Complaint Upheld at Washington News Council Hearing in Case of King County Sheriff Sue Rahr’s Office versus Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Washington News Council largely upheld a complaint against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer filed by the King County Sheriff’s Office at a WNC public hearing in Seattle on Oct. 21.

NOTE: The WNC hearing was filmed by TVW and may be viewed in the video archives on TVW’s website. See www.tvw.org. (DVDs will be available from the WNC, please call our office for details.)

The written complaint concerned a series of P-I articles called “Conduct Unbecoming” that ran in the newspaper in 2005 and 2006. (For link, see www.seattlepi.com.) The complaint contended that key aspects of some stories were “inaccurate, biased or misleading,” with the overall effect of “unfairly disparaging” the Sheriff’s Office.

The P-I responded to the complaint in a 17-page document posted on its website, with copies hand-delivered to the Washington News Council, but P-I management declined to attend the hearing. Media participation is voluntary. However, most of the P-I’s response was read into the record at the hearing by WNC Chair Karen Seinfeld.

The News Council voted on 11 separate questions pertaining to various aspects of the stories. Of the Council’s 20 current members, six recused themselves from voting at the hearing due to the possible appearance of potential conflicts of interest. Three others (including one who would have recused) did not attend the hearing. Three WNC members emeritus sat in and voted in place of absent members.

WNC President Stephen Silha issued this statement after the hearing:

“Our News Council members found that the P-I was unfair to Sheriff Rahr in some of the stories published over the past year and a half. In particular, they were imprecise, incomplete and at times inaccurate in the reporting on the sheriff’s role in pensions, discipline, and other issues. While the P-I series has provided a real public service in its inquiry into the sheriff’s office and the activities of several deputies, in the view of the News Council, the paper overreached in reporting on Rahr’s role and failed to make adequate corrections and clarifications in a timely way. This hearing proves once again that the News Council is the best and fairest place where citizens and journalists can discuss constructively how news stories affect the community.”

In a subsequent statement, Sheriff Sue Rahr said:

“I want to thank the Washington News Council members for their time and careful deliberation of this very complex and lengthy case. This body is vital to ensuring the press is providing accurate and balanced information to the public, not only about their government, but other issues that affect their lives. The public has a right to fair, accurate and balanced information. You’re doing a great service to the community by taking action that will improve the practice of journalism. I hope other people can take advantage of this process. I also want to thank every member of the Sheriff’s Office who have held their heads high and continued to serve the public with honor and integrity while under the cloud of this series of stories.”

In a P-I story that ran Oct. 23, Associate Publisher Kenneth F. Bunting said:

“Our reporting of the sheriff’s complaint and our response is available for our readers, and I’m confident that most readers will see this complaint for what it is: an attempt to detract from the very real issues we raised in the public interest.” P-I Managing Editor David McCumber added: “This pronouncement, while regrettable, does nothing to diminish the excellent journalism of ‘Conduct Unbecoming.’ ”

The questions and final votes were:

1) Was the P-I coverage inaccurate or misleading in describing the role of the Sheriff’s Office in deciding whether deputies facing discipline could resign or retire to avoid discipline or firing? YES: 12; NO: 1; ABSTAIN: 1.

2) Was the P-I coverage inaccurate and misleading in describing the impacts on pensions of former deputies — particularly Dan Ring’s pension — relating to decisions made and actions taken, or not taken, by the Sheriff’s Office? YES: 13; NO: 1.

3) Did P-I coverage unfairly characterize the Metro Transit Police Unit as a “dumping ground” for troubled deputies because five of 47 officers assigned to the unit had histories of disciplinary issues? YES: 10 votes; NO: 3; ABSTAIN: 1.

4)  Was reporting of Deputy Abreu’s transfer inaccurate? YES: 10; NO: 3; ABSTAIN: 1.

5)  Was reporting of the unit biased on behalf of critics by not including more comments from a supportive security liaison? NO: 10; YES: 1; ABSTAIN: 3

6) Was P-I coverage inaccurate, misleading, and inflammatory in stating that the Sheriff’s Office retaliated against citizens and transit staff members who complain about deputies’ performance? YES: 7; NO: 1; ABSTAIN: 6.

7) Was P-I coverage of the public meeting in Kenmore biased and unfair? NO: 12; YES: 0; ABSTAIN: 2.

8) Was P-I coverage of a blue ribbon panel biased and misleading in overstating criticism of the Sheriff’s Office?NO: 10; YES: 2; ABSTAIN: 2.

9) Considering all of the stories submitted, many in the series “Conduct Unbecoming,” did P-I coverage and commentary unfairly disparage the Sheriff’s Office? YES: 12; NO: 2.

10) Did the P-I allow adequate access for comment and rebuttal by the KCSO? NO: 10; YES: 3; ABSTAIN: 1.

11) Were acknowledged mistakes in coverage corrected adequately and in a timely manner? NO: 12; YES: 0; ABSTAIN: 2.

NOTE: The following question was voluntarily withdrawn from the complaint by Sheriff Rahr after the Council’s public deliberation period.

12) As it published the “Conduct Unbecoming” series and related articles, did the P-I fail to adhere to acceptable standards of journalistic ethics by not disclosing to readers the potential conflict of interest — real or perceived — involving Managing Editor David McCumber’s discussions with then-Sheriff Dave Reichert about writing a book on the Green River murders? NOT VOTED ON.

The hearing, which was open to the public and the press, was attended by interested citizens and journalism students. A written summary will be posted soon on the WNC’s website, along with a complete list of individual members’ votes.

The Washington News Council is an independent, nonprofit 501c3 citizens’ organization whose mission is to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance, and by providing a forum where citizens and journalists can engage each other in discussing standards of media ethics and fairness.

The WNC is a kind of “outside ombudsman” for the news media in Washington state. It has no official power or legal authority. WNC hearings are not judicial proceedings, but open discussions. Complainants agree not to sue media outlets; the WNC process is an alternative to litigation. Votes on complaints carry no sanctions other than publicity.

The Council’s Board members are all volunteers. Half of them are Media members who spent most of their careers in journalism. Half are Public members from a wide range of professions and backgrounds. Chair Karen Seinfeld, a former Washington State Court of Appeals judge, presided over the hearing but does not vote.

The Washington News Council was formed in 1998. It is one of five news councils in the United States. The others are in Minnesota (formed in 1970), Hawaii (1972), New England (2006) and Southern California (2006).

CONTACTS:

Stephen Silha, ssilha@comcast.net, WNC President, 206.567.4363

John Hamer, jhamer@wanewscouncil.org, Executive Director, 206.262.9793

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Op-Ed Rejected by Seattle Post-Intelligencer after Hearing

WNC President Stephen Silha submitted the following op-ed piece to the Seattle P-I after the Oct. 21 hearing, but the P-I declined to publish it:

WHERE WAS THE P-I?

By Stephen Silha

We live in an age when accurate reporting is more important than ever – on the international, national, and especially the local level.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s series on systemic problems in the King County Sheriff’s Office — “Conduct Unbecoming” — has performed a significant public service. Perhaps that is why it recently won a C.B. Blethen Award for investigative reporting.

However, the series was deeply flawed. It often became inaccurate, incomplete, and biased to prove a point.

That’s why the Washington News Council – a representative group of journalists and citizens – reprimanded the P-I at an Oct. 21`hearing where Sheriff Sue Rahr and her public information officer, Sgt. John Urquhart, presented their case.

They argued convincingly that the P-I “unfairly disparaged” her office, created unwarranted fear of county police, and made it hard to recruit highly qualified officers.

At the three-plus-hour hearing (which can be seen archived at www.tvw.org), the council considered 11 specific questions about journalistic fairness in the ongoing series and coverage.  In eight of the questions, a majority of us agreed with the Sheriff.  On three questions, we agreed with the P-I.  (For details on questions and votes, see our website: www.wanewscouncil.org.)

The essence of the Council’s finding is this:

The P-I had a good story.  They told some of it well, and produced significant results.

But then they turned it into a series of sometimes-sensationalized stories that didn’t always provide full context.  Their clarifications and corrections were too few, incomplete, and often late, especially the on-line corrections where the stories live on.  They alienated the Sheriff and her staff – with demands such as requesting written answers to 68 questions in a 24-hour deadline– to the point where she refused interviews for the past year.

At one point the P-I questioned the ability of our able executive director, John Hamer, to appear impartial in a dispute involving coverage of his wife’s boss, ex-Sheriff (now Congressman) Dave Reichert—even though Hamer had never met Rahr nor Urquhart before this complaint.

So Hamer immediately removed himself from handling any of the substantive aspects of the case, and put that in the hands of our complaints committee, co-chaired by retired Spokesman-Review Associate Editor Chuck Rehberg and TVW President Cindy Zehnder.

After the P-I alleged that other News Council members could not be impartial, six of our members who had made contributions to Rahr or Reichert (and who could have added a lot to the discussion) or had other potential conflicts recused themselves from discussing and voting at the hearing to further avoid any appearance of impartiality. Yet the P-I’s publisher and top editors still refused to participate in the hearing.

Our big question remains:  Why did the P-I choose not to attend the hearing?

In a time when the public is increasingly skeptical of newspapers and other big institutions, it was an opportunity for the P-I to add significantly to public trust and understanding.

Instead, we believe the newspaper failed in its responsibility to public accountability by refusing to attend.

Our Chair, Judge Karen Seinfeld, did read from their extensive 17-page response to the complaint and, we felt, fairly represented their perspective.

In this imperfect world, the news council (a form used around the world) is the best and fairest place where citizens and journalists can discuss constructively how news stories affect the community.  In fact, it’s an alternative to litigation; for a complaint to be accepted by the council, you must agree not to sue.

As WNC Public Member Sandy Schoolfield said at the hearing:  “Both the P-I and the Sheriff’s Office are important institutions in our community.  To have you at loggerheads, calling each other liars for this long is a very bad place for us to be.”

The news council’s mission is to help maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance, and by creating a forum where the citizens and journalists can engage each other in examining standards of journalistic fairness and accountability.

The P-I missed an opportunity by not participating in the face-to-face dialogue.  And we’ll never know whether the Council’s votes would have been different had the P-I been willing to “stand by its story” in public.

Stephen Silha is president of the Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org).   He is a freelance writer, communications consultant, and former reporter for The Minneapolis Star and The Christian Science Monitor.

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Complaint Hearing Set for Saturday, Oct. 21 (2-6 p.m.) at Town Hall in case of King County Sheriff’s Office vs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org) will hear a complaint from King County Sheriff Sue Rahr’s Office against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at Town Hall Seattle (Downstairs) on Saturday, Oct. 21, from 2-6 p.m.

Here is the Hearing Schedule. The hearing is open to the public and the press. Admission is free.

The complaint concerns the P-I’s ongoing series, “Conduct Unbecoming,” which alleges misbehavior and mismanagement in the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office contends that key aspects of some stories were “factually inaccurate,” “incomplete,” “misleading,” “biased,” “sensationalized,” “inflammatory,” or “unfair.”

The P-I responded to the complaint in a 17-page website statement, with copies to the WNC. (See below for links to original complaint and P-I response.) However, the P-I also stated that they would not participate in the public hearing.

In an Oct. 11 letter to P-I Associate Publisher Ken Bunting (cc’d to Publisher Roger Oglesby and Managing Editor David McCumber), WNC President Stephen Silha, WNC Treasurer Sandy Schoolfield, and WNC Complaints Committee Co-Chairs Chuck Rehberg and Cindy Zehnder wrote:

“We sincerely hope you will reconsider your decision not to attend the hearing. If you are there in person, you will be able to answer questions, clarify issues and respond to the Sheriff’s allegations. You will be better able to make your most persuasive case in an open public forum.

“If you are not there, we will read excerpts from your written response into the record. But obviously we cannot represent your position nearly as well as you and your colleagues could do in person. (OPTION: If you’d like to mark sections of your response that you’d like us to read as your opening, rebuttal and closing statements, please let us know and we’ll be glad to do that, as long as they fit within our time limits.)

“As you know, TVW will broadcast the hearing statewide, and other media will cover it. We also expect many journalism students and teachers to attend. It is a great educational opportunity for all citizens.

“We’ll have a table at Town Hall with the P-I‘s name on it. You may let us know your final decision anytime up to 1:30 p.m. on October 21. Your full participation in the News Council process would greatly benefit the public, the media — and democracy.”

The WNC also sent the P-I a copy of the final Complaint Questions that will be considered and voted on at the hearing:

WNC Complaint: King County Sheriff’s Office vs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer

In the theme of the P-I’s stories, was there any journalistic “conduct unbecoming” in the P-I’s coverage of the King County Sheriff’s Office?

Scope: The King County Sheriff’s Office has formally complained to the Washington News Council that  more than 100 “negative” stories, columns and editorials – and even chat-room e-mails – have “unfairly disparaged the Sheriff’s Office.”  Much of the coverage was in a continuing series titled “Conduct Unbecoming.”  The complaint alleges that the P-I “has gone back 20 years and four sheriffs to portray events as representative of the current office and that the P-I characterized seven former deputies and one current deputy as representative of the Sheriff’s Office.  “This is not the case,” the complaint states.

The KCSO further states that the sheriff and others in the department have met with top editors and managers at the P-I to “try to correct erroneous information” and to “change the tone of the articles.  Rarely were any corrections made.  Usually we were ignored,” the sheriff’s cover letter says.

A thick “master binder” containing printouts of more than 100 P-I stories accompanied the complaint form.  KCSO was asked to select a representative sampling of stories, presented in the smaller binder and an amended complaint binder.  The P-I received copies all three binders and the WNC Complaints Committee assumes that if any pertinent articles were omitted, both the complainant and respondent have had a chance to further add to the materials.

Timeliness: While WNC complaint guidelines focus on the most recent six months, provisions clearly allow for consideration of materials presented over a longer time frame.  KCSO in its complaint included stories since Aug. 1, 2005. The Complaints Committee finds no reason to limit the scope of the complaint to six months.  Clearly the complainant was communicating with the respondent media outlet during the entire timeframe to seek resolution of issues.

Issues: The complainant states that P-I coverage “unfairly disparaged the Sheriff’s Office.” (Disparage: To belittle; to bring reproach or discredit; to lower the estimation of. — Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary).  The complainant also states that the P-I coverage was inaccurate, incomplete, misleading, biased, sensationalized, inflammatory and unfair.

Additionally, the complaint states that ethical lapses occurred because stories wrongly damaged the organization’s reputation, that the media outlet failed to include balancing facts or information, that the media outlet denied access to respond to stories and that a conflict of interest existed with a P-I editor.

Stories and commentary referenced will help guide board members, but discussion is not limited to these items.

Discussion Areas / Questions:

A) Terminations (resignations and retirements) and pensions

1) Was the P-I coverage inaccurate or misleading in describing the role of the Sheriff’s Office in deciding whether deputies facing discipline could resign or retire to avoid discipline or firing?

References: Stories,

“Conduct Unbecoming: How a disgraced deputy beat the system” Aug. 1, 2005

“Hefty pension to ex-deputy defended” Aug. 5, 2005

(Editorial) “Conduct Unbecoming: Restore trust” Aug. 4, 2005

“Deputy racked up complaints, lawsuits, then retired comfortably” Dec. 29, 2005

“Warnings preceded fatal shooting involving deputy’s live-in” Dec. 29, 2005

(Editorial) “Conduct Unbecoming: Civilian Oversight” Jan. 1, 2006

“Rahr offers reforms…” Jan. 2, 2006

(Column) “Sheriff vows meaningful reform”  Jan. 13, 2006

2) Was the P-I coverage inaccurate and misleading in describing the impacts on pensions of former deputies — particularly Dan Ring’s pension — relating to decisions made and actions taken, or not taken, by the Sheriff’s Office?

References: Stories, same as above

B) Metro Transit Unit

3) Did P-I coverage unfairly characterize the Metro Transit Police Unit as a “dumping ground” for troubled deputies because five of 47 officers assigned to the unit had histories of disciplinary issues?

Reference: Story, “Some transit unit officers too aggressive…” July 21, 2006

4)  Was reporting of Deputy Abreu’s transfer inaccurate?

Reference: Story,

“Joseph Abreu III: Transferred into, then out of, transit unit ” July 21, 2006

Correction, Aug. 17, 2006 in Amended Complaint

E-mail exchanges, Aug. 17, 2006 in Amended Complaint

5)  Was reporting of the unit biased on behalf of critics by not including more comments from a supportive security liaison?

