The Washington News Council’s Board of Directors has announced that the organization will close its doors on May 31, 2014, after 15 years of holding this state’s news media publicly accountable for accuracy, fairness and ethics.
The WNC, founded in 1998, is the only news council left in the United States that reviews citizen complaints against media organizations and holds public hearings to review and vote on the quality of print, broadcast or online stories.
“We had a great 15-year run, and we helped a lot of people who were damaged by media malpractice,” said John Hamer, who co-founded the WNC and serves as its Executive Director and Board President. “But the news media have changed tectonically since we began. The eruption of online digital news and information made our mission of promoting high standards in journalism much more difficult, if not impossible. How can anyone oversee a cyber-tsunami?”
Hamer will retire this spring at age 68, as he announced in January to his Board of Directors, Founding Board and Board Members Emeritus. The WNC conducted a three-month national search for a new Executive Director. But after interviews and conversations with several applicants, the Board decided that a complete reinvention was needed, not just a new Executive Director.
“The News Council did a lot of fabulous work but it’s time for a restart,” said Suzie Burke, chair of the WNC’s Board of Directors and President of Fremont Dock Company. WNC Vice President Heidi Kelly and Treasurer Tom Ranken, who make up the Board’s Executive Committee along with Hamer, agreed.
Coverage of this announcement includes:
- “Last press council in U.S. will close next month” by Craig Silverman on Poynter.org
- “Last News Council in the U.S. Closes Next Month” by Sydney Smith at iMediaEthics.org
- “Washington News Council’s shutdown a barometer of both the past and future” by Rob Smith for the Puget Sound Business Journal
- “A free press is vital to a democracy; Washington News Council was vital to a free press” by Rob McKenna for Smarter Government Washington
- “Press councils help readers: But the organizations are becoming increasingly rare amid a ‘cyber-tsunami’” writes Paul Berton for The Hamilton Spectator
- “The Washington News Council is going out of business” by Joel Connelly in SeattlePI.com
- “Washington News Council to close next month” by Lornet Turnbull at SeattleTimes.com
- “The Daily Troll: Farewell to media monitor … No more state news councils” by Joe Copeland, John Stang, and Hailey Way at Crosscut.com
- “The Washington News Council Calls It Quits” by Matt Driscoll in SeattleWeekly.com
Hamer noted that the News Council’s public complaint and hearing process may be less effective in this new digital media age, when everyone is a “journalist” – or at least they think they are. “Who can oversee ethics on blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and all the other social media platforms? We’re all deluged daily with factoids, sound bites, rumors, opinion and commentary. Citizens just have to make up their own minds about who can be trusted in the media today.”
The WNC process could be updated for the new digital media age, Hamer said. “Our model was fine when we had only newspapers, TV and radio stations, and a few magazines. But now we get news and information online 24/7 in the palm of our hands. The public needs to find new ways to engage in media oversight and maybe take the news council concept to the next level,” Hamer said.
The WNC can point to a long list of accomplishments over the past 15 years:
Complaint Hearings. The WNC held 10 public hearings on citizen complaints against media organizations. All but one complaint (“Hubert Locke vs. The Seattle Times”) were upheld by open votes of the Council members after lengthy hearings. The WNC’s votes carry no legal weight, but are in-depth discussions of media accuracy and fairness, based on the media’s own journalism ethics codes. Several other complaints were informally mediated by the WNC to compromises that satisfied both sides.
The WNC’s last hearing, in the case of “Dr. Richard Wollert vs. The Seattle Times” was broadcast and webcast by TVW. Citizens around the globe voted and commented along with Council members, which was unprecedented in the history of news/press councils worldwide. The complaint was largely upheld.
Earlier efforts to engage the public in media oversight also broke new ground. At hearings on “Leschi School Community vs. KIRO7 Eyewitness News” and “Vitae Foundation vs. KUOW 94.9” the audience was invited to review the complaints and vote along with Council members. In “Sam Reed vs. KIRO7” there was no public hearing but citizens voted and commented online. In every case, voters upheld the complaints against the media outlets. “Sue Rahr vs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer” was also upheld by the Council. The P-I did not attend but submitted a lengthy written response that was read aloud at the hearing. It did not answer Sheriff Rahr’s concerns about the stories, however.
Hamer said: “We gave people a place to make their cases in public and a chance to get their reputations back. They were all extremely grateful for that, when they had nowhere else to turn short of costly and time-consuming libel suits, which are almost impossible to win. The Testimonials video on our website shows how much we helped people who came to us for assistance.” He added that a review process may be especially needed in now that inaccurate stories are perpetually accessible through search engines. “A smear lasts forever,” Hamer said. “A lie goes viral online before the truth gets rebooted.”
Public Forums. WNC sponsored or co-sponsored more than 20 panels or forums on media issues statewide, including events in Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma. It collaborated with the Society of Professional Journalists, Journalism That Matters, The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the University of Washington, Washington State University, Pacific Lutheran University, and others. Hamer spoke to Rotary clubs and other civic organizations all over the state about media ethics. WNC sponsored a media-ethics breakfast series with notable guest speakers. In addition, Hamer was a member of the global Organization of News Ombudsmen and attended three of their annual conferences. He was on panels at the ONO meeting at Oxford University in 2010, and at the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe conference in Tel Aviv in 2013.
Independent Audit. In 2007, the WNC published “Reporting on Yourself,” an independent outside critique of The Spokane Spokesman-Review’s coverage of the River Park Square project in downtown Spokane, whose developers also owned the newspaper. Editor Steve Smith requested the audit, which was unprecedented in the history of American journalism. The WNC spent months reviewing 10 years of S-R coverage and issued a critical report with specific recommendations. Under the terms of the WNC’s agreement to conduct the audit, the entire text was printed, unedited, in a Sunday issue of the newspaper. The project won the Ancil Payne Award for Media Ethics from the University of Oregon’s School of Communications and Journalism. Copies are available on request, and it is being used as a case study in journalism classes nationwide.
Student Education. Hamer visited dozens of high-school and college journalism classes statewide, often conducting “mock hearings” where students would review actual complaints and play the role of the News Council, voting on the merits of the cases. The WNC awarded 30 scholarships to Washington state students planning careers in communications. The $2,000 scholarships were named after former Seattle Times Editors Dick Larsen and Herb Robinson. Receptions for the winners and their families were held every year since 2000. The WNC also hired student interns every year since 1998, and paid them minimum wage to assist in the office and help at WNC events.
TAO of Journalism. WNC originated this concept several years ago. It allows anyone practicing any form of journalism worldwide to take the “TAO Pledge” to be Transparent, Accountable and Open and post the TAO Seal in print or online. The TAO Pledge is totally voluntary and is not overseen by the News Council, but by the pledger’s audience of readers, viewers or listeners. The TAO of Journalism idea is spreading globally and is especially popular among student journalists. The national Journalism Education Association endorsed it and held three national “TAO Pledge Days” for American high-school journalists. Kathy Schrier, WNC Executive Assistant and Executive Director of the Washington JEA, continues to promote the TAO concept at twice-annual student journalism conventions nationwide. TAO Pledgers include bloggers and websites as far away as Asia, the Caribbean and Australia. Pledgers receive a TAO poster, stick-on “TAOttoos” and TAO nylon flyers, as well as a digital TAO Seal that they may print or post. “It’s so important to instill these ethical values in young student journalists,” Schrier said. “If all journalists were as transparent, accountable and open as they demand of everyone they cover, they would be more trusted.”
