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Unusual Washington News Council Report Criticizes Spokane Spokesman-Review Coverage of Local Project

On May 5, 2007, the Washington News Council released a report based on an unusual independent investigation into the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review’s controversial coverage of a local redevelopment project between 1994 and 2005. The report was critical of the paper on a number of issues. But it also prompted criticism of the news council itself.

The Spokesman-Review had been broadly criticized for its coverage of Spokane’s River Park Square (RPS) redevelopment project. The newspaper’s publisher, Cowles Publishing Company (Cowles), was also owner of the RPS property, the downtown shopping mall that was the target of the project. According to the report, critics claimed that the paper had overlooked or ignored the project’s financial problems while urging public support for its success. Meanwhile, the report said, the RPS controversy and the resulting lawsuits “tore apart the city’s political structure and pulled down its bond rating.”

Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith, who joined the newspaper in 2002, formally asked the Washington News Council (WNC) in February 2006 to independently investigate the claims of unethical journalism, according to the report. The investigation cost $30,000, split between the WNC and the Spokesman-Review, included a freelance investigation by former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter Bill Richards, and took more than a year to complete. The 29-page document is available at the WNC Web site, www.wanewscouncil.org, and at the Spokesman-Review’s Web site, www.spokesmanreview.com. It was published in full in the print edition of the Sunday, May 6, 2007 Spokesman-Review.

News organizations have subjected controversial coverage to outside reviews in the past. For example, in 2004, CBS News asked a former U.S. Attorney General and a retired Associated Press president chief executive to form an independent panel to review its controversial reporting on President George W. Bush’s National Guard Service. (See “Panel Publishes Findings Following Review of CBS ‘60 Minutes’ Broadcast” in the Fall 2004 issue of the Silha Bulletin.) However, according to The Seattle Times, it is unusual for a newspaper to request a totally autonomous critique of coverage of its own company.

The report sided with the newspaper’s critics. Its findings said that coverage of the RPS project and its legal fallout from 1994 to 2005 lacked thoroughness, balance and transparency. The newspaper self-censored and suppressed important financial information in the interest of Cowles and to the detriment of the public good, the report said. It also found that coverage was negatively affected by an inappropriate “no surprises” arrangement which allowed owner Cowles to control content about the company, as well as by the fact that one attorney, Duane Swinton, was simultaneously advising the Spokesman-Review newsroom and the Cowles boardroom on the issue. The report also criticized then-editor Chris Peck for simultaneously overseeing coverage of the RPS project while advocating a particular outcome in his columns.

The news council made recommendations along with its findings. Among them, it suggested an independent outside editor be assigned to oversee coverage of Cowles operations, and treat the company exactly the same as it does any other source for a story, allowing no more or less influence over content. The WNC also recommended that the Spokesman-Review find a separate law firm for advice on legal issues in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

Editor Smith apologized to readers and to the Spokane community in a column published the same day as the report, May 6, 2007. “In the newsroom, we accept the findings. And we sincerely apologize for not adequately living up to our journalistic standards,” Smith said.

In a column responding to the WNC’s recommendations published a week later, Smith said that because he oversaw both the newsroom and the editorial board as editor, he was aware of the appearance that Spokesman-Review news decisions might be influenced by editorial positions. “The News Council report tells me that at this time, in this community and with the RPS controversy still percolating, it might be best if I stepped away from the editorial board. So that’s what I will do,” said Smith.

He also reminded readers that newsroom meetings are now open to the public and “webcast” online, but declined to accept the suggestion to hire a new lawyer, pointing out that the conflict of interest was resolved by other lawyers at Swinton’s firm handling Cowles business.

Others were less willing to accept the news council’s report. Publisher W. Stacy Cowles said he “reject[s] substantially” the report’s findings that he or members of the Cowles family directed Spokesman-Review coverage. In a column published the same day as the report and Smith’s column, Cowles wrote, “the Editor and the newsroom made and continue to make their own decisions about RPS and all other news coverage.”

Peck, who was the paper’s editor throughout the controversy and now is editor of the Memphis, Tenn. Commercial Appeal,challenged the findings as well as Smith’s apology in a May 12 Spokesman-Review column. “I must take exception to implications that the Spokesman-Review newsroom in the 1990s was somehow orchestrated to turn a blind eye to the problems with River Park Square,” Peck wrote. “Not true.”

