Portland Business Alliance overreacts in pulling Street Roots ads

Opinion Editorial by Anna Griffin from The Oregonian, September 11 2009

It’s not quite Joe Wilson yelling at the president in prime time, but the Portland Business Alliance‘s decision to pull its ads from a biweekly newspaper sold by homeless people certainly isn’t a step toward rational, adult debate.

This summer, hoping to fix years of distrust between downtown business leaders and advocates for the poor, Street Roots joined the region’s largest chamber of commerce.

Rather than pay the annual membership fee, which ranges from $400 to $5,000, newspaper director Israel Bayer gave the alliance about $800 worth of free advertising — one spot in every issue for a year.

It seemed like a nice, if largely symbolic, gesture: a little rapprochement between a 1,400-member organization that has spent years trying to clean up downtown and a scrappy 10,000-circulation alternative that works to make sure those efforts don’t infringe on basic human rights.

But in the Aug. 21 edition, Bayer ran an editorial accusing city leaders — both public and private — of overstating the trouble panhandlers and vagrants cause downtown.

PBA leaders disagreed. They felt the editorial ignored the seasonally specific, often drug-related trouble “road warriors” caused this summer and the year-round work business owners do to help people who are truly homeless.

This week, PBA vice president Mike Kuykendall called Bayer to say he was yanking the organization’s ads, which tout all the good things the alliance-managed private security and janitorial service, Clean & Safe, does downtown.

Kuykendall called the editorial “yellow journalism,” Bayer said.

Now the PBA certainly has the right to pull its ads for any reason. “We felt hurt by the editorial,” said Megan Doern, the alliance’s communications director. “This is just a cooling-off period. Street Roots is still a member.”

Yet the group’s decision to take its ball and go home — instead of, say, using the next ad to counter the editorial — raises a troubling question: What exactly did they think was going to happen when they welcomed Street Roots into the fold?

Did somebody at the PBA think Street Roots’ editorial position might soften when it joined the alliance? If so, do they have any idea how the free press — particularly the non-mainstream, uabashedly opinonated type — works?

“They could have written a letter to the editor. They could have asked us to run an op-ed piece. There were other ways to respond,” Bayer said. “It’s not like we just started covering this stuff.”

The PBA and its leaders do a lot of good, more than they’re generally given credit for by a progressive population inclined to look at big business as the bad guy. They’ve led the effort to keep businesses in downtown, and they’ve been a strong and vocal supporter in the eternal quest to find more money for public schools.

But for smart folks who mean well, they sure are lousy politicians.

Three years ago, PBA leaders pushed State Sen. Ginny Burdick into an ill-conceived, poorly executed challenge of then-City Commissioner Erik Sten. She lost big. That same spring, they tried to kill public campaign financing with a ballot measure. They failed. They keep pushing city leaders for tougher anti-loitering laws, even though multiple versions have been ruled unconstitutional.

Now this, a temper tantrum aimed at a nonprofit newspaper with one goal: to help homeless people get off the street.

“Was there a little overreaction? Probably,” Doern said.

You think?

READ – Monsters and Men! Right Here in River City, editorial from Street Roots
READ – Fish And Adams Put The Nail In Sit/Lie’s Coffin, Effectively Telling Business Alliance: Suck It Up, Portland Mercury 9 11 2009

OUR COMMENT – We sent a letter to Portland Business Alliance president Charles Wilhoite, a managing director of Willamette Financial Services.


We hoped the staff and volunteers at Street Roots to not ‘join’ the Portland Business Alliance or make promotional arrangements with your organization. We were not convinced by the editor and publisher’s assurance they would be able to maintain their editorial independence or vigor. We were concerned the tail would wag the dog. Considering the good restart Street Roots has had over the past two years, in gaining readership, in basic journalism, in developing steady advertisers, in reliable vendors, we were concerned a voice of homeless persons would be lost.

Fortunately we were wrong.

The sit / lie law, as predicted by dozens of legal and civil rights experts, is unconstitutional. The police statistics, shown today in Sam Adam’s presentation, accurately dispute the PBA member’s concerns about rising crime. I’ve been walking downtown streets for 40+ years, and in my opinion the streets are safer now than ever before. The PBA’s position, and members, are off-key and now, frankly, an embarrassment.

Israel’s editorial was right on. You need to reconsider your position in this debate, and perhaps leaders in this community. Homelessness has never been resolved by police action, by cops and courts and jail cells. Not in any city, not at any time. It just hasn’t. What does resolve homelessness are evidence-based treatments for mental illness and addiction, transitional housing and jobs programs which meet the homeless population more than halfway.

Endorse and fight for these needed services and you’ll have the acclamation your group wants and needs. Continue to fight against them and you make the care and protection of our downtown a pointless partisan debate.