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Anatomy of a BEE news story

In late June of this year, THE BEE became aware that a counseling clinic for convicted sex offenders was open on S.E. Milwaukie Avenue in Westmoreland, on the southeast corner of Knapp Street, in what until the end of 2011 had long been an insurance office.

Interested, we investigated.

We found that the clinic was legally placed according to all zoning regulations, and that the service running it was on the up-and-up. In fact, it had a contract for referrals from Multnomah County itself. All its clients had been convicted in courts of law, had paid the price, and were now eligible for counseling; if they misbehaved they would be on their way back to prison.

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Sex Offender protestorsWe checked with the police; the Portland Police Bureau was aware this facility was there, and had no problems at all to report, associated with it. (They still don’t.) The clinic was not open to the public, and thus would not qualify for a “Business Brief”. There seemed nothing for us to report at that point.

However, our correspondent David F. Ashton began to hear as early as July from members of the community about their concern that it was there, even absent any specific reason – other than that it provided referred counseling services for a segment of society that was greatly disliked. Some of these comments came from individuals involved in the explosive “community meeting” on November 12, which took place well after the deadline for our December issue, although none present that night would acknowledge this prior knowledge or conversation with us, or our willingness then to report on their concerns.

Despite several members of the community speaking with David from July on, of concerns similar to those aired in the November 12 meeting in the Windermere Realty meeting room – and some of those who had previously raised those concerns were in the room, and even assisting in the running of the meeting – none had been willing to go on the record and have their concerns attributed to them at the time. Without attribution in such a story, all we would have been left with was rumor and innuendo, and we will not report rumor and innuendo.

David had told each of these concerned individuals that we would cover their concerns in the newspaper if they would go on the record, and all told him they would not.

THE BEE has covered community controversies over the years regardless of whether the uproar was supported by facts, or whether it was not. Recent controversies included the siting of two different cellular antenna systems (in Brooklyn and Eastmoreland), the advancing plans to open a Casa Diablo “strip club” on S.E. McLoughlin next to Johnson Creek Park and The Acropolis, a church’s plans to shelter homeless people in a way that concerned the community, the plans to build two different four-story apartment houses in Sellwood-Moreland with no on-site parking, the siting of a half-way house in an Ardenwald residential neighborhood, and concern in the Reed neighborhood about the construction of new homes that do not follow the general floor plan or size of existing heritage homes there (and Eastmoreland is now struggling with a similar issue). There certainly have been other such issues. Many of these them have been resolved amicably or legally, one way or another.

In each case, THE BEE reported on the controversy – we did not incite it. We believe our role is to report on events – and a community protest is an event, whether we agree with it or not. You will find, in this issue, David’s report on that November 12 meeting and subsequent events.

As you will see in our letters column this week, we have been upbraided for failing to “notify” the community that this legal business was operating without causing any problems in the community until it hit the fan in November. Our position was, and remains, that we are covering this story in exactly the same way as we have covered every other controversy that has occurred in Inner Southeast Portland on our watch, and we will continue to follow this editorial policy.

We report the good news and the bad news, but only the actual news. We do not make the news ourselves – we only report it.

And we fact-check our stories before printing them. We notice other local media simply repeated the charges of the organizers of the November 12 meeting in their news stories that day, without bothering to fact-check them. Thus there were some serious errors in their news reports – some of which local residents continue to repeat to this day.

One reader accused us of handling this story in a way that would not be approved of by our ownership. We actually fact-checked that one too. It turns out the President of our company approves of our policy as articulated above, as well as the way we handled this story.

So we have responded to the community’s interest in how we handled this particular story, as reflected in our Letters to the Editor column this month. However, we say frankly that we can’t recall a similar controversy that involved physical or verbal intimidation by members of the community as this one has.

That leaves us with the problem of how to respond to the lynch mob mentality we encountered at the November 12 meeting, at which we heard from the podium statements like: “This turns out to be a legitimate business, operating legally, but we want to drive it out of the neighborhood” – and, “if you don’t agree with our position, you should leave now.”

And, at the PTA meeting in Westmoreland the following evening, at which THE BEE was also present, we heard community members gloating that the operator of the clinic was already “fearful” – and, in announcing that day her intention to move her clinic elsewhere, she was “not leaving fast enough”, and that pressure should continue.

If you see no problem with those statements, or with the atmosphere of a meeting in which some who attended told us afterward “I was really scared by that mob”, then anything we can say here about our disappointment at how members of the community who should certainly have known better behaved, will probably be something you will easily dismiss.

But if this unreasoned, panicked, inflamed mob mentality disturbs you, as it does us, it may at the very least alert you that our modern society apparently still hasn’t progressed much emotionally from the Dark Ages. Fear makes us do and say things that we might later regret, and tar and feathers are apparently still waiting in the wings to menace those we don’t like, regardless of their profession, race, knowledge, handicap, or religion.