Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

December 3, 1999

THE NEW YORK NEWHOUSE newspaper chain's Portland link, the Oregonian, in its index of news executives and managers, lists more people than there are days in the week, yet the monopoly daily still comes up lighter than lite beer on too many of its news stories.

For example, "The Largest Newspaper in the Pacific Northwest," as it bills itself, recently ran as its top story on page one an article under this headline: "Fate of workers' comp in court." The story was about the lawsuit of a sick worker, Terry Smothers, 41, against Gresham Transfer Inc., which had been filed because the employer's workers' compensation insurance carrier refused to pay the worker's claim. The Oregonian's news story said of the worker's claim that in 1994 an "acid-laden mist triggered his disabling respiratory problems." The Oregonian failed to identify the insurance company that denied the claim.

The Oregonian said that after the insurance carrier denied the claim Smothers appealed to the Workers' Compensation Board which "upheld the denial, ruling that the acid fumes were not 51 percent responsible for his injuries because he had a pre-existing respiratory problem." The story noted that under changes in the state workers' compensation insurance system, which were made in a 1990 special session of the Oregon Legislature, "the workplace accident must be responsible for 51 percent of the health problem."

THE NEWHOUSE PAPER said that injured worker Smothers filed a lawsuit against his employer, Gresham Transfer, after the state board upheld the insurance company's denial of his claim for compensation. The Oregonian failed to say if the board's ruling was unanimous on the part of its five members. The paper also failed to identify the lawyer representing the injured worker.

The Oregonian reported thusly on Smothers' lawsuit: "A Multnomah County judge dismissed his case, and the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld that decision, saying Oregon's workers' compensation law prohibits workers from suing their employers for on-the-job injuries." The Oregonian failed to identify the Circuit Court judge who dismissed the case, and it did not bother to report whether the decision by the Court of Appeals was unanimous.

Another hole in the Oregonian's story was its failure to point out that an Oregon Supreme Court jurist, Associate Justice Theodore R. Kulongoski, was an architect of the controversial 1990 changes in the state workers' compensation law. At that time the former Lane County Democratic state legislator and labor lawyer was the Oregon state director of insurance and finance and was the government executive in charge of the Workers' Compensation Division in the administration of Democratic Governor Neil Goldschmidt. On the basis of his role in the 1990 changes in the workers' comp insurance system and his involvement in overseeing the system, Kulongoski should not be sitting in judgment in the Smothers' case but should recuse himself. If he doesn't do so voluntarily, his black-robed colleagues should insist.

IN EXPLAINING THE SIGNIFICANCE of the Smothers case, the Oregonian said: "...When the workers' compensation system denied his claim, Smothers did something the system prohibits: He sued his employer ... A ruling against Smothers, trial attorneys say, would continue a situation in which thousands of disabled workers each year are unable to collect a penny even if their employer's negligence contributed to their health troubles.

If Smothers wins, 79,000 Oregon employers could be left vulnerable to thousands of lawsuits about workplace injuries, creating an unstable business climate that could have disastrous effects on the economy, insurers and employers say. National experts are watching the case, too..."

The reporter whose byline appeared on the story quoted as national workers' compensation experts the president of a business group in Washington, D.C., and faculty members of universities in far off Michigan and West Virginia. But the newspaper failed to quote worker comp experts closer to home at the University of Oregon's Labor Education and Research Center, and to balance its quotes from the business group, the paper failed to obtain comments from worker comp specialists at the Oregon AFL-CIO and the national labor federation.

Because of the New York-owned newspaper's anti-worker history, it was not surprising that on its editorial page the paper said the Oregon Supreme Court should reject the injured worker's appeal. The Newhouse paper was not moved by the fact that a law that permits insurance companies to deny an injured worker's claim violates his constitutional rights.

The injured worker story was but one instance of Oregonian Lite. Space permits mention of only two others: Since the brain drain resulting from the 1959-65 newspaper strike and the recent influx of editors with no Portland background, the Newhouse monopoly daily has lost its institutional memory.

Some time ago the paper misidentified one of its own early-day editors and had to run a red-faced correction. More recently the paper printed a feature about the late Ernie Haycox, a Portland author. But the reporter who wrote the story and the editors who passed judgment on it failed to note that Haycox had once been a reporter for the Oregonian. Part of the Haycox lore was that he did some of his first fiction writing during lulls in the action at the old Portland Police Headquarters pressroom when Ernie worked there as the Oregonian's night police beat reporter.

More Oregonian Lite later.


LEO SMITH, a former state legislator and Multnomah County district attorney who had done legal work to aid the formation of the Oregon State Employees Association, died at age 96 on Oct. 7 in Portland.

His nephew, Douglas Smith of Salem, a former member of the Oregon Public Employees Union (OPEU), told the Labor Press that his uncle had "crafted the Oregon Civil Service Act and most of the Public Employees Retirement Act" in 1945. Doug Smith also noted that the OPEU had evolved from the State Employees Association.

Leo Smith, a Democrat, was first elected to the Oregon Legislature in 1938 and served six years. Governor Robert Holmes appointed him as Multnomah County DA in 1957 after a gambling scandal resulted in the ouster of the elected incumbent.

Smith was a cousin of actress Penny Singleton, who was the executive officer of the American Guild of Variety Artists and led a 1966 strike by the Rockettes dancers against the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Former Postmaster General James Farley, a Democratic Party leader, was Singleton's uncle.

A Portland native, Smith was born on June 3, 1903. He received his law degree from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1928. The University of Portland gave him an honorary doctor of law degree in 1959. He was buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery after a funeral service at St. Ignatius Catholic Church. Oregon Supreme Court Justice George Van Hoomissen, who'd been a deputy DA under Smith, spoke at the funeral.


AN ECONOMIST back East has noted that more people have been lopped off public welfare rolls in the United States than have been listed as having found jobs under the welfare-to-work programs. He asked: "Where are those people?" The answer is that many of them are lined up at food banks across the nation waiting for a box of groceries to feed their hungry families.


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