What is the John Kitzhaber scandal, and what can we learn from it? We dig into the story and the reputation lessons it provides.
John Kitzhaber started his public service work in Oregon in 1978, when I was just strapping on my shoes for first grade. Since then, he’s held a variety of different public offices in Oregon, and I’ve seen him regularly. In fact, I nearly hit him with my bike during a particularly harried commute on a beautiful day in Waterfront Park. I was in a hurry, and he was campaigning. That could have ended badly.
But as it turns out, he was able to torpedo his career without my help. Back in October, a local newspaper dropped a bombshell of an article about the governor’s relationship with a girlfriend. She had a workspace in his office, and allegedly, it became easy enough to use her connections to advance her causes. That kind of influence peddling is verboten, and the report caused quite a scandal.
The scandal didn’t let up, either, and on Wednesday, Kitzhaber will resign, just one month into his historic fourth term. It’s a big blow for those of us who live and work in Oregon.
Now, national reports suggest that Kitzhaber could have recovered by issuing an apology and outlining just what had happened. I think that’s a pretty naïve viewpoint. We Oregonians have been hit with this story, over and over and over, and it’s kept us from focusing on a variety of other issues that we should be addressing (like, oh, the fact that we don’t have a workable healthcare exchange website, even though we’ve spent millions of taxpayer dollars on that project, but I digress).
Even if Kitzhaber had apologized, the story would have persisted. And many of us just wanted to move on to other things.
And I think Kitzhaber knew that, and it seems like he’s a little angry about that. Here’s just one little excerpt from his resignation statement:
“I must also say that it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved.”
I’d like to point out that this isn’t an issue that’s limited to Oregon. (Hello, Bill Cosby! Howdy, Woody Allen!) We live in a 24/7 news culture in which there’s no time for rest and reflection. When a story like this breaks, it’s chewed over and broken down into multiple bits of content. Rather than seeing just one story in the daily newspaper, we see this same story in:
- Front-page news articles
- Twitter reports
- In-depth follow-up analysis on the local news
- Overviews on the national news
Plus, readers of particularly nasty bits of news sometimes feel compelled to add in their two cents. Sometimes, they simply write their own blog entries, or they add their comments to existing stories about the issue. But sometimes, they take the idea of justice to the next level, and they mount their own attacks due to the stories they’ve read. This kind of vigilante justice is particularly common in cases of bullying, as an article in the New York Times makes clear, but there’s a bit of it in play in cases of political malfeasance as well. I can’t imagine that Kitzhaber could put up any kind of statement without getting a lot of backlash right now. In Oregon, he really is assumed guilty.
Can that kind of mob mentality turn into great, big mistakes? You betcha. But unfortunately, we won’t know what those mistakes are until months from now. The Kitzhaber investigation is still ongoing, even with his resignation, and the prosecutor’s office just asked for paperwork for that investigation. It could be weeks or even months until we know what really happened.
If Kitzhaber isn’t wrong, he should take a victory lap. But who will be there to celebrate with him? Who will be following the story by then? Won’t we all be consumed with other problems in a few months?
The Kitzhaber debacle reminds us that there’s no room for error in our celebrity culture. All of us simply must be careful and cautious with our reputations, so we don’t run into problems like this. Being innocent simply isn’t enough anymore. We need to be so sparkly clean that we’re beyond suspicion.
It’s one of those sad reputation lessons, sure, but for now, it’s the right one.