“A bold campaign to defuse myths and prejudice promoted by an anti-homosexual constitutional amendment” is how the Pulitzer Prize judges described “Oregon’s Inquisition,” the unprecedented 12-part editorial series published by the state’s leading daily, The Oregonian. Read the series here.
Your writer Holly Pruett interviewed the author of that series, editorial page editor Robert Landauer. Edited for clarity, this is his story – the story of a bygone era of editorial independence and accountability for the rights of all.
I was drafted to the job of editorial page editor; I hadn’t sought it. The job was in part to be a community conscience. That required me to have the capacity to speak to the person who had the authority to replace me [publisher Fred Stickel], but my judgment was what would appear on the editorial page.
Fred was a member of the editorial board. He sat in on the big endorsements but always made it clear that his weight was no more than that of any other argument in the room. It created a phenomenal capacity for decisions based on the merits. I was familiar with the editorial page editors in Los Angeles and New York and in private conversations almost all said that, among major metropolitan papers, I probably had more freedom than almost any other.
In almost 40 years at The Oregonian, more than half connected with the editorial department, not once did ownership or management overturn an editorial decision I made. We disagreed on some issues – for example, reproductive choice. [Stickel was a devout Roman Catholic.] You never ambush your boss, so I always let him know in advance when we were editorializing in an area of social controversy. Fred would come into my office and say, “I don’t want to get a call from the Archbishop at 5:30 in the morning. As a courtesy, could you invite an opponent or provide the Archbishop an opportunity to rebut on the Op Ed page?”
When it came to The Oregonian’s position on Ballot Measure 9, there were no dissenting voices. I told the staff I was going to write the editorials myself, though I wasn’t sure how I was going to approach it.
An Apology for a Shameful History
How did I come into my frame of mind on this issue? I had been aware that The Oregonian had been shameful in its behavior at the start of WWII regarding the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry. They absolutely cheered on President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 and Lt. Gen. John DeWitt who had taken the first actions against these citizens. That was really terrible.
As the most junior editorial writer on the staff by at least 20 years, I had tried to raise my concern about the newspaper’s misbehavior towards Americans of Japanese ancestry, but there was no way I could make progress with the editorial board at the time. My predecessor had been an adjutant to the general who was centrally involved in sending Aleuts, the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands, to the internment camps.
But then I was drafted to run the newsroom as metro editor. When a Congressional commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians held hearings around the country in 1981 to deal with redress of the treatment of Americans of Japanese ancestry, I was able to send a reporter to every single hearing on the west coast, from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to Southern California, feeling the The Oregonian had been central to this problem.
I still remember one of the stories we reported: a woman who spoke Japanese in her congressional testimony in Seattle. She had six or seven sons fighting for America in the war. She said, “I never understood why the machine guns were pointed toward us rather than away from us if the camps were supposed to be for my protection.”
About that time I was moved into the editorial department, and I wrote the formal apology of the newspaper for its role in that shameful time.
When I took on the job as editorial page editor I spent some time studying the Oregon Constitution. Not that many people who aren’t lawyers read the state constitution or know it. But I saw myself as a gatekeeper who had to be a defender of the noble principles of the constitution.Bob Landauer
I used to think about it at the start of every work day, that one of my major obligations was to be a defender of Article 1, Section 20: “No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.”
I saw this as derivative of Declaration of Independence: All men are created equal. In my own mind, I turned it into the Golden Rule of Reciprocal Decency. I walked two miles to work for almost 40 years, thinking remember this, remember this.
Child of Refugees
I am the child of refugees, a first-generation American who is absolutely grateful every single day that this country took in my relatives. When I was a youngster in rural New York state, my father and uncle dug out our root cellar and built bunk beds into it. Jews who couldn’t legally get into the U.S. but could get into Canada, were smuggled across the border, and came down the Hudson River into our root cellar. There they learned survival English and eventually assumed the legal identity of a U.S. citizen who had died.
One of my strong memories is from 1952 when my grandfather died. He was the patriarch of our community. Standing in the cemetery receiving line, I met a stream of people coming back to that town to pay their respects, saying, “I was sent by my family to honor the patriarch who saved our lives.”
I’m a person who has been profoundly shaped by the refugee experience. My wife and I fostered kids of all colors. I believed the newspaper had to give a much stronger presence and awareness to minority voices and hired some of our first Black reporters and the first Black editorial writer, a woman.
I knew nothing about the gay community. I’d say I probably had a neutral attitude. I believed what people did in the privacy of their own homes was their own business if they didn’t inflict on others. But minority voices had to be protected and heard.Bob Landauer
The Oregonian had a great group of photographers back in those days. After Measure 9 was defeated, one of them was offered a prestigious job in another part of the country. She asked for an appointment with me before she left. She came into my office and introduced her female partner. They said they had never let anyone know they were a pair. They said, “Your editorials enabled us to be open at The Oregonian for the first time.”
Today our family is a part of the gay community. We have a granddaughter who came out; she has a wonderful partner.
Making the Case Against Ballot Measure 9
Ballot Measure 9 was not a referendum on homosexuality; it was a referendum on civil rights.
There was no intention or permission to intrude on your personal reaction to homosexuality. But your personal belief doesn’t give you rein to limit someone else’s freedom.
I wanted to defend the ability of the conservatives to hold their point of view but not their freedom to limit others’ freedom. We have to have deep respect for people who differ from us. They have a right to their personal beliefs. But they cannot violate Article 1, Section 20. No one can be denied contracts, licenses, the ability to foster and adopt children, their custodial rights – as Measure 9 would have done.
