Mike Wallace asked: Who will watch the watchdogs?

Mike Wallace changed my life.

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!

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Sam Reed Stood Up to KIRO7′s Media Malpractice

Secretary of State Sam Reed, who announced his retirement recently, is being hailed for standing up for transparency, accessibility and openness in government — and justifiably so.

Reed received the Washington Coalition for Open Government’s coveted James Madison Award last week in recognition of his work. [FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a member of WCOG’s advisory committee but had no role in the Reed award.]

The awards breakfast just happened to fall on International Media Ethics Day, sponsored by the Center for International Media Ethics .

That struck me as highly ironic, because Reed brought a complaint to the Washington News Council three years ago for some of the most unethical media behavior I have seen in more than 40 years as a journalist, media critic and news-council president.

Don’t take my word for it. Read what happened and make up your own mind.

As part of a national CBS-affiliate series of stories on voter fraud, KIRO7 ran two stories in the fall of 2008, shortly before Election Day. The first story, which ran on Oct. 15, 2008, alleged that thousands of felons had been issued ballots and many had already voted, although felons are not supposed to have voting rights. KIRO “investigative” reporter Chris Halsne interviewed a woman who supposedly was a convicted felon but said she 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. On her front porch, Halsne interviewed the widow of a man who supposedly had “voted” although he’d been dead since 1996. You can watch both stories below as will as read the transcripts (October 15th story, November 3rd story)

However, both stories contained egregious factual errors, including these:

  1. The “felon” was not a felon. She had been convicted only of a misdemeanor, so she never lost her right to vote. KIRO failed to doublecheck that simple fact.
  2. The “dead” voter was not dead. The deceased man’s son, who has the same name, had voted. KIRO had confused the two men and ignored the widow’s statement to that effect.

Reed and his staff had tried to make KIRO aware of these facts before the stories aired, but to no avail. After the stories aired, Reed’s office was deluged with angry phone calls and emails from citizens who had watched KIRO and believed what they saw on TV. Reed protested to KIRO, but the station “stood by its stories.”

So Reed filed a written complaint (page 1 & page 2) in December 2008 with the Washington News Council. He also signed our waiver form pledging not to sue KIRO, which we require of all complainants.

In his complaint, Reed declared 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.” In a 10-page attached letter to the WNC 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.”

The News Council accepted Reed’s complaint for our process and hand-delivered it to KIRO on Dec. 31, 2008. Under our guidelines, we asked for a written response from KIRO within 10 days. KIRO did not respond and never returned repeated calls or emails.

However, in early January 2009 KIRO General Manager Eric Lerner called Reed’s office to schedule a face-to-face meeting. Lerner, 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 documented the 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, but 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 stunned, 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.”

Incredibly, according to Reed and Ammons, the KIRO managers then offered to remove the stories if Reed would agree not to inform the News Council or the public. [Italics mine.] To his credit, Reed refused that unethical request. KIRO later removed the stories from its website without notifying Reed or the News Council. However, Reed’s office and the WNC had taped the two stories. We put them on our website, where they remain available for viewing.

The News Council then began preparing to hold a public hearing, to be broadcast statewide by TVW, at which the WNC board would publicly discuss and vote on the merits of the complaint. That’s our standard procedure when serious complaints cannot be resolved, and we’ve held several of them over the years.

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. However, the WNC then invited the public to participate in an unprecedented “Citizens Online News Council” to help judge KIRO’s journalistic ethics and performance. No news council in the world (and there are dozens of them, most members of the Alliance of Independent Press Councils of Europe) had ever done that before. We called it a “virtual hearing.”

The KIRO stories, Reed’s complaint and letter, and key questions for discussion were posted on our website. Members of the public were invited to view the stories, read the complaint, and “vote” on several issues regarding the KIRO stories that the full News Council would have considered had this case gone to a hearing. You can read the full list of the questions and total votes HERE.

The voting deadline was April 30, 2009, during national “Media Ethics Week” sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. (Although inexplicably, the head of the SPJ’s national ethics committee objected to the virtual hearing. You can read his reasons, and our response, HERE.)

KIRO got hammered. The votes were nearly all highly critical of KIRO and upheld Reed’s complaint (see vote results and comments). Of  all those who voted online, only a few defended KIRO. Most voters added critical comments.

As president and executive director of the Washington News Council, I still find this case one of the most shocking examples of unprofessional, irresponsible journalism that I have ever seen.  KIRO even got criticized by The Stranger and earned a “Dart” in Columbia Journalism Review.

KIRO played fast and loose with the facts, disregarding the truth. They refused to set the record straight even after being confronted with incontrovertible evidence that they were wrong. Then they tried to “bury” the stories by sneaking them off their website without telling anyone or admitting any errors. Yikes.

A recent national survey by the Pew Center for the People and the Press found public trust in the news media at about its lowest level ever. Stories like KIRO’s are part of the reason for that.

Kudos to Sam Reed for having the courage to stand up to KIRO. More public officials and individual citizens who are damaged by shoddy news reporting should do the same. Otherwise, bad journalists will keep committing media malpractice — which hurts journalism, the public and democracy.

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Symposium’s Main Event at WSU’s Murrow College Draws Hundreds of Students, Academics, Journalists, and Public

MurrowPULLMAN — “Would Murrow have tweeted?”

That question from a member of the audience at the Edward R. Murrow Symposium’s evening event drew a big laugh from the large crowd. The panelists – Deborah Amos of NPR, Robin Fields of ProPublica, and Judy Woodruff of PBS – weren’t sure how to answer it. None admitted to being active on Twitter.

But Lawrence Pintak, founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, had opened the 36th annual Murrow Symposium on April 20 with this question: “How does Murrow’s legacy fit into the new media landscape?”

In between, there were many hours of panels, workshops, networking, chatting and debating about the chaotic and uncertain future of what used to be called the “news biz.” [Read more...]

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A Bittersweet Tribute to Don Hewitt

Don Hewitt, who died this week, changed my life. Last year, I finally got to tell him that face-to-face.

In 1996, “60 Minutes” – the program that Hewitt originated and produced – did a segment called “You Arrogant Journalists.” Mike Wallace and his crew covered a hearing before the Minnesota News Council on a major complaint by Northwest Airlines against WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis. The council upheld the complaint, agreeing that WCCO practiced shoddy journalism.

I missed it when it aired, but a friend of mine gave me a videotape and said: “Why don’t we have a news council in Washington state?” I was a media critic at the time and thought having a news council here was a good idea. An organizing committee formed, and we launched the Washington News Council in the summer of 1998. [Read more...]

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WNC Responds to Society of Professional Journalists’ national Ethics Committee

WNC Responds to Society of Professional Journalists’ national Ethics Committee

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) national Ethics Committee issued a statement on May 8 criticizing the Washington News Council’s “virtual hearing” by a Citizens Online News Council. The committee’s statement was a group effort overseen by Andy Schotz, chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, who interviewed me over the phone.
We also exchanged emails. Schotz invited me to respond. The SPJ statement is below, with my responses (in blue) after each paragraph. Schotz promised to post my response on the SPJ Ethics Committee’s blog site. The WNC invites the SPJ Ethics Committee to engage in a public dialogue about these important issues of media ethics and accountability. I’ll post their response here. [Read more...]
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What do you think? Weigh in on our latest complaint

PLEASE VOTE BY APRIL 30 (the end of national “Media Ethics Week” sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists)

We had a formal complaint from Washington’s Secretary of State, Sam Reed, against KIRO7 Eyewitness News (CBS affiliate in Seattle).

We invited KIