Letter from the Editor: I look forward to many more civil conversations

Even before the pandemic and the protests, I was bracing for 2020. That’s because presidential election years tend to bring out some of our toughest critics and inevitable claims of bias.

As November nears, the tenor of reader response grows harsher, depending on the way the winds are blowing for any particular candidate. Why are you purposefully choosing photos that make Hillary Clinton look bad? (We didn’t). Why did you play the Clinton story about ABC at the top of the page and the Donald Trump story about XYZ at the bottom? (We try for equal prominence for similar articles, but it is not always possible).

Right now, however, the emails, social media comments and calls are among the angriest – and ugliest — The Oregonian/OregonLive’s journalists have ever received.

To be sure, they come from a small percentage of readers. They sometimes veer into the realm of vile, crude and bigoted commentary. Occasionally, they contain not so veiled threats.

The vitriol has been building almost from the start of 2020.

When the pandemic hit in February, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s factual updates came under criticism from those who believed the crisis was overblown or who thought the harms of closing the economy should be weighted more heavily.

That was quickly followed by controversy over whether masks helped or didn’t, with emailers sending long treatises on various research studies that tended to support their position. The pandemic meant people had a lot of time on their hands to dive deep into the subject.

Then along came the protests, and a similar cultural divide played out. Some readers refused to believe few coronavirus cases had been traced to protests, raising the question repeatedly. In each case, I responded that we or other journalists had posed the question to health authorities, who had said no more than a handful of cases could be attributed to the large-scale outdoor protests.

As the tenor of the nightly gatherings changed, shrinking in size from thousands to a few hundred and punctuated by smaller groups bent on provoking police, the allegations of bias strengthened. Why aren’t you calling the protests “riots”? (Police don’t always declare a riot.) Why do you keep calling them peaceful protests? (On many nights, over the months, most people in attendance did remain peaceful).

To recap, the protests early on drew more than 10,000 marchers and remained largely peaceful until late at night. Through June, crowds dwindled until attention turned to the federal courthouse and federal tactics there in early July. Crowds swelled again for a time.

After federal agents stepped out of the spotlight, the nightly protests have changed up again. The crowds are much smaller, which means the provocateurs make up a larger percentage of those gathered. Even so, peaceful chants and drumming might go on for hours before some in the crowd light fires in dumpsters or near law enforcement buildings; throw objects such as rocks and water bottles; and try to damage structures.

Last week, the protests took a noticeably more destructive turn, and a severe beating by a few people who had just left the protest sickened Portlanders who saw the unconscionable violence captured on video.

Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese talked Wednesday about the complicated dynamics after the county building was vandalized. He said the event at the county building was a “largely a peaceful protest” until it escalated into “violence” when some in the crowd set fires and broke into the building.

“We have to manage the few people who are engaged in violent activity when there may be a larger crowd that is present and not engaged in violence and may be largely peacefully protesting,” Reese said, speaking generally about the complexity of policing Portland’s recent demonstrations.

I want to emphasize it’s not the questions or criticisms that are troubling to me. But I am bothered by the assumption of bad will — the allegations that we intend to mislead the public. I object strongly to the presumption that we are not guided by our mission to seek the truth and by what our seasoned journalists see when they are out monitoring protests, sometimes for many hours at a time.

Let me be clear: We are in the business of facts. Those facts don’t always fit a reader’s predetermined narrative, and they may not fit the image readers receive from other media. In fact, one of our best-read protest stories was “Feds, right-wing media paint Portland as ‘city under siege.’ A tour of town shows otherwise” from July. The article was written by education reporter Eder Campuzano, a veteran of many nights of protest coverage. The reaction?

“It was honestly just a surprise to hear a full-throated insistence on labeling people rioters in a simple geography lesson,” Campuzano said, noting his piece was putting into context the small area where protests occurred vs. the size of the city.

He often has readers question his allegiance to the United States because he once wrote a piece about becoming a U.S. citizen as an adult.

Another reporter, who worked on a recent protest-related story, received this message on social media: “People like me love journo scum like you. How hard would it be to find your address and teach you a lesson? Then I should teach your children why daddys a lying journo scumbag.”

When someone makes a threat, we leave it up to individual journalists to decide whether to make a police report and we support whatever they decide. We’re reporting this one, for instance.

On Saturday, someone left a Facebook message that said, “Start covering the riots and condemning them unless you want HQ to get turned into swiss cheese. … Expect us.”

Most of my angriest comments come from men, who sometimes slide easily into sexist language. Recently, one emailer called me, the second female editor of The Oregonian, “a lying bitch.”

Most journalists are used to criticism, often from all sides. We develop thick skins and understand people’s tendency to “kill the messenger.” Even so, the messages in recent months stand out.

Some of you will ask whether I think President Trump’s assault on the news media as the “enemy of the people” have engendered this. It’s hard to know with any certainty. Claims of bias, angry emails, rude anonymous callers come with the territory for most newsrooms. But I can say the assaults on our journalism more frequently arrive now laced with profanity and personal attacks on our journalists and their credibility.

Again, most readers, even those angry at an editorial position or news story, are civil. They have legitimate questions or comments about our coverage and what we choose to emphasize. Many send thoughtful and insightful letters to the editor.

It’s the vocal minority that sometimes make it difficult to remember that.

I’ve taken recently to asking correspondents whether they are a print or digital subscriber. I’ll still respond to readers, whether they are local or a onetime visitor, as I am able. I think people would say I am a fair-minded person when it comes to admitting when we’ve made an error or omission.

But going forward, I will put a priority on answering questions from subscribers. Those who support local, independent journalism may sharply question us, but they also want us to succeed and continue to deliver top-notch reporting.

We appreciate your support as we continue to gather the facts and – often — put ourselves in harm’s way to do so, whether it is coronavirus or protest coverage. We owe you nothing less than the truth.

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