Interspersed with this conviction was my growing awareness of how to communicate complex issues. I had been studying learning theory, the thought process, how people take in, absorb, and integrate information. Typically, The Oregonian would pontificate and give one or two statements from Mt Olympus and that’s it. But people take in information in small bites. Especially when that information doesn’t fully accord with their beliefs, it creates a lot of cognitive dissonance.
I decided I had to go through the anatomy of Measure 9 and pull out different elements, then create a series to deal with each of those elements individually – in a very distilled manner, using simple declarative sentences, to give people time to integrate the information. Show how A leads to B, leads to C.
I offered my drafts of these editorials out to my co-workers to critique. On the editorial staff I had liberals and conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders. On this, there was no static. They said we ought to break our rule, that there ought to be a byline. But I felt really strongly that this was a values-setting movement that required the voice of the newspaper, not an individual.
When I review the series today, I think, ‘Hey, it’s pretty good.’
“Oregon’s Inquisition” in 12 Parts
“A Portland police car was often stationed outside Landauer’s home that summer.”Steve Duin, “Still Dedicated to His Craft,” The Oregonian, May 17, 2020
We were always aware of security; during Measure 9 was no different. There were times when I took editorial stances – such as during the Vietnam war – when there were bomb threats against my house with my kids in it. The police would drive up and get my kids out. When I dealt with Second Amendment gun issues, I got lots of threats. The Postal Service frequently had to trace the sender of threats that came by mail.
There were always people who cancelled ads or subscriptions. I had done some research, though, which indicated that people would tend to cancel for only about two weeks. Or they might give up their subscription but go on to buy single copies.
If you’re going to have strong opinions on controversies, there’s no way you can avoid offending some of the people who disagree with you. The important thing is not to offer gratuitous or unnecessary offense. Your chief sin, though, is to dodge taking a stand on principle once you have achieved clarity. A corollary is you always have to be open to a right of rebuttal.
The Publisher Weighs In
In the week before Election Day, the publisher Fred Stickel told me, “I’m sticking something on Page One of Sunday’s paper; see if you can see anything wrong with it.” It was a very clear, concise, admirable personal statement. Very, very powerful.
Today, I am making a personal appeal to the people of Oregon: Ballot Measure 9 in Tuesday’s election must be defeated. My appeal to you is unprecedented in the years that I have led The Oregonian as its president and publisher. I speak out now because Measure 9 is also unprecedented – an assault on human rights and human dignity that should have no place in the Oregon Constitution.Fred Stickel, Oregonian Publisher
He wrote, “I do not and cannot endorse homosexual acts. But my longstanding religious and moral views as a conservative Roman Catholic are one thing and my lifelong commitment, both in peace and war, to defend and exult in the inalienable rights granted our citizens under the U.S. Constitution is another.” Read Stickel’s full front-page statement.
He had been a Marine crawling through the South Pacific during WWII and the erosion of civil rights embedded in Measure 9 was not the freedom he and his men had battled for.
A Pulitzer Prize, Awarded to No One
After I was informed I’d been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the series, I got personal statements of support mailed to me by the others nominated in that category that year. They all said, “Congratulations, you deserve it.”
But the Pulitzer judges decided not to award a prize in that category that year. Research into what happened was published later in a trade journal. The researcher found that some of the publishers on the Pulitzer board felt there had been too much recognition given to the gay movement. There were two other areas in which issues dealing with the gay movement had already received Pulitzer Prizes. There were members of the board who created an impasse even though, reportedly, there was no disagreement on the board that “Oregon’s Inquisition” was the best of the nominees.
I would have loved to have been awarded, but it was their prize.
That Was Then, This Is Now
Liberty is always an unfinished business. You could take our Measure 9 editorials and apply them to a bunch of issues today. The various pushes to control what children read in libraries and what teachers teach, crippling our schools in their ability to present a complete palette of ideas for discussion. No one is denying you the right to have your personal opinion, but you are denying our right to a range of free expression.
We were in a period of evolution in 1992. Measure 9’s passage would have been the first time since the Civil War that a state would do something to withdraw, versus add to, civil rights. We’re talking now about the same thing with voter suppression and banning of books.
Common to these efforts is a phrase I keep thinking of – a campaign of defamation. Not just fighting the idea, but the people who carry an idea. In Measure 9, it was sexual missionaries declaring that a militant homosexual agenda was attacking our values, claiming that homosexuals wanted special rights. I’m struck by how much commonality there is to what’s happening today, including commonality of the consequences.
It’s a hackneyed phrase, Where are you Walter Cronkite? But there’s no longer an intermediary group of people who distill, filter, and come up with a plausible synthesis that most people can relate to. The eyes and ears of the public are drawn first to those who angrily promote discord. We’ve fragmented our sources of information – whether 200 channels on cable or social media, information is more siloed. Now we seek out the information that reinforces our views and causes us the least discontent. It’s very challenging to build commonality and community in those circumstances.
There is a notion that Oregon is a very progressive state. And it is in some regards – the initiative, referendum, and recall process; the beach bill and bottle bill. But in matters of civil rights, we have portions of the Oregon populace that are not just conservative, but retrogressive.
The vote count in Measure 9 – 44% in favor, 56% opposed – wasn’t far off the sociopolitical divide that exists in Oregon.
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.