Gridiron West Dinner. The WNC held 15 consecutive Gridiron West Dinners, an annual “roast and toast” of media, political, business and community leaders. The first event, in 1999, honored four veteran journalists (Dick Larsen, Shelby Scates, Mike Layton and Adele Ferguson). Subsequent dinners honored local columnist Emmett Watson, TV Anchorwomen (Jean Enersen, Kathi Goertzen, Susan Hutchison), former Governors (Al Rosellini, Dan Evans, John Spellman, Booth Gardner, Mike Lowry); Jennifer Dunn & Gary Locke, John & Jim Ellis, Bill Gates Sr. & Mimi Gardner Gates, Tom Foley & Slade Gorton, Bill & Jill Ruckelshaus, Kemper Freeman Jr., former Seattle Mayors (Wes Uhlman, Charley Royer, Norm Rice, Paul Schell & Greg Nickels), Suzie Burke, Dale Chihuly, and Norm Dicks & Christine Gregoire. The last Gridiron “roasted and toasted” David Horsey and Patti Payne on Nov. 8, 2013. All are available on TVW’s Archives.
The WNC office above the Pyramid Alehouse in Seattle will close on May 31. The Washington Journalism Education Association (WJEA), which has shared office space with the WNC, will relocate. Hamer and Schrier will continue to promote the TAO of Journalism among students and other journalists worldwide. Hamer plans to consult, speak, write, blog and possibly teach to promote media ethics.
The WNC’s “archives,” including records of 10 public complaint hearings since 1999, 20-plus public forums on media performance, and albums/videos of 15 Gridiron West Dinners, will be preserved for posterity. Board Chair Suzie Burke has offered space for a WNC exhibit at History House in Fremont.
Hamer added: “Thanks to ALL who have supported the WNC so loyally and generously over the past 15 years. I deeply appreciated and greatly valued your advice, counsel, feedback, suggestions — and donations! Each of you has contributed tremendously, as your time and resources allowed. I owe you a huge debt of gratitude for your service and friendship.”
Hamer said he would especially like to thank Bill Gates Sr., who was one of the original members of the News Council Board and donated more than $500,000 since 1998: “I can’t thank Bill Sr. enough. We wouldn’t be here without him – and he never missed a meeting when he was on the Board.” Hamer also thanked Jim Ellis of the WNC’s Founding Board, who was among the first to endorse the group’s formation. Other founders were Patsy Collins, Bill Gerberding, Ken Hatch, Jeannette Hayner, Dennis Heck, Pat Herbold, Ron Judd, Mike Lowry, Stan McNaughton, Charles Royer and Bill Ruckelshaus. An organizing committee included Mariana Parks, Bill Baldwin, Sandy Schoolfield, Chuck Nordhoff, Heidi Kelly, and Joel Horn. “All of their support was invaluable.” He also saluted his WNC Board Members Emeritus, past officers, and Hearings Board Chairs Bob Utter, Karen Seinfeld and Gerry Alexander, who presided at the public hearings. “And my very special thanks to Brian Glanz and Jacob Caggiano, who did such fabulous work on our websites and with social media,” Hamer said.
Hamer also thanked members of “100 Friends of the WNC,” who each donated $1,000 annually, plus foundations and corporations that sponsored tables at the Gridiron West Dinner, including the Gates Foundation, Horvitz Foundation, Kemper Development, Chihuly Studio, Boeing, Microsoft, Premera, Wells Fargo, PEMCO, Lynden, Wells Fargo, Fremont Dock, Clear Channel Outdoor and Puget Sound Business Journal, plus many other individuals and companies.
Finally, Hamer said: “I’ll be in the office above the Pyramid Alehouse much of April and May, packing up 15 years of records and memorabilia. Call if you’d like to come by for lunch or a beer. A ‘refirement’ party will be held on Monday, May 19, from 5-8 pm at the Pyramid Alehouse. We’ll have good food, free beer and an ‘open mic roast’ of me. Hope to see you there.”
CONTACT: John Hamer, WNC President and Executive Director
Phone: 206.262.9793 office OR 206.910.5270 cell