Your Weekend Reader for Jan. 14-15

by | Jan 14, 2023 | Weekend Reader | 0 comments

Did you get through the first Friday the 13th of the year without nasty incident? Good. Are you worried that the same week that included the first Friday the 13th of the year also saw the state’s new governor, Tina Kotek, sworn into office — and that the 2023 Legislature is set to begin its session just a few days after Friday the 13th? No? Neither am I. What could go wrong?

Last week saw a number of news stories trying to analyze the legacy of former Oregon governor Kate Brown, and even the best of those stories was premature; it will be years before this comes into a clear focus. (The best stories on this topic recognized this point.) But one aspect of Brown’s legacy that perhaps didn’t get the coverage it deserved was the impact she had on the state’s judiciary, including the appointment of a new chief justice, Meagan Flynn, to the Oregon Supreme Court. Every judge on the Supreme Court is a Brown appointee. During her time in office, Brown appointed 112 judges, including 56 women, 27 people of color and eight who identify as people of color. It’s interesting that gubernatorial judicial appointments are not subject to legislative approval; this is likely because all these appointees must stand for election at the next general election, but it’s unusual for a challenger to defeat a sitting judge. (Hillary Borrud’s excellent retrospective for The Oregonian/OregonLive devoted exactly one paragraph to this topic.)

It’s interesting — and telling — that Brown declined to be interviewed for Borrud’s story, and that sums up the former governor’s occasionally stormy relationship with the press. (It could also be one of the reasons why Brown left office as perhaps the least-popular governor in the country.)

Meanwhile, Oregon lawmakers gathered this week to be sworn in and to sing the praises of bipartisanship. The session doesn’t officially begin until this coming Tuesday. As it turns out, there are indications that legislators are serious about working together — Rep. Dan Rayfield of Corvallis, the speaker of the House, even traveled east of the Cascades for a fact-finding trip in the company of two Republican lawmakers. And the truth is that most bills the Legislature passes do so on a mostly bipartisan basis. But when the session turns to the most divisive issues — and when lawmakers start working on what likely will be a challenging state budget — that’s when the veneer of bipartisanship starts to melt away. So check back us on this topic when we get to March or so.

One of the predictable events in the early weeks of the session will be a flood of what legislators call “cats and dogs” — that is, pieces of legislation that deal in things that not everyone might consider life-or-death items, such as settling on the official state pie or naming the official state rodent. (No, wait … we’ve already done that.) Most of these items are relatively harmless. But not all of them: I noticed this story from The Associated Press about a Montana lawmaker who’s pondering legislation to “rethink” the idea of reservations. My guess is that this particular lawmaker may be unaware of his history: From the 1940s to the 1960s, the federal government followed policies intended to terminate Native tribes so that they could be “assimilated” into American culture. If you want a relatively painless introduction to yet another sad chapter of Native history, I can recommend Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Night Watchman,” which is set against the era of termination politics. I might have noted in an earlier Weekend Reader that I’m a huge Erdrich fan, and “The Night Watchman” may be her best book — and a chapter in it, told from the perspective of two escaped horses, is a hoot.

That reference to the Pulitzer Prize puts me in mind of newspapers, and this hasn’t been a great week in Oregon on that count: The Medford Mail Tribune, one of Oregon’s most distinguished newspapers, is no longer. The paper stopped producing a printed edition in September, and on Wednesday, its publisher announced it was pulling the plug entirely on Friday. The publisher of the newspaper in Grants Pass, the Daily Courier, said his newspaper would hire some Mail Tribune journalists and expand its coverage of the Medford area. Rosebud Media, which owned the Mail Tribune, also shut down a sibling paper, the Ashland Daily Tidings, in 2021. The two papers are among the 2,500 or so newspapers that have shut down nationally since 2005. The Mail Tribune was the first Oregon newspaper to win a Pulitzer, in 1934, for campaigning against corrupt local politicians. If you’re wondering who will do that now in southern Oregon — well, that’s exactly the problem here, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, I hear that the Gazette-Times has plans to stop delivering printed copies of the paper to far-flung Philomath; customers still can access the online edition and can have the paper mailed to them. Lee Enterprises, the owner of the Gazette-Times, is emphasizing digital subscriptions. The problem for the G-T is that its understaffed newsroom already has a difficult time competing with Brad Fuqua’s hyperlocal Philomath News website for Philomath coverage, although hard-working Cody Mann occasionally lands a solid Philomath story.

Weather continues to be big news, especially on the West Coast, which is being pummeled as I write with another “atmospheric river.” It’s still not clear to scientists why these weather events sometimes intensify at the 11th hour — so weather experts are taking to the skies above these big storms to take a closer look. The flights have allowed for more accurate and timely forecasts, and are getting some credit for saving lives. A reporter and photographer for The New York Times flew along with a recent flight for a fascinating dispatch. (As is the case with all Times stories, this one is available to subscribers only, but I can send you a free link; just drop a comment below if you want me to email the link to you.)

Finally this week: I felt the need for something that would allow me to end this edition on an upbeat note, and David Brooks came to the rescue with a new piece in The Atlantic, in which he makes the somewhat surprising argument that the United States is actually on the right track. The country, he says, has more creative people than ever before — and that’s good, because we need creative people more than ever right now. Along the way, Brooks makes this point: The people who are most likely to have a pessimistic view of the nation are those folks — generally more affluent and more educated — who spend more time with the news media. Well, ouch. But when we gather over beers next, I’ll explain why human brains are hardwired to respond first to bad news.

Until then, I’ll see you next week.

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