Peck also said the report “inflates” the significance of the RPS controversy, ignoring that there were other major stories editors and reporters were covering, as well as suggesting that Peck did little to respond to critics at the time.

Peck claimed that he brought in Joann Byrd, former Washington Post ombudsman, and Bob Steele, an ethicist at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and member of the Silha Advisory Board, to meet with Spokesman-Review staff and talk about ethical journalism, as well as encouraged the staff to draft a new code of ethics, which was finished by the time he left in 2002.

A July 10, 2007 report by Camas Magazine said the WNC report “committed major errors and appears to have violated standard journalism ethics and practices.” Camas is an online publication that reports on RPS issues and Cowles business.

The Camas report, which can be found under the title “The Verdict” at www.camasmagazine.com, said that the WNC report downplayed the nature of attorney Swinton’s conflict of interest and misrepresented a closing agreement in a 2006 tax case.

The WNC report concluded, “Swinton is probably correct that he did not have a formal conflict of interest since throughout the whole project he was only representing one client – Cowles Co.” According to Camas, however, Swinton never made this assertion; the term “formal conflict of interest” came from WNC Executive Director John Hamer, and the “one client” explanation came from Richards, the WNC report’s author.

Richards defended the assertion in a July 31 e-mail to the Silha Bulletin, however, saying the WNC report made clear that although Swinton would probably not have a legal conflict of interest because he was not working for two separate clients in adversarial positions, the perception among reporters and editors in the Spokesman-Review newsroom was that Swinton was “serving two masters.”

The Camas Senior Editor who wrote the magazine’s report, Tim Connor, filed a grievance against Swinton with the Washington State Bar Association, according to a July 23 Editor & Publisher (E&P) magazine story. Swinton told E&P that he thought the grievance was unusual because Connor chose to make it public and because Connor had never been one of his clients. Connor said if the Spokesman-Review had chosen to follow the WNC recommendation to find a different lawyer, he probably would not have filed the grievance. “The conflict has been long-standing,” Connor said in the E&P story. “It’s been there and it’s been publicized – but it’s never been resolved.”

The WNC report’s “other major lapse,” according to Camas, was in reporting that an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) closing agreement in a 2006 tax case involving the sale of a parking garage in the RPS Complex was a “reversal” of a 2004 IRS determination that the sale was exempt from federal taxes.

Camas reported that an IRS spokesman and a tax attorney who negotiated the closing agreement both said the document did not constitute a “reversal” and said only that the disagreement was resolved.

Camas also reported that the information for the section of the WNC report on the IRS closing agreement came from a redacted version of the agreement. Richards would not disclose who gave him the agreement or who might have redacted it, but Camas reported that its research “strongly indicate[d]” that it came from a law firm, K&L Gates. That law firm, according to Camas, was a defendant in the RPS litigation and is now a major donor to the WNC; two of K&L Gates’ founding partners were also founding members of the news council.

Camas says this raises a question as to whether “a major News Council donor (and a major player in the River Park Square securities fraud fiasco) was able to surreptitiously influence Richards’s reporting through the back door of the WNC’s project team.”

Richards defended his decision not to disclose his source for the IRS document. “This was not a public document and its release could be problematic for the source,” Richards wrote in the July 31 e-mail. “I knew the source, as did my editors on this project, and I am comfortable with the validity of the document.”

Richards said Camas’ question of whether his report was influenced from within the WNC is problematic.

“[Camas’] critique seems to rely on carefully selected bits and pieces of information, plus [their] own intuition – adding up to a vague conclusion of conspiracy,” Richards said.

Stephen Silha, a member of the WNC board of directors and son of Helen and the late Otto Silha, who endowed the Silha Center, said in a July 30 e-mail that the organization decided not to respond to the Camas report. “We found [Camas’] premise utterly without merit,” Silha said.

Silha said the WNC believes the report is “a groundbreaking and important contribution to journalism ethics which will be useful to journalism schools and media organizations for decades to come.”

– Patrick File, Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor