After Secretary of State Sam Reed filed a formal written complaint with the Washington News Council, KIRO7 Eyewitness News removed two disputed stories from its website.
In his complaint, Reed contended that two KIRO stories were “factually incorrect, incomplete, misleading, sensationalized, inflammatory, and unfair.” He said the stories “wrongly damaged” his office and “failed to include balancing facts or information.”
Reed contacted KIRO and objected to the stories after they aired last fall, but KIRO did not respond. Reed filed a complaint in December 2008 with the Washington News Council, an independent organization dedicated to media accuracy and fairness.
Although its findings carry no legal sanctions or other penalties, the News Council, a 501c3 nonprofit group, does hold public hearings about news coverage that is in dispute.
After the complaint was delivered to KIRO, station executives asked to meet with Reed in Olympia. Reed said that was a direct result of his filing a complaint with the WNC.
Initially, they stood by their stories and refused to run any corrections or to remove the stories from KIRO’s website. Then they offered to remove the stories if Reed would agree not to inform the News Council or the public – but Reed refused that request. KIRO finally took the stories off its website without notifying Reed or the Council.
The first story, which ran on Oct. 15, 2008, alleged that although convicted felons are not allowed to vote, about 24,000 felons had been issued ballots and at least 6,800 got ballots to vote in the 2008 fall elections. KIRO reporter Chris Halsne interviewed a woman who supposedly was a convicted felon but had voted anyway.
The second story, which ran on Nov. 3, 2008, alleged that more than 100 dead voters were still on Washington’s active voter rolls, with 15 of them actually casting “ghost” ballots. Halsne interviewed the widow of a man who supposedly had “voted” although he’d been dead since 1996.
After the stories ran, the Secretary of State’s office said it was deluged with angry phone calls and emails from citizens who had seen the stories. However, Reed contended that the stories were false and contained numerous errors, such as:
1. The “felon” was not a felon. She had been convicted only of a misdemeanor, so she never lost her right to vote.
2. The “dead” voter was not dead. The deceased man’s son, who has the same name, had voted and Halsne had confused the two men.
In a 10-page letter to the WNC detailing his complaint, and cc’d to KIRO, Reed wrote:
“[W]e were distressed when Chris Halsne, KIRO 7 Eyewitness News Investigative Reporter, aired two election-related news stories that fell far short of the most basic standards of journalism for accuracy, balance and fairness. This occurred despite our repeated efforts to correct some of his assumptions and methodology and errors before he aired his reports. To have someone purposely proceed with incorrect and misleading information after all of this was just unconscionable and had the negative effect of undermining trust and confidence in our elections process.”
Along with his written complaint, Reed signed the WNC’s waiver form, pledging that he would not sue KIRO7. The News Council’s process is an alternative to litigation.
The News Council hand-delivered Reed’s written complaint, letter and waiver form to KIRO on Dec. 31, 2008, and asked for a written response from KIRO within 10 days. KIRO did not respond to that request, and did not return repeated WNC calls or emails.
However, KIRO General Manager Eric Lerner called Sam Reed’s office to schedule a meeting. Lerner, along with News Director Todd Mokhtari, Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne, and Producer Bill Benson, drove to Olympia on Jan. 21, 2009. At that meeting, Reed and his staff detailed what they called serious inaccuracies in Halsne’s two stories.
According to Dave Ammons, Reed’s communications director and former Associated Press political writer and columnist in Olympia, the KIRO delegation listened, let Halsne defend his stories, and then declared that they would not run corrections or clarifications, nor would they remove the stories from the KIRO website.
Reed and state Elections Director Nick Handy were disappointed, according to Ammons. In an email to KIRO, Reed said: “We continue to believe that, at the least, KIRO should remove these stories from the KIRO website. Whether KIRO chooses to take other action is a matter to be determined by KIRO’s own journalistic standards.”
The News Council then prepared to hold a public hearing, broadcast by TVW, at which the WNC board would publicly discuss and vote openly on the merits of the complaint.
However, on Feb. 17, Sam Reed asked that the hearing not go forward. He wrote:
“After much careful consideration, we at the Secretary of State’s Office have reluctantly decided not to pursue our complaint against KIRO-TV to the full hearing stage.
“We remain convinced that we presented a compelling argument, both in our written Washington News Council submission and in direct conversations with KIRO-TV management and staff, that significant errors in fact and in tone were made in two special reports by reporter Chris Halsne….
“We asked for clarification, for corrections, and for the incorrect and overblown stories to be taken down from the KIRO website, and got zero acknowledgement that anything was amiss or that the journalistic standards required more than a dismissive brush-off of the state’s chief elections officer….
“After several conversations as part of the News Council negotiating period, KIRO eventually agreed to pull down their stories from the Web site if we would muzzle ourselves and not inform the News Council of the nature of this accommodation. This we cannot agree to, since this leaves KIRO offering very little and conceding nothing.
“At the same time, we weary of this frustrating battle and the countless man-hours devoted to researching chapter and verse of this sorry episode, and we see little value in continuing to bang our head against the wall, knowing that KIRO will boycott the proceedings and will not acknowledge errors in fact and in tone, much less fix the problem. A News Council finding in our favor would not change the dynamic; properly, in a nation that so values the First Amendment, the council cannot order KIRO to do anything….
“We close by expressing our sincere thanks to the Council…for accepting our complaint and for professionalism in walking with us through the process, including the most recent negotiating period with KIRO. It is through no fault of the Council…that we have decided to suspend our complaint.”
The News Council reluctantly accepted Reed’s decision not to proceed with a hearing. WNC hearings are an educational forum for open public discussion of media ethics.
John Hamer, executive director of the Washington News Council, said the case will now be used in “mock hearings” in high-school and college journalism classes statewide, as part of the WNC’s decade-long effort to instill high standards of ethics and accuracy in future generations of journalists. (Call our office for days/times.)
Finally, in lieu of a public hearing, the WNC invites the public to participate in a “Citizens Online News Council.” The KIRO stories, Reed’s complaint and letter, and key questions for discussion will be posted on our website, www.wanewscouncil.org. Members of the public are invited to view the stories, read the complaint, and “vote” on several issues regarding the KIRO stories. The WNC welcomes public participation.
CONTACT: John Hamer, WNC Executive Director, 206.262.9793 or 206.910.5270. Email: email@example.com Address: P.O. Box 3672, Seattle WA 98124.