The East Oregonian - Don't Judge Smith Just Yet
Willamette Week stories raise questions about journalistic integrity
Last week, the Portland-based alternative newspaper Willamette Week ran the story, "Senor Smith," which alleges Smith Frozen Foods in Weston hires illegal immigrants.
Oregon Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith owns Smith Frozen Foods and his wife, Sharon, is chair of the company's board of directors.
This week, WW ran "Senor Smith, Part Dos," which continues writer Beth Slovic's story alleging the company hires illegal workers.
In the first story, Slovic tries to build the case against Smith Frozen Foods through several sources. But she also admits to the flimsiness of the case against the company and the senator: "But there is ample evidence to suggest that the hiring of illegal workers is a regular fact of life at Smith's operation.
"The evidence is, for the most part, secondhand."
The evidence Slovic then used included one woman whom another said was illegal, and a man who said he used a fake green card to work at Gordon Smith's Garrett Packing in Milton-Freewater.
Slovic then wrote, "Still, there is ample indirect evidence that Smith's plant hires illegal immigrants and keeps them in the plant's employ for many seasons."
The indirect evidence includes people such as Walla Walla attorney Gail Siemers, who Slovic said has represented illegal workers from Smith Frozen Foods.
That sounds a lot like hearsay.
Throughout the story, Slovic didn't produce a single, verifiable source that provided actual evidence of Smith Frozen Foods illegally hiring workers. Slovic also pointed out no agency has ever fined Smith Frozen Foods for employing illegal immigrants. T
he East Oregonian has requested records concerning Smith Frozen Foods from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the government agency responsible for making sure businesses are not hiring illegal workers. The EO will publish what those records reveal when they arrive.
Sen. Smith said, as far as he knows, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has never investigated his businesses or raided it. "This is my point - they never even bothered to ask me," Smith said last week in a phone interview with the East Oregonian.
The senator is outraged about the WW stories. "I've never seen a paper abandon its ethics so wholesale in order to advance a left-wing agenda," Smith said.
WW's second installment appeared this week. In "Senor Smith Part Dos," Slovic wrote former Smith Frozen Foods employee Tomas Salgado "drove with this reporter through Walla Walla and identified homes where undocumented workers now employed by Smith Frozen Foods live."
Aside from Salgado, who admitted he had come to the county illegally, no one Salgado pointed out as a current worker was willing to go on the record. WW Editor Mark Zusman, in a phone interview Friday, defended the stories and Slovic's use of anonymous sources. "I'm very comfortable with the journalistic integrity of the stories," he said.
He said while this story would have been newsworthy at any time, WW did the stories because Smith was running for a third term in the Senate.
Zusman also argued there is a "long and storied tradition" of newspapers using anonymous sources. He pointed out WW used anonymous source when it broke the story in 2004 that former Oregon Gov. Neil Edward Goldschmidt had sex with a 14-year-old girl while he was mayor of Portland. WW won a Pulitzer Prize for the story, the only weekly publication to do so.
But in that case, WW was able to substantiate what anonymous sources said. That doesn't seem so likely in the Smith situation. Zusman said these stories would have been difficult - if not impossible - to run without anonymous sources.
Further, he said it's not surprising people who are in the U.S. illegally don't want to have their names or faces in a publication out of fear of deportation.
Perhaps so, but these stories raise serious ethical questions about the use of anonymous sources and running second-hand information as fact.
That's questionable journalism at best. Zusman was right, however, in that during election years, newspapers look harder at candidates.
Willamette Week shows the deep and vital role the EO and other mainstream news organizations have - digging deep into real voter issues, and not just the merely sensational.
That's not easy work, but it's what we need to be doing.