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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Renee needs a break

O columnist Renee Mitchell has screwed up again. Barely had she recovered from wrecking a Starbucks manager's life over an alleged racist slur that wasn't intended as one, that she's now admitting that she misrepresented the facts in her highly charged but poorly written diatribe against alleged racism in the opposition to renaming Interstate Avenue after César Chavez.

In contrast with her nonapology in the Starbucks case, Ms. Mitchell is actually saying she's sorry in the Interstate case. But of course, she has to insist in the same sentence that the mayor apologize, too. And she takes this opportunity to point her finger one more time, whirling around at everyone else in the picture:

Approving the resolution also publicly acknowledges some mistakes were made. Potter's jam-it-'til-they-swallow process, for one, was wrong. The street renaming committee, which believed that the mayor's support was all that was necessary, is wrong.

The way some North Portland residents have layered their comments with racial undertones is wrong. Our city's lack of acknowledgement of Latino heroes -- through the naming of streets, schools or parks -- is wrong.

Creepy. And pitiful.

Ms. Mitchell, your story was wrong. And unfair. Now sit down.

I'm keenly aware of how hard it is to churn out Portland-centric content with a point of view, on a consistent basis. At times, one gets tired, or stumped for content, and in those situations the tendency is to fall back on a familiar theme. It's a dangerous tendency, because sometimes the story of the day doesn't fit the theme. I've proven it myself on this blog from time to time.

With Ms. Mitchell, her fallback when she's out of fresh ideas is to see racism everywhere, and to level charges of racism at various strangers in this very small town without careful reflection or good judgment about (a) the accuracy of the accusations, or (b) the reaction those charges will evoke. In both the Starbucks case and the Interstate case, the charges were not fairly verified. In one case, they destroyed a person's career. But the ever-present pressure of a deadline forced both stories into print before they were ready.

I have enjoyed and appreciated many of Ms. Mitchell's columns, but to me it looks as though she needs to get off the columnist treadmill and contribute to the newspaper in other formats. She's racked up two strikes in rapid succession, and one more could really wreck what minimal standing she has left.

Of course, one can imagine how difficult it would be for her superiors to move her off her current position. Because guess who would be branded as you-know-what.

Comments (14)

S. Renee Mitchell writes:

"Turns out, a recording of the contentious neighborhood meeting over the proposed renaming of Interstate Avenue to Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard shows that the loudest cheering followed a different comment."

Does anyone know what comment elicited the loudest cheers? Since Ms. Mitchell doesn't say, I assume it was a doozy ...

I too have liked a few of her columns but not for a long time. It is time for her to move on.

Cheapest excuse for an apology ... this is the equal of the "i'm sorry you feel that way" which doesn't actually apologize for anything. To her, the only "mistake" was trusting folks who turned out to be wrong ... no apology for shoddy reporting (what happened to the "two independent sources" you needed when I took Journalism 101 seven years ago?), no apology for not ACTUALLY going to the meeting (what happened to first hand work?) ... just a half-hearted apology for "listening to some folks" which quickly turns to spreading the blame and a demand for substantive apology.

Unfortunately Renee has become all too typical of what passes for writing (journalism left the room long ago) in the Oregonian in recent years. And now with the front page format devolution I have to double check to make sure I'm not buying a British tabloid. Sad to watch their race to the bottom but it is enjoyable sending back their postage paid solicitations with a brief note to let them know what I think.

Ahh, yes, the life of a columnist. As your readers might remember, Jack, I suddenly found myself writing two columns a week for the Portland Tribune when they first started out. Of course, it all blew up on me after I wrote a negative column about the pending invasion of Iraq. Ironically, it allowed the Trib to be one of the few newspapers in America that wasn't a water-carrying, PR firm for the White House, and so of course, I was canned. And I'd love it if they ever disputed that - I kept the emails. But the pain of those years has gone, and overall I feel like I'm still grateful to them. Besides, losing a media job because you complained about Iraq back before the invasion? That would be a source of considerable pride, especially if it hadn't been overwhelmed by the sadness of these times.
I learned a lot about writing columns during that period - I wrote over 150 of them - and the biggest problem I faced was the phony outrage syndrome. You had to write sometimes with a little more zeal than you actually felt for the simple reason that you needed an acceptable column. You're just not going to wake up everyday with an absolutely burning desire to say something, especially when you're dealing with the filters of the modern corporate media. You have to remember the paper has to have a desire to hear about your idea, too, and that's the problem. If I could have said anything I wanted, it would have been easy, but you have to compromise and that often includes phony outrage about something you don't really care that much about. Or just going fluffy. One time after a particularly lightweight stretch, I said, "What do you want me to cover next? Juggling?" They said yes, and my next column was about a juggling class at Reed.
Other times you are just plain stuck for a topic. I often speculate on which columns I see that I think were completely phoned in. Long before the controversy, I thought I had spotted one in Renee's Starbucks column. You're thinking, "What do I write about?", you're getting coffee, and suddenly, it hits you. That decision to focus on something at her coffee shop seemed like a phone-in job to me.
Now this latest one, where you're writing about a meeting you didn't attend, is another sign of column-scramble. If you really had a burning desire to cover the meeting, you'd have been there. And if you couldn't make it, you wouldn't rely on gossip. Now I admit, I once wrote a column about a school board meeting, based on a telecast I saw on cable access, but I taped it and supplied a ton of accurate details.
I talked with Renee at the Obama rally, and I could see she was on the case. There are events you want to attend, and she was working it. She walked way up to the top of the bleachers to interview some kids with a sign - she was completely into it. That happens quite often with most columnists, but a lot of energy and time is spent dealing with the corporate media filters, until you get a little sloppy, and make mistakes.
So what's my call here? I'd say Renee should keep her job, based on the hassle of trying to write a column in today's corporate media environment. When I talked with her, I got the feeling she has a lot to say, but it's not necessarily going to make the paper. The 4th Estate is in a mess, right now, and it's only getting worse. You can't project the freedom of writing a blog onto that situation. It's simply not there. Ironically, if there weren't so many corporate filters, newspapers wouldn't be in the trouble they're in, and that's part of the frustration with being a columnist.
Based on all this, I think calling for her ouster is unduly harsh, although I hear there's an opening at Starbucks.

I don't know if it needs to be permanent, but she needs a break.

A break? She needs to be moved to a beat where she would be forced to come up with original story ideas, and to do some actual reporting. Imagine!

Her trademark pat, punchy endings are guaranteed to make your eyes roll.

I'd love to see Renee cover the racist comments from Jefferson principal Cynthia Harris to a white Jefferson PTA member back in September.

Im not going to hold my breath waiting, though.

They don't call it the "Daily Dead Fish Wrapper" for nothing. More proof that affirmative action has failed and that qualified journalists are left out of the loop.

Another example of the shock journalism that we see so much of these days, where the loudest or most adamant voice with the most reactionary slant trumps a reasoned dialogue. It's sad that in a world where information flows so freely, which is great for sparking insightful discussion, what we instead see is people making end-runs around debate by mis-labelling those who want to engage in the exercise of the discussion and share their ideas in the marketplace.

Mitchell is to racists as George Bush is to patriots. Neither knows what they're talking about; instead, they know that strategically throwing the words around in whatever context they see fit will allow them to stifle a conversation and instead dominate the pulpit.

Mitchell has talent as a writer. However, I agree that her current placement does her, and Portland, more harm than good.

"Steven" - that's just plain stupid.

Bill - Ironically, it allowed the Trib to be one of the few newspapers in America that wasn't a water-carrying, PR firm for the White can be a funny guy, but that's a really silly comment. I opposed moving into Iraq, but to say that the lamestream media amounts to a PR firm for Bush is just insipid. You're better than that, I think. Though I do agree that if there's an opening at Starbucks, Renee should apply. It might do her good.

You must have selective amnesia because in the run-up to Iraq that is exactly what the mainstream media was doing. Google "Judith Miller New York Times." Actually, this story is important: It was absolute early proof that Cheney was a lying sack. Later we would learn his office was planting stories in the New York Times, and then Cheney would react to them as if he was just learning about them when he read the paper. It was blatant BS-ing. I don't get where you're coming from here. By their own admission, the mainstream media didn't do its job prior to Iraq and helped market the war instead. There is no debate, so unless you're trying to do one of those defiant history rewrites, you're wasting your time on this. In fact, when you look around at the national pundits who remain from those days, siding with the White House about going into Iraq, and being wrong about the outcome, was almost a requirement for keeping your job. Now I was trying to be a little humorous, but the fact remains, I wrote columns questioning this plan, and that was rare in the MSM. Knight-Ridder was an exception as I recall, and they proved how easy it was to see through the bogus White House evidence about the aluminum tubes, etc...The MSM blew it and they know it.

"Plain stupid?" Or the real truth that you want to not admit to your "guilt ridden self" Hum let us presume the epic of the law school syndrome and the despairity of graduate (black) students. Is it truth or pretend? You decide. Ops that could possibly be racist or oh crap was that PC or ac/dc. I am confused.

It seems The Oregonian FIRED an entertainment critic back in the 80's for either leaving a performance early or not showing up at all. Either way why does Renee get away with being allowed to do this?
Thanks for your courage Bill in calling the Iraq War for what it was, still is and will always be...TOTAL B.S. Bill, take heart in that there's a karma payback for ole Bob Pamplin...after more than 7 YEARS on the air, HUGE salaries for Schulberg, Jaynes and Miller, KPAM Radio continues to suck sewer gas in the ratings.


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