No on 9 Remembered: A Principled Press
When Eric and I first brainstormed the arc of stories we wanted to tell to commemorate the 30-year anniversary of the Ballot Measure 9 campaign, he was clear that, early on, we needed to address the role of the press.
Back then, when “digital” referred to something you did with your fingers (like dialing a rotary phone), that’s what we called journalists — the press. Print journalism was an essential part of how we got our news, formed our opinions, and were connected to our communities.
“Journalists found their role in the fight for democracy in Oregon in 1992. Will we see that kind of courage and clarity again as we move forward in today’s fight against authoritarianism? Reporters, editors, and publishers once upheld standards that were guardrails against misinformation. They knew they weren’t outside the events of the day, but they didn’t center themselves either — they knew they had to hold that balance.”
~ Eric K. Ward, Western States Center Executive Director
Before the internet changed everything, going before the editorial board of The Oregonian as an advocate was like a smaller-scale version of going before the Supreme Court. There were the liberal and conservative wings. You had to be prepared to respond to any question. You awaited their verdict on your issue when the papers hit the doorstep a few days later. Today The Oregonian employs only a single editorial writer.
Pro-democracy organizers these days may have our own media platforms — blogs, podcasts, social media followers, email lists. But the prospects for inclusive democracy are imperiled, as “the fourth pillar” — the press — wobbles alongside the fractured executive, legislative, and judiciary pillars.
“It’s a hackneyed phrase, ‘Where are you Walter Cronkite?’ But there’s no longer an intermediary group of people who distill, filter, and come up with a plausible synthesis that most people can relate to. The eyes and ears of the public are drawn first to those who angrily promote discord. We’ve fragmented our sources of information — whether 200 channels on cable or social media, information is more siloed. Now we seek out the information that reinforces our views and causes us the least discontent. It’s very challenging to build commonality and community in those circumstances.”
~ Robert Landauer, retired Oregonian editor
The journalists you’ll read about this month on No on 9 Remembered remind us of what has gone missing or is now stranded behind paywalls. Looking back to 30 years ago we can see an earlier phase of the discounting and defamation of traditional news organizations by anti-democracy leaders that is now fully normalized.
The news coverage of Ballot Measure 9 was thorough and editorial condemnation of the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA), nearly universal. OCA leader Lon Mabon was open about their strategy of taking their message “directly to voters in the form of anti-homosexual videos and fliers,” as reported by The Oregonian. “A lot of our folks believe the media is fairly dominated by people who have an opposite political philosophy,” Mabon said. “We’re not going to get any breaks from the press. We have to calculate those kinds of things in.”
This month’s stories about principled journalism are the next installment in our quest to share 30 stories to mark the 30th anniversary of the No on 9 Campaign, when Oregonians from all walks of life defeated one of the harshest antigay measures ever put to American voters. Each story offers a unique prism on how this epic battle for civil and human rights can impart lessons for today’s fight for inclusive democracy.
STORY 10: THE OREGONIAN
“Never has the lesbian and gay community had more eloquent representation from the non-gay press,” wrote longtime organizer Suzanne Pharr in her list of a few “shining examples of hope” emerging from the No on 9 campaign. “The statewide newspaper, The Oregonian, under an absolute commitment to making sure the public understood the immense danger of Ballot Measure 9, printed over a dozen editorials that taught us about the history of injustice and scapegoating.” (Transformation: Towards a People’s Democracy, pg. 115)
Read a first-person account of what motivated that extraordinary 12-part, Pulitzer-Prize-nominated editorial series by the man who wrote it, Robert Landauer — along with Bob’s reflections on the role of the staunchly conservative, Roman Catholic publisher Fred Stickel.
From 1983–2011 Just Out was Oregon’s leading LGBTQ monthly. Providing a forum for a range of views and strategies “allowed people to debate and to learn about each other,” says founding co-publisher Renée LaChance. “That prepared us for the fight against the Oregon Citizens Alliance; without that foundation, I’m not sure we could have survived Ballot Measure 9.”
Read about the impact of the OCA’s attack on the paper’s staff — “it was what we ate and breathed for those years” — and their efforts to navigate and bridge the internal community divides that Renée remembers as “our biggest obstacle, the inability to realize that both sides of our divided community could do their thing.”
Among the harrowing scenes captured in the documentary Ballot Measure 9 are several from the Southern Oregon town of Grants Pass. A generally conservative I-5 town in between the liberal bastions of Eugene and Ashland, the rural reaches of the community included Radical Faeries, back-to-the-land lesbians, pot farmers, goldminers, survivalists, and more. Read about the backlash the Grants Pass Daily Courier faced for its three-part campaign-season series, “Out of the Closet.”
To the journalists, academics, organizers, and everyday people committed to defending democracy in these difficult times, we hope that No on 9 Remembered encourages you to be brave. To take action and take heart.
To remembering the past and shaping the future,
Holly J. Pruett, Senior Fellow
No on 9 Remembered Co-Curator
P.S. Catch up on and share our first three months of stories. Be sure to check out our project’s comprehensive Timeline and the other historical memory projects that inspire us in our Resources section. We encourage you to tell your own story: contact us with your memories and questions.