Saturday, April 3, 2010

Scandals, boycotts, and shooting the messenger

Five years ago the Post Register published a series of articles called "Scouts' Honor" about a pedophile who had abused local Boy Scouts and essentially gotten away with it. The series ran for six days, but the backlash went on for years.

We were vilified by many in the community, called anti-Mormon (one of our stories described how a Mormon bishop had missed opportunities to stop the abuse, and most of the molested boys were members of troops sponsored by the LDS Church). One local man took out a series of full-page ads in our paper criticizing our work, and even hired a local law firm to review our conclusions (naturally, they came to different conclusions than we had). The lead reporter on the series was called out for being gay, the implication being that his sexual orientation in some way influenced how he wrote the series.

Often lost in the debate was this simple fact -- no story of this sort ever sees the light of day in the Post Register without my personal review and approval and, usually, that of legal counsel. I grew up LDS and am proud to hold the Boy Scout rank of Eagle Scout. I once served as a Scoutmaster. Our attorney won't mind my telling you that he's a faithful Mormon and he and his boys participate in Scouting. I was personally involved in the entire process of reporting, writing and editing this series and personally stand by every word to this day.

At no point did anyone we wrote about ask for a correction or retraction. A new law was passed changing the statute of limitation on child sexual abuse. Many people came up to me personally to say the same thing had happened to them, that they'd been afraid to go public, and encouraging us to continue our reporting. Two were public officials.

Through it all, our readership actually increased, advertising was mostly unaffected, and a community was changed, if ever so slightly. For our work, we were given the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award for Protection of the First Amendment, the smallest paper ever so honored.

It's happening all over again in Portland, Oregon, only on a larger scale. Not only is the Portland Oregonian covering a trial involving the alleged molestation of Boy Scouts in that area (the LDS Church has settled a lawsuit related to these allegations, but the Boy Scouts of America is the defendant in a civil trial), it has had the audacity to call on the Catholic Church to "transform itself" in light of the latest allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

It also published a pretty tough political cartoon that clearly got under the skin of church leaders; so much so that the Portland archbishop is calling for a boycott of the Oregonian.

Catholics, Mormons, and all people of good faith and who care about the free flow of information should publicly stand behind the Oregonian and the need for journalism unfettered by the threats from advertisers and political or religious leaders. Even if you think the Oregonian went too far with its cartoon (I don't, but I understand that political cartoons are intended to provoke and challenge by using hyperbole and a sharp edge), a boycott is the worst possible reaction. It makes the church look like it prefers to hide the truth, that it wants to deflect the issue away from the church and to the newspaper. This never works, and it almost always make things worse.

The Oregonian deserves praise, not criticism and certainly not a boycott, for its good work on child sexual abuse. That is the issue here -- the abuse of innocents. Inciting the faithful to stop reading the newspaper is the wrong response.

By the way, as a direct result of our coverage, the man who abused all those children went to prison and is still there. Sometimes the only way to begin the healing is to expose the disease.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, well done, keep the stories coming.