Sunday, March 9, 2008

Rumors of Bend Bulletin Real Estate Reporter's Demise Abound

One casualty of the turmoil in Bend may be David Fisher, who covered the real estate beat for the Bend Bulletin. From the Bend Economy Board there is an interesting thread fleshing out a rumor reported in the alternative weekly,the Source:
Interesting week in The Bulletin's business section.

First, The Source comes out with this blurb on Thursday ...

TV isn't the only one getting into the act. A little bird told us that a reporter across town, well known for his real estate coverage, walked out when editors insisted that he spin his latest story to emphasize the positive side of the housing slump.

Oh, well, what's one more fairy tale in makebelieveland?

That caused Bulletin Executive Editor John Costa to fan his line editors through the newsroom to assure everyone that said real estate reporter had really been fired for lying about being sick.

Which didn't play well with a lot of the staff, because this email had already made the rounds for a couple of days ...

Charlene: (Apparently meaning Sharlene Crabtree, the Bulletin's Human Resources Director) Here's my response to the March 4 Separation Notice:

I did not "lie about being sick." I took two days off after an article I wrote for the Feb. 26 paper was edited by my supervisor, Business Editor John Stearns, in such a way as to remove any facts or opinions that tended to disagree with a public speaker's rosy predictions for the local real estate industry. As I told him, my intent was to carefully consider why that particularly editing job, which I viewed as dishonest, upset me, and to calm down enough to rationally discuss the issue with him.

When I returned, I was not "questioned about the days off" -- I initiated a meeting with Mr. Stearns and told him, without prompting, that I had not been physically ill but needed two "mental health days," in my phrasing, to determine how I should best discuss my future with the paper with him in a calm, rational way, rather than forcing the issue when I was angry and confused.

I told him during that meeting on Feb. 28 that I felt that the editing job on my Feb. 26 story was part of a pattern of editing that included misleading headlines, sources being banned from my coverage, story ideas getting spiked, and odd pre-story cajolling, all of which seemed designed by the executive editor to generate more favorable coverage of the local real estate market than I have thought was best in the two years I have been assigned to cover it for the paper. I further told him that, although I believed that the articles I had written for the paper were as thorough and as accurate as I could make them, the utter hack job that was done on my Feb. 26 story had led me to conclude that the paper was not willing to cover the industry as honestly as it should, given that the housing market -- which is economically important to the paper -- is now in the midst of a steep downturn.

I asked to be shifted to another beat, including others that had been identified by the executive editor as important to the paper's overall coverage, such as the business of medicine, or the banking industry. I told him I felt that I would be allowed to cover those beats "straight," without what I perceived to be the editors' emotional desire to slant coverage of the real estate market.

He denied that the paper's editors intended to color the news and criticized me for taking the days off, rather than confronting him with my concerns immediately. I told him again that I felt that I needed the time to clarify my own thoughts before I attempted to have a discussion with him, but if he felt the days weren't covered by our sick leave or vacation policy, I would be happy to take them as unpaid time off.

Stearns told me on March 3 that he had discussed my request to change beats with the executive editor. I don't know what was discussed in that meeting, but I was fired the next day.

In conclusion, there was no violation of the ethics code. I was quite honest about my reasons for not coming to work for two days, and was, I suspect, fired for stating those reasons to my supervisor.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to respond.

According to a quick look at the edit trail in The Bulletin's computer system, apparently what set him off -- finally -- was an edit job on a story on Dana Bratton's pie-in-the-sky real estate "forecast" speech last Monday that scrubbed paraphrases from Bill Valentine and Brooks Resources honchos Kirk Schueler and Mike Hollern, all saying that they think the downturn is going to last a whole lot longer than the April 25 turnaround date that Bratton ladled out to the adoring real estate crowd at The Riverhouse.

That pesky stuff got axed on orders from Costa, who told his business editor to "stick to what was said at the meeting."

Out, too, went a section that pointed out that the ridiculous predictions that Bratton made last year of a quick RE turnaround also -- uh -- kinda failed to pan out.

Which left the good readers of Bend with the vision of Dana Bratton, grand real estate prognosticator, predicting that everything will be hunky-dory by May, contradicted only slightly by those notorious pessimists at the National Association of Realtors, who actually suggested that sales might not turn around until late this year.

Could it be an accident that all of this is happening a week after the Realtors and Builders announced their "Best Time in 20 Years to Buy a House" campaign? Complete with plans for a good, old-fashioned media blitz?

Journalism at its finest, and right here in River City.

A search on the Bulletin site shows Fisher has only couple of bylines since the Bratton story, while before he wrote something nearly every day. One of his last was "Sellers Offer Cold, Hard Cash To Get Homes Off The Market". Andrew Moore wrote the latest real estate story on Awbrey Butte's new homeowners association. So perhaps the pushback has really taken another step forward.

On a related note, I am now officially a stringer for the Bend Weekly, with a Press Pass on the way. My first article was posted here. Now I should be able to get into the Executive Sessions. I plan to offer a much more skeptical viewpoint then the other cheerleaders in town, and certailnly better than the crap in the Bulletin today titled "Juniper Ridge Q&A", which I would link to if it wasn't behind their paywall.

Plus there is that pesky little detail of the City Council making a $2.56M decision in Executive Session to pay off Juniper Ridge Partners. My biggest goal is to force greater transparency around this issue, and a major step forward in that process will occur this week. Stay tuned...


Anonymous said...

Congrats on your press pass.

Once in the Exec Sessions, I bet you will quickly find that:
1) they are really about as mundane as the Reg Sessions
2) the participants don't know much about Exec Session rules
3) and they may even ask the press about if a topic is allowed or not

Here is a nice trick that you may find useful: during long Exec Session meetings, some bodies will take a break, and sometimes they 'adjourn' the meeting for the break. Feel free to chat them up during the break, as many members will forgot that they are no longer under the Exec Session rules (until they re-invoke the Exec Session exemption after the meeting resumes), and can be quoted.

It is amazing just how stupid some public officials really are. Feel free to exploit their stupidity, but always bring a recorder.