Opinion: ODOT-written articles in the Tribune mislead the public

Front page of the Portland Tribune’s business section on October 25th. How many readers know Brendan Finn is the director of ODOT’s office of urban mobility and lead on the controversial I-5 Rose Quarter project?

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is getting some very positive coverage from the Business Tribune these days.

Kris Strickler writes the Keep Oregon Moving column for the Trib. He’s also director of ODOT.

The sole headline on the front page of the October 24th edition was, “Finding ways to help the Albina District grow.” “ODOT’s Rose Quarter Project will provide opportunities for communities that have historically been left behind,” reads the sub-headline. The story was a glowing review of the project.

To the vast majority of readers, the story looks like it was written by a reporter named Brendan Finn under the innocuous column heading, “Keep Oregon Moving.” As you can see in the photo there’s no clear indication to think anything else.

What most people won’t realize is that Brendan Finn is the director of ODOT’s office of urban mobility and the the face of the I-5 Rose Quarter Project — a project so controversial that no major regional elected official supports it, the City of Portland took the unprecedented step of withdrawing as an official federal project partner, and even the non-profit Albina Vision Trust walked away from it months ago. And “Keep Oregon Moving” isn’t a clever column title, it’s what ODOT calls their current transportation funding law.

This is just the latest from the “Keep Oregon Moving” column.

In April, someone named Kris Strickler (who happens to be the ODOT’s director) wrote a column titled, “The future of Oregon’s transportation system” which detailed the myriad ways, “Innovations and technology are changing ODOT’S response to Oregonians’ mobility needs.” And Strickler wrote another article last December titled, “New lanes aid traffic flow,” which informed readers that, “Auxiliary lanes are a well-established tool to improve safety and reduce congestion.” Back in July the leader of ODOT’s climate office, Amanda Pietz penned a piece titled, “ODOT decisions look through the climate change lens: Cleaner air and a reduction in traffic are just two of the benefits of ODOT’s focus on climate change.”

“It’s very clear. I don’t think there can be any misunderstanding.”
— Don Hamilton, ODOT public information officer

All of these stories looked alike. None of them were clearly marked as opinions, the ODOT logo doesn’t appear prominently anywhere, and there’s no clear, above-the-fold indication that the authors are high-ranking ODOT officials. The staffer’s name is in the byline, but it’s not followed by their title or even simply, “ODOT”. There’s also no disclaimer that the views expressed are not those of the Business Tribune or that the articles are part of a publishing partnership between the Tribune and ODOT. The only mention of the connection to ODOT is in italics after a break below the end of the article. If you aren’t one of the handful of Oregonians familiar with these names and faces and you don’t read each word carefully, it’s easy to assume these are Tribune reporters.

ODOT and the Tribune disagree.

ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton says the Tribune approached them about the opportunity last year. “I believe they wanted to hear what ODOT is up to, to have our voice,” Hamilton explained when I asked him about the articles. “It’s very clear. There’s always a picture and it says it’s by an ODOT person, and it’s clearly ODOT’s voice. I don’t think there can be any misunderstanding.”

Tribune Managing Editor Dana Haynes (who previously worked as spokesperson for former Portland Mayor Charlie Hales) agrees with Hamilton. I asked him if he believes most readers would know these articles are written by ODOT staff. “Yes,” he replied, “[Finn’s photo] is the largest image and his tagline identifies him. Also: Newspaper readers understand bylines.” Does Haynes have any concern that the Tribune is allowing ODOT to share biased views on controversial projects? “No,” Haynes replied, “All opinion columns are biased. As are all letters to the editor and newspaper editorial board columns and editorial cartoons. By definition. We also provide (and encourage) people who disagree to send in their own letters and columns. The dialog of an editorial page is an intrinsic part of a newspaper’s job in the community.”

I agree with Haynes about the value of opinions and editorials. I just think the Tribune needs to make it clearer to readers that’s what these articles are — especially when they come from an agency with a long history of lying, obfuscation, and willfully misleading the public.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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Robert
Robert
2 years ago

this is despicable. ODOT and the Tribune should be ashamed. Thanks for the great reporting, Jonathan.

Alice Corbin
Alice Corbin
2 years ago

I used to read the Trib. I stopped the day they published a front page ‘news’ article on how well Ross Island was being cleaned up. Without a hint of a mention that Pamplin owned the company that had hollowed it out. They lost all credibility right then.

David Hampsten
2 years ago

I lived in Portland for 18 years (1997-2015) and up until now I had never heard of the Business Tribune. Is it a popular newspaper?

BrianC
BrianC
2 years ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

It is part of the Pamplin Media Empire. 🙂
https://pamplinmedia.com/

They publish about 20 small regional papers. Mostly out and targeted to the suburbs. The Forest Grove News Times is one. If you were downtown or inner Portland you probably wouldn’t be aware of them.

Hello, Kitty
Hello, Kitty
2 years ago
Reply to  BrianC

The Portland Tribune is focused on the city. It’s a free biweekly that occasionally has good journalism.

Josh G
2 years ago
Reply to  Hello, Kitty

It moved to weekly in January and put up bigger paywalls

Bicycling Al
Bicycling Al
2 years ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

I always thought that it’s an insert in the Portland Tribune which is part of the Pamplin Group.

GlowBoy
GlowBoy
2 years ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

The Tribune has been available in free newspaper boxes (next to WWeek and the Mercury) for many years. You’ll find them at nearly every MAX stop.

Hello, Kitty
Hello, Kitty
2 years ago

I agree with Haynes about the value of opinions and editorials. I just think the Tribune needs to make it clearer to readers that’s what these articles are.

This is really important, and something certain other outlets struggle with.

SD
SD
2 years ago

“We also provide (and encourage) people who disagree to send in their own letters and columns.”
Who have they provided?
Also disingenuous, considering that ODOT opinion writing is paid for, and opposing opinions are expected to arise organically. The least the tribune could do is clearly identify the authors as ODOT employees.
And, they should publish this Bike Portland article in their opinion section and let the readers reflect on whether or not they knew they had been reading ODOT propaganda.

Stephen Gomez
Stephen Gomez
2 years ago

Thanks Jonathan for your steadfast reporting on ODOT’s awful impacts on the community as well as their gaslighting regarding this highway widening project through the heart of our city.

qqq
qqq
2 years ago

“Clear” would be “This opinion piece was written by Kris Strickler, the Director of ODOT”.

FDUP
FDUP
2 years ago

Fake News!

Fred
Fred
2 years ago

Is Dana Haynes by any chance the same Dana Haynes who once tried to make Charlie Hales look good and sound coherent? I think that tells us all we need to know.

Roberta
Roberta
2 years ago

Something is super fishy about the Tribune. They had Sen. (R) Boquist quoting them. I think they are trying to make controversy to sell clicks. Has anybody done an FOIA on ODOT staff time with elected officials? Especially Finn, he isn’t a registered lobbyiest but he practically camps in Salem to make sure the state highway spigot is greased with equity language and obfuscation. Just like the money grab on the cannabis sales tax all going to OHA. The same people who always opposed legalization. Just like ODOT. Its a democratic money and power grab for the established insiders.

GlowBoy
GlowBoy
2 years ago

Pretty disappointing behavior by the Tribune. They can run “stories” like this, but they should be clearly marked as opinion pieces – as legitimate newspapers still do.