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Op-Ed: Why I fell on the sword for Liysa Northon

Why I fell on the swartBy Rick Swart

There is a disturbing trend in journalism away from investigation, exposing corruption and pointing out mistreatment of the little guy, to exploitation and pandering to big dollar advertisers, sponsors or special interest groups that have control of the media.

Recently some sanctimonious entertainment media have held up my decision not to volunteer in advance information that I had fallen in love with domestic violence victim and wrongfully portrayed survivor, Liysa Northon, during the course of my investigation of her case as an ethical violation.Once again people who have not bothered to gather the facts are disseminating ill-informed opinions, when the public would be better served by actual investigation.

Rather than the lazy and dangerous practice of contempt prior to investigation in forming their opinion they’re letting feelings take the place of research.In this case, the mainstream media had committed the most cardinal sin in journalism, not only had Ann Rule and most Oregon newspapers, particularly the Bend Bulletin and La Grande Observer, printed volumes of information about Liysa Northon, but they had done so without ever getting her side or giving her a chance to set the record straight.

The fact of the matter is that Liysa was found in court to have been a victim of domestic violence, and her abusive husband was deemed to be an alcoholic and drug addict. You’d never know that, though, because the papers omitted those important pieces of information, and Ann Rule altered this court finding because it completely contradicted the entire premise of her book. Conversely, every statement I made in the Seattle Weekly article was true. The facts were independently verified and the supporting documents were published.

The fact that Liysa’s courage and compassion, determination, human and intelligence showed more character than all the journalists who wrote about her while ignoring the ethical mandate to get her side, compelled me to make sure the truth was published. Ann Rule’s lies spread widespread damage to many people’s lives.

In the beginning I told several editors that I had fallen in love with Liysa and therefore had taken extra care to make sure every statement could be independently documented. No one would publish it, nor were they willing to do an independent investigation on their own. These papers, like the Bulletin and Observer, were content to simply let their false statements stand, regardless of the damage they’d done. So, instead, I systematically shopped a product that was completely factual and I was prepared to answer any question that came up in a matter-of-fact and honest way.

It astounds me that a story I wrote, which was entirely true, is an issue, it’s Rule’s false statement that are the real issue. Her conduct is reprehensible. Seattle Weekly editor Caleb Hannan interviewed Liysa’s ex-boyfriend, who told Hannan that Rule had hounded him to buy Liysa’s private letters, an incredible invasion of privacy and a blatant attempt to create emotional distress. Beyond that, he told Hannan that Rule and one of Chris’s friends had tried to convince him to join their plan to set Liysa up to get more time in prison. Hannan told me this was one of the most disturbing things he’d ever heard. So, faced with the dilemma of allowing a predator like Rule to continue hurting the woman I love, or using a bit of discretion and exposing her tormentor, I chose the latter.

Now, as a result of that decision, the world knows that Rule lied. Also, it is of interest to note that Rule became close to the Northons through the process of writing her book. Unlike Rule, who never spoke to Liysa or her family, I made the effort and spoke to both Rule and Dick Northon. I got both sides.

It’s ironic that people who have chastised me have committed greater ethical breaches themselves in their handling of this issue. For example, Oregonian reporter Dick Cockle knew that Liysa had been found to be a victim of domestic violence so it was unethical and downright defamatory for him to publish Rule’s statement that Liysa wasn’t abused.
Furthermore, Cockle knew that Chris Northon was a drug addict and that Dick Northon had been instructed by the court to stop denying that the abuse took place, that such denial hurt Liysa’s children. Cockle irresponsibly printed Dick Northon’s claim and did so with the knowledge that he was hurting Liysa’s children.

I hurt no one. What I was did at great personal sacrifice was expose the truth. It would have been far easier to sit back and not do anything, like everyone else. The right thing is not always the easiest thing. A third generation newspaper publisher, that concept was frequently a topic of discussion of family gatherings, led by my grandfather, Gwen T. Coffin, an Oregon newspaper hall of fame inductee. Maybe that’s why I’ve got more than 50 journalistic awards hanging on my wall. I listened to what he had to say.

I risked some clucking tongues, mostly on the part of those who lacked the moral courage and are more comfortable pandering to the wealthy self-serving people who victimize the vulnerable and profit from that. However, I could not have lived with myself if I had let fear prevent me from doing what I knew was the right thing. In the end I achieved the greater victory, I resolved a difficult ethical dilemma by choosing a course that did the most good and least harm … and, I got the girl. She recognized my hard fight, the risks I took, the sacrifices I made and it won her heart and her hand. Now I have a beautiful, courageous tenacious wife, who is very grateful.
Yeah, it was worth it.


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