Reference: Story, “Some transit unit officers too aggressive…” July 21, 2006

C) Retaliation

6) Was P-I coverage inaccurate, misleading, and inflammatory in stating that the Sheriff’s Office retaliated against citizens and transit staff members who complain about deputies’ performance?

References: Stories,

“Suspected thugs…” March 8, 2006

“Off-duty cop terrified teen” March 9, 2006

“Sheriff’s Office may have mishandled…” March 22, 2006

Editorial: “Conduct Unbecoming: Review the review,” March 23, 2006

Also, story: “Missed chance to end violence,” July 21, 2006

D) Public meetings

7) Was P-I coverage of the public meeting in Kenmore biased and unfair?

References: Stories,

“Sheriff Rahr grilled…” April 5, 2006

Woodinville Weekly: “Wide support for sheriff…”

8) Was P-I coverage of a blue ribbon panel biased and misleading in overstating criticism of the Sheriff’s Office?

Reference: Story, “Residents frustrated…” June 23, 2006

E) Overview

9) Considering all of the stories submitted, many in the series “Conduct Unbecoming,” did P-I coverage and commentary unfairly disparage the Sheriff’s Office?

10) Did the P-I allow adequate access for comment and rebuttal by the KCSO?

11) Were acknowledged mistakes in coverage corrected adequately and in a timely manner?

F) Conflicts and appearance of conflicts

12) As it published the “Conduct Unbecoming” series and related articles, did the P-I fail to adhere to acceptable standards of journalistic ethics by not disclosing to readers the potential conflict of interest — real or perceived — involving Managing Editor David McCumber’s discussions with then-Sheriff Dave Reichert about writing a book on the Green River murders?

Reference: Sheriff Rahr’s letter in amended complaint

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Open Letter to Seattle Post-Intelligencer from WNC Officers

The Washington News Council on Oct. 13 submitted the following to the Seattle P-I as a possible op-ed piece, but the P-I declined to publish it:

“AN OPEN LETTER TO THE SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a great opportunity to be open, transparent and accountable to its readers and all interested citizens. However, P-I management seems reluctant to take this opportunity.

On Saturday, Oct. 21, from 2-6 p.m. at Town Hall (Downstairs), the Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org) will hold a hearing on a complaint against the Post-Intelligencer filed by King County Sheriff Sue Rahr’s Office. The complaint concerns the P-I series, “Conduct Unbecoming” published in 2005-2006.

The hearing is open to the public and the press. Admission is free.

A News Council hearing is not a trial, but an open conversation about fairness, accuracy and balance. We have no power to sanction the media. There is no penalty from our process.

The P-I responded to the complaint on Sept. 28 in a 17-page document posted on its website. However, P-I management announced that they will not attend the hearing.

If the P-I is willing to “stand by the story” on its website, why not “stand by the story” in public?

Why should the P-I participate?

TRANSPARENCY. WNC hearings provide a “third space” where journalists and citizens can engage. Council members listen to both sides, ask questions, deliberate and vote openly on whether to uphold the complaint. If the P-I participates, its side of the story will be fully told. (If not, we will read as much of its written response into the record as time allows, but there will be no way to clarify issues.)

ACCOUNTABILITY. Under the First Amendment, the news media are not subject to government control or regulation – and rightly so. The Washington News Council strongly supports a free press. But we also support a fair press. The news media must be publicly accountable – just as they hold all other institutions in society publicly accountable.

HUMANITY. Being open to criticism, listening to other people’s views, demonstrating humility – these are qualities that everyone admires. The news media have not been known for these qualities in the past – but times have changed. Our hearing is an opportunity for the P-I to show a “human face.”

EDUCATION. Our hearing will be broadcast statewide by TVW, and streamed at www.tvw.org. DVDs will be widely available. College and high-school journalism students and teachers from throughout the state will attend. We will use this case in student mock news council hearings statewide. Shouldn’t the P-I be fully represented?

IMPARTIALITY – Some P-I editors have said they won’t attend the hearing because they charge the News Council with conflicts of interest. A few of our members – as is their perfect right as citizens – have made campaign donations to either Sheriff Sue Rahr or former Sheriff (now Congressman) Dave Reichert in the past. However, those who made donations pledged to recuse themselves from voting if the P-I attends. Our executive director has also been accused of a conflict of interest – but he is not on the Council and does not vote. He has recused himself from our discussions on the merits of the complaint, and is handling only administrative matters.

The WNC cordially invites the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to come to our hearing. We’ll have a table with the P-I’s name on it. We look forward to an enlightening civil conversation.

Stephen Silha, President

Steve Boyer, Vice President

Dave Schaefer, Vice President

Sandy Schoolfield, Treasurer

Suzie Burke, Secretary

Chuck Rehberg, Complaints Co-Chair

Cindy Zehnder, Complaints Co-Chair

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Seattle Post-Intelligencer Responds to Complaint from King County Sheriff’s Office; WNC President Stephen Silha Responds to P-I

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer responded on its website to the complaint filed by King County Sheriff Sue Rahr’s Office. Here is a link to the P-I’s 17-page response:

Stephen Silha, President of the Washington News Council, issued the following statement:

“The Washington News Council is pleased that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has submitted such a thorough and thoughtful response to the complaint from the King County Sheriff’s Office concerning the P-I’s “Conduct Unbecoming” series.

“The P-I is clearly participating in the News Council’s process by submitting its written response to us, as well as by holding several meetings with the Sheriff’s Office, as we strongly encouraged.

“We are disappointed that the P-I has declared its intention not to participate in our Complaint Hearing on Oct. 21 at Town Hall. We hope the newspaper management will reconsider.

“Why should the P-I take part in the hearing? There are several compelling reasons, all of them in the public interest.

“First, our hearing is an opportunity for the P-I to be truly open and transparent, to address the Sheriff’s specific complaints in person, and to answer questions from our News Council members in public.

“Second, a News Council hearing is not a trial, but a conversation among those who care deeply about excellence and ethics in journalism. Half of our News Council Members are journalists (current or retired), and half are from other professions. All are people of the highest integrity. Any members with a perceived conflict of interest will recuse themselves from voting. In any case, their vote on the complaint carries no sanction or penalty.

“Third, the hearing is a chance for P-I editors and reporters to explain themselves in an open, civil forum. The press and public are invited, and the hearing will be broadcast statewide by TVW and archived at www.tvw.org.

“Fourth, many journalism students and teachers from around the state are expected to attend, making it an extraordinary educational experience. A DVD of the hearing will be made and used in student “mock news council hearings” in college and high school classes statewide in the years ahead.

“Finally, the P-I has strongly endorsed the recommendation of the Sheriff’s Blue Ribbon Panel to establish an independent outside oversight commission for the Sheriff’s Office. The Washington News Council is an independent outside citizens’ oversight commission for the news media.

“Public accountability is healthy for every institution — including the press.

“We invite and would welcome the P-I’s full participation at our Oct. 21 hearing.”

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Hearing Set on Complaint from King County Sheriff’s Office Against Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Sheriff Adds Ethics Complaint

The Washington News Council (www.wanewscouncil.org) will hear a complaint from King County Sheriff Sue Rahr’s Office against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Saturday, Oct. 21, from 2-5 p.m. at Town Hall Seattle (Downstairs).

NOTE: To download a full copy of the original complaint and the Sheriff’s final statement/amended complaint, please go to this page:

(These are lengthy documents and the download will take several minutes.)

The original complaint, filed by the Sheriff’s Office with the WNC on July 28, was accepted by the WNC Board on July 29 and hand delivered to the P-I on Aug. 1. The complaint concerns the P-I’s ongoing series, “Conduct Unbecoming,” which alleges misbehavior and mismanagement in the Sheriff’s Office over a period of several years. On the WNC’s complaint form, the Sheriff’s Office contended that key aspects of some stories were “factually inaccurate,” “incomplete,” “misleading,” “biased,” “sensationalized,” “inflammatory,” or “unfair.”

The Sheriff’s Office also checked “yes” to these questions: “Did story wrongly damage your or your group’s reputation?” “Did media outlet fail to include balancing facts or information?” “Did media outlet deny access to you to respond to the story?”

In a cover letter to the complaint, Sheriff Sue Rahr wrote: “Had the P-I written only one or even a handful of stories that unfairly disparage the Sheriff’s Office, I would not be filing this complaint. But since August 1, 2005, the P-I has published at least 100 negative stories and editorials. [Underlining in original.] The Sheriff’s Office has been portrayed by the P-I as a corrupt organization, with no controls, lax or non-existent discipline, and a police department that punishes those who report wrong-doing and rewards wrong-doers. This is not the case.”

The Sheriff also signed the WNC’s waiver form, in which complainants promise not to sue if both sides – including the media outlet – agree “to abide by the procedures of the Washington News Council in responding” to the grievance.

The Sheriff’s Office and the P-I were unable to resolve the complaint during the WNC’s resolution period, which was extended to 45 days (from 30 days) due to summer vacations. The two sides did meet several times to discuss matters, at WNC’s urging. The P-I made several corrections to the articles cited in the complaint, either in print or on its website, www.seattlepi.com.

However, on Sept. 15 (end of 45-day period), King County Sheriff Sue Rahr’s Office told the WNC that no resolution was reached, and they wanted to proceed with a hearing. The P-I had earlier informed the WNC that they would not participate in a hearing, but would respond to the complaint on their website.

At the end of the resolution period, both sides were asked for final statements, including any additional materials they wish to submit. Under WNC guidelines, all of these documents are now public information and available to the press and the public. (See download link above.)

As part of its final statement, on Sept. 22 the Sheriff’s Office submitted an “amended complaint” which included a new cover letter from Sheriff Rahr and an “Ethics Complaint Against David McCumber.” McCumber is Managing Editor of the P-I and oversees the team of reporters that did the series. The amended complaint alleges that in 2003, McCumber met with then-Sheriff David Reichert (now U.S. Congressman) and his assistant Scott Sotebeer to seek the job of “ghost-writing” Reichert’s book about the Green River Killer, which would have paid an advance of more than $100,000.

The amended complaint further alleges that in August 2005, McCumber again talked with Sotebeer (now Sheriff Sue Rahr’s chief of staff) and said he “would be interested in any future book projects Congressman Reichert was working on wherein he (McCumber) might have a role.” The amended complaint charges that McCumber’s actions were violations of both the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which is widely accepted in the media, and the Hearst Newspapers Statement of Professional Principles. That charge will be considered at the WNC hearing.

Under WNC guidelines, the hearing may proceed without the P-I’s participation. Their written response will be read into the record. At the hearing, WNC members – half from the media, half from the public – will consider the issues, deliberate openly, and vote in public on questions pertaining to specific stories. The questions are now being framed by the WNC’s Complaints Committee, which includes media and public members of the board. Final questions will be submitted to both sides 10 days before the hearing, and posted on the WNC’s website.

Following WNC guidelines, all WNC members who have potential conflicts of interest will state them in public and recuse themselves from voting at the hearing. WNC Executive Director John Hamer is handling only procedural matters in this case. He has no role in the framing of the questions, does not take part in the hearing deliberations and does not vote on the complaint.

The P-I and the Sheriff’s Office are still encouraged to seek a resolution of the complaint anytime before the hearing. The P-I is also welcome to change its mind and decide to attend the hearing anytime up to 12 noon on the day of the event, although their participation is entirely voluntary.

The WNC hearing is open to the public and the press. It will be filmed and broadcast statewide by TVW, the state’s public-affairs network. Journalism students from throughout the region have been invited to attend. WNC hearings are an opportunity for citizens to learn about media standards, performance and ethics.

The WNC is an independent, nonprofit 501c3 citizens organization that functions as a kind of “outside ombudsman” for the news media in Washington state. It has no official power or legal authority. Its hearings are not judicial proceedings, but open discussions. The WNC, founded in 1998, is one of five news councils in the United States. WNC members are all volunteers. Votes on complaints carry no sanction other than publicity.

Links to earlier published stories about the complaint:

Both the P-I and Seattle Weekly published stories in their online and print editions:

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/279722_newscouncil02.html

http://www.seattleweekly.com/news/blogs/dailyweekly/2006/08/sheriff_takes_shot_at_pi.php#more

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/281252_newscouncil15.html

http://www.seattleweekly.com/news/0634/newscouncil.php

(To read WNC’s Complaint and Hearing Procedures, go to “Complaint Process” page.)

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