I never actually met him, but he had a huge influence on my career. Here’s how:
Back in the 1990s, I co-edited a media-critique newsletter called CounterPoint (motto: “Who Will Watch the Watchdogs?”) and co-wrote a column that ran in Seattle Weekly and Eastsideweek called “Watchdogs” (motto: “Woof!”).
Barking at journalists, snapping at their heels and biting them in the butt now and then was lots of fun, but it was easy for them to ignore. Or pretend to ignore; most of them read every word we wrote to see if they were mentioned.
But one day a friend asked me if I had seen a “60 Minutes” segment by Mike Wallace that had aired on Dec. 8, 1996. I hadn’t, but my friend loaned me a videotape.
The piece, called “You Arrogant Journalists,” was about the Minnesota News Council, which was founded in 1970. Wallace began:
“It seems hardly a day goes by without someone writing or phoning to tell us, ‘You arrogant journalists, you look down everyone else’s throat, but you cry foul when anyone wants to look down yours.’ A lot of Americans apparently think journalists are less believable than they used to be and smug and hostile when they’re criticized.”
Wallace said the council “thinks they can help reporters begin to regain the public’s trust” by giving the public “a way to complain about news reports they find troubling.”
The “60 Minutes” report focused on a complaint from Northwest Airlines against WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis. The WCCO story reported on safety violations at Northwest, alleging that “hundreds of passengers were at risk.” It included ominous graphics and footage that strongly suggested Northwest was unsafe to fly.
However, Northwest contended that most of their problems were relatively minor and their safety record was actually better than other major airlines. They filed a complaint with the news council.
After listening to both sides in a two-hour hearing, the council voted 19-2 to uphold the complaint, concluding that WCCO had painted a distorted and untruthful picture. As Wallace put it, “To WCCO, the council’s vote was a kick in the teeth.”
The council’s executive director, Gary Gilson (a former TV newsman), told Wallace: “The station went overboard by adding dramatic graphics that made the safety problems seem more frightening than was justified.…That stuff distorted the story.”
When Wallace asked what was the penalty to WCCO, Gilson replied: “If the public agrees with the news council, then WCCO suffers from public humiliation. It gets them to think harder about what to do the next time.”
Wallace concluded: “In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I am a public supporter of state news councils and I believe there should be a national news council, though many of my colleagues disagree with me.”
Watching that video inspired me to help start the Washington News Council – more an “outside ombudsman” than aggressive watchdog. We opened our doors in the fall of 1998 with the help of a stellar and bipartisan Founding Board, including Jim Ellis, Charley Royer, Bill Ruckelshaus, Patsy Collins, Mike Lowry, Jeannette Hayner and several others. Bill Gates Sr. joined the Board and gave us a generous start-up grant. My first board chair was R.Y. Woodhouse, then head of the Seattle Urban League.
We now have a long track record of hearing complaints against media outlets in this state from those who feel they have been damaged by inaccurate, unfair or biased stories about them – including complaints against KIRO7 TV, the CBS affiliate in Seattle, and most recently, against KUOW 94.9, the NPR station here.
Our process is no panacea, but it provides some recourse to those who feel they have nowhere else to turn if they’ve been the victims of media malpractice.
Of course, there is great irony in the fact that Mike Wallace, a champion of tough investigative journalism, endorsed news councils to provide media oversight and public accountability. After all, some of the complaints we have received over the past 14 years involved ambush interviews, hidden cameras, one-sided stories and the kind of “gotcha” journalism that “60 Minutes” pioneered.
But if it hadn’t been for Wallace and his “60 Minutes” team, the Washington News Council might not exist. To my journalist friends who grumble about the WNC, I just say: Blame Mike Wallace!