they don’t influence readers or public policy, that they are “nothing but a propagandistic ploy.” It’s not a view I share, but it’s certainly a discussion worth having.

But if newspapers do decide to print editorials and endorse candidates, they should do so boldly. Waffling and hand wringing wastes everyone’s time.


Christian Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer, editor and political consultant based in Portland, Ore. He wrote exclusively for The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times before founding Opinion in a Pinch. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation and is open government chairman. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal and facebook.

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  • Erik Lukens

    Chris: When taking the high-and-mighty-editorial-expert approach, as you have here, it usually pays to get your facts straight. You begin this piece by claiming that The Oregonian is a “no-longer-daily” newspaper. That is incorrect. We publish seven days a week. I’m surprised you don’t know that, as you live in Portland and presumably see our paper regularly. In fact, you’ve even visited our editorial board as a hired writer for the City Club of Portland. Second, your suggestion that we avoid controversial endorsements is just silly, as I suspect you know. Or maybe not, as you don’t seem to realize we publish daily. As evidence, look no further than our decision to endorse Gov. John Kitzhaber for re-election – and stick with that endorsement despite the Cylvia Hayes revelations.

    Erik Lukens
    editorial and commentary editor
    The Oregonian

  • annAnnMOwenann

    My Uncle Caleb got a new white Toyota Corolla by working off of a computer… go to this web-site …>> -> START FREELANCING!!! <-

  • Thom Allen

    Maybe she could get Ben Carson to come out to Oregon and give her a hand. That would be a big hot for RepubliCON outreach. An African American nut job pediatric neurosurgeon and a female lightweight pediatric neurosurgeon. Both of them are a few hundred million neurons short one complete cerebrum.

  • All true, but at the same time I do find myself wishing we had more elected officials who weren’t lawyers or former CEOs.

    The real problem with Wehby is one common to many GOPers (and far too many Dems): If someone acts unethically or criminally in their profession or business, why should we expect them to behave any differently if elected to high office? (Witness, for example, Gov. Rick Scott….)

  • And people wonder why voter turnout is down and keeps declining…

  • BlueIdaho

    When I first moved to Boise five years ago, The Idaho Statesman was a pretty liberal paper for a very conservative state. It was good because they really tried to call the state legislature on its bullshit. However, in the face of losing readership, they hired a conservative editor and now they are on a drive to increase readership among the far right and the tea party. Hence this month they endorsed every conservative candidate, including that simpleton, Raul Labrador. I think it’s time to cancel my subscription.

  • DonewithDems

    It’s been really odd, but not just the Oregonian newspaper, but all the local Oregon TV news outlets have been strangely silent about Ms. Wehby’s stalker past. They’ve also been largely silent about her involvement in performing controversial surgeries that were questioned by her peers,

    http://www.oregonlive.com/health/index.ssf/2014/04/us_senate_candidate_has_drawn.html

    and also for performing unnecessary surgeries for children in an abuse case against a mother who allegedly has Munchausen by proxy syndrome.

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/05/09/1297887/-OR-Sen-Monica-Wehby-R-Performed-Surgeries-Now-Scrutinized-In-Portland-Criminal-Case

    In the primaries they were all over her, but once that was over they’ve barely mentioned her in the news. I find it very, very odd. It’s like the campaign doesn’t exist because they don’t mention Senator Merkley either.

    They do spend a lot of time on the “failure” of the Oregon attempt at fulfilling the Affordable Care Act programs in the state in attacking the incumbent Democratic governor while ignoring the ultra-right wing tea bagger candidate. Oregon is pretty much a blue state, but the news outlets are mostly red.

  • dcinsider

    Quite true, but believe it or not, no matter how simple, people don’t do it. It is why an endorsement still carries some clout. And campaigns can tout their endorsements.

    “Americablog Endorses Joe Blow for Governor”

  • gratuitous

    The Oregonian seems to be actively courting irrelevance. It has always had a conservative leaning, but even if I disagreed with its principles, I could recognize that it had principles. In the last 15 years, though, the newspaper has just drifted off to la-la land in service of the greediest motherfuckers on the planet. That’s a good gig if you’re the publisher or the editor-in-chief, but for the reporters, typesetters, ad salespeople, route delivery people, and everyone else necessary to put out a major newspaper, it sucks green Shetland pony wang.

    Hardly anyone even bothers to pretend that the Oregonian matters anymore, which is too bad. A real newspaper can enhance civic life; the Oregonian is little more than particularly dingy wallpaper.

  • caphillprof

    What is it with the women that Republicans run as candidates? I’m a stalker and I want to be your U.S. Senator? I have a real job and in my real job I failed to disclose $84,000 in income?

  • The_Fixer

    I get what you’re saying, and I don’t think it’s wise to go doctor-shopping on the basis of their political beliefs. However, it is telling that two prominent Republican candidates who are a bit off-the-rails are drawn to politics. The poor judgment on display by Wehby and Ben Carson and the hubris displayed makes me question what would happen if I were on the operating table and the shit hits the fan. Will their medical training be superseded by some wacky notion that they have some special talent that they really don’t have?

    Yes, possessing certain skill sets does not mean one is competent in other fields. Regardless, I would rather have a doctor who is apolitical when he or she is treating me.

  • I’m not convinced this sort of political fail calls into question Wehby’s or any other doctor’s medical skills. Rather, it shows that the skills one needs to excel in medicine are not identical to the skills one needs to succeed as a politician. That shouldn’t be surprising. All sorts of professions require unique skill sets. I wouldn’t expect a doctor to necessarily make a good lawyer or a good lawyer to make a good engineer or a good engineer to make a good teacher.

    What we’re really seeing is the hubris of some people who think that just because they did well in one field, they can do well in another field, even be tranformative in it. This malady is pretty common among businessmen. For example, Bill Gates thought he could fix education. David Perdue thinks he can be a senator in Georgia.

  • Not that I don’t value John’s opinions, but it’s really not that hard to go to the various candidates’ web pages and read about them and make up your own mind. the information is usually not that hard to find. Most of the Republicans on my ballot are even more repugnant than I would have thought without reading more about them. I’m glad I took the time.

  • Indigo

    That’s a good point. It seems the medical profession is so intensely politicized now that I’m doubtful of the quality of the medicine they’re practicing.

  • The_Fixer

    Merkley will win, Wehby presumably will go back to neurosurgery, and The Oregonian will continue its sad slide into irrelevance.

    What is it with neurosurgeons being drawn into a pursuit at which they are so incompetent? This makes two that I know of, and there’s probably more.

    It makes me wonder how one can be a competent neurosurgeon when they can’t even reason their way out of a paper bag. Good Grief, I hope I never have need of a neurosurgeon. The apprehension would be unbearable.

  • Indigo

    I can’t think of the last time I thought the Orlando Sentinel (Florida) was relevant to anything beyond the good-old-boys citrus network. And these days, they’re mostly dead and gone.

  • dcinsider

    Frankly, I think it is time for respected bloggers like John Avarosis to begin endorsing, and replace the old newspaper system with its modern equivalent.

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