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Matt Von Pinnon, Published September 19 2010

Von Pinnon: Unhjem's past pertinent in the story of his death

The Forum received a fair amount of criticism last week for our reporting on the death of former Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Mike Unhjem.

The complaints took us to task for:

I’ll try to explain some of our reasons behind these decisions, though we don’t expect everyone to agree with them.

First off, in hindsight, we probably did overly emphasize the circumstances that led to Unhjem’s firing in the Tuesday story about his death.

From everything we knew about Unhjem – and he visited The Forum a lot while he was in charge of the Blues – much of his identity was wrapped up in his work, as it would be with any CEO. Taking that life’s work away from him surely left a void in his life.

We thought that void, and the very public matters that led to it, could have been a factor that led to his death.

We included the 2006 DWI information because the controversial 2009 Grand Cayman Island sales trip was not the only reason the Blues board lost confidence in Unhjem’s ability to make sound and supported decisions. Whether including that was fair depends upon how one sees the overall picture of what led to his firing.

Some people thought we shouldn’t have reported that Unhjem’s death was a suicide.

When somebody dies alone in their home, especially someone of Unhjem’s high profile, the first questions that come to mind are “how” and “why.”

We thought this was important information to convey, even if suicide still has a strong social stigma. In fact, that’s probably a good reason for reporting it.

We sought the cause of death from police, but they couldn’t or wouldn’t report it at that time. Many of Unhjem’s friends wouldn’t say it was suicide on the record. Hennen, one of Unhjem’s friends, broke that silence, telling us the 57-year-old “took his own life.”

We paraphrased that into “suicide” for the story and attributed that info to him.

Some people apparently thought Hennen was just seeking publicity for himself and argued, for that reason, we shouldn’t have included it.

We had no reason to believe Hennen’s comments and recollections about his friend were anything but sincere. That Hennen was fired and in the news just a few days earlier shouldn’t preclude him from sharing his thoughts about a person he considered a friend, and there is no good reason for us to deny his information from being part of the story.

Unhjem was a major figure in our community, in his good days and in his bad days. His death – and how he died – is a major story. It was deserving of above-the-fold treatment on Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s front pages.

We understand when people tell us that such story treatment adds further pain to an already grieving family and friends, but we mean no harm.

Mike Unhjem was a brilliant and fascinating man who did many good things and gave a lot to our community. We always found him to be extremely candid and forthright. We tried to treat the news of his death in similar fashion.


Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.