A Matter of Opinion: The Oregonian Editorial Board and Sam Adams


CSJ-09-0023.0 In this case study, students are taken behind the scenes to examine the role an editorial board plays at a news organization. In early 2009, the Oregonian editorial page editors faced a painful decision. The principal newspaper for both Portland and the state of Oregon had long backed for mayor a charismatic, skillful, and intelligent public servant, Sam Adams. Adams was sworn in January 1, but on January 19, the city learned that Adams had—by his own admission—lied about an affair with a young man (possibly a minor at the time). Adams’ earlier denial had discredited his accuser, a mayoral contender, who quit the race. The Oregonian board had a day to decide what to write on the editorial page. Should it call for Adams’ resignation? He was by far the most promising public leader to emerge in the state in years. His policy priorities aligned with those of the paper, and many Portland voters. But his lie may have skewed the election results. Board members mulled what the paper’s opinion page could usefully say. Adams may have done nothing illegal. What was the paper’s responsibility to its readers and its community?

This case gives students valuable insight into how an editorial board works, its relationship to the rest of the newspaper, and the thought processes of the editorial page editor and his colleagues. Through this case, students will begin to understand how editorial page opinions are formulated, the structures that keep news reporting separate from opinion, and the factors that weigh in on editorial page decisions. This case deals with the often vexing question of the private activities of public figures. Is there a relationship between private misdeeds and professional competence? Is it the paper’s business to make that judgment? The case also raises for discussion the proper role of media opinion pages. To whom are editorial writers responsible? To the publisher? The community? Their own values?

This case can be used in a class about editorial writing; political reporting; or ethics.


This case was written by Kathleen Gilsinan for the Knight Case Studies Initiative, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University. Funding was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. (0110)

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