Park or plaza? Word choice and bias in Press Herald’s Congress Square coverage

As any good editor knows, words matter, especially when reporting on a controversial issue. For example, in covering the protests outside Planned Parenthood’s Congress Street offices, the media’s use of terms like “anti-choice,” “pro-life,” “pro-choice” and “abortion rights” can influence the debate and betray bias.

Which brings us to the Portland Press Herald’s glaring editorial bias in favor of selling Congress Square Park to an out-of-state developer.

Let’s pause here to give everyone a chance to roll their eyes in exasperation. Didn’t Portland voters settle this issue last month during a contentious referendum campaign?

Apparently not. An informed source inside City Hall told me earlier this week that city officials are prepared to put the question of the park’s sale before voters this November, thereby reigniting the debate sparked by the broader parks-protection referendum question on June’s ballot. Councilors are expected to begin the process during a committee meeting next Monday. If, as expected, a super-majority of the council does not endorse the park’s sale, then Portland voters will get to decide the park’s fate (again).

Both sides are already gearing up for Park War II. On Tuesday morning, I received a press release from Protect Portland Parks that outlines the group’s efforts to meet with proponents of the park’s sale and reach a mutually agreeable compromise that would head off another citywide vote. On Tuesday afternoon, the first of several press releases from the city’s spokesperson landed in my inbox announcing a grant to survey and plan the future of all the parks and other open spaces in Portland. That initiative could delay or preclude Protect Portland Parks’ call to reconvene the study group that was working on ways to improve Congress Square Park before the Westin Hotel’s owners expressed interest in buying it.

So we can expect a lot more coverage of this issue in the local daily, but, curiously, as far as the Press Herald is concerned, Congress Square Park does not exist. In its news and editorial coverage of this issue, the paper insists on referring to the park as “Congress Square Plaza,” the term preferred by those who want to sell the park.

This semantic shenanigan irks the park’s protectors, like musician and visual artist Frank Turek, who shared with me an email correspondence he’s had with the paper’s editors during the past several weeks.

Writing to managing editor Steve Greenlee, Turek pointed out that Congress Square Plaza is the name of an apartment building near the park, at the corner of Congress Street and Forest Avenue. A search of the paper’s online archives going back to 1995 shows that the Press Herald consistently referred to the building as Congress Square Plaza and the park as Congress Square Park until it began covering the proposed sale. Numerous official city documents, like a 1992 study titled “Report on Congress Square Park,” further bolster the case for that name, as does common usage.

Turek suggested that the paper’s editorial position in favor of the park’s sale was influencing its decision to use “Plaza” in news articles — a clear breach of journalistic ethics. He requested that the Press Herald publish an “erratum” (or correction).

Greenlee replied within the hour to thank Turek and inform him that he and his colleagues in the newsroom have been discussing this question and will continue to do so. Three weeks passed, so Turek inquired again, and again Greenlee followed up within minutes to say, “We don’t have a policy on it, though we keep talking about it.”

Then editorial page editor Greg Kesich chimed in and claimed that both terms “have been in use interchangeably for some time.” When Turek pointed out that Kesich’s own paper called the park a “Park” until the controversy over its sale began, Kesich (whose editorial duties are not supposed to influence news coverage) dug in his heels.

“The bottom line is clarity,” he wrote. “When we are having a debate over a piece of property, I think it makes sense to use the common term. I do think ‘plaza’ is more accurate…”

To which I now chime in: hogwash. If clarity were the deciding factor, no sane editor would use the same name as a building on the same block. “Plaza” is not the “common term” for the park, nor it is more “accurate.” Portland’s Post Office Park and Tommy’s Park are also small, mostly paved public spaces, but no one calls them “plazas.”

If Portland’s daily hopes to have any credibility in its future coverage of this issue, it should publish a correction and refer to this park as a park in all future news articles. Kesich is free to call it a “plaza” in his editorials. It won’t be the first time he’s been wrong.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.