Trash Talk

When Zombie News Goes Viral

For one old Willamette Week story, the internet was ready to party like it's 2002.

By Chris Lydgate February 27, 2018 Published in the March 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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In old-time newspaper jargon, the room that contained back issues was called the morgue. But sometimes a story cheats death—like in January, when an article I wrote for Willamette Week in 2002, with fellow reporter Nick Budnick, suddenly came back to life.

The original article, “Rubbish!,” started with the case of a Portland cop fired from the force after fellow officers—without a warrant—rooted through her trash and found evidence of drug use. Invasion of privacy, her lawyer argued. Not at all, replied the bureau—your curbside trash is fair game.

Budnick and I decided to try that logic on the officials who supported this policy—the district attorney, the police chief ... and Mayor Vera Katz. We swiped their trash, and published the juicy details. Boy, were they mad. The story burned hot for a week, then died away like a fire starved of fuel. And so it lay dormant until early 2018, when Reddit started chattering about a proposed German hate-speech law. Deep in the comments, a libertarian with a long memory posted a link to our piece. The article went viral, accumulating 885,000 page views, thousands of comments, and a cacophony of tweets from journalists. Some praised our reporting, which is nice to hear even 15 years later.

How to explain this postmortem popularity? A simple accident of not noticing the clear 2002 date stamp or that all the characters were long out of office (or even deceased)? Or maybe the piece resonates because it focuses on an intellectual blind spot—call it hypocrisy—that afflicts people in power. By giving them a taste of their own medicine, we chalked up a win for the underdog.

And that, friends, is a story that never grows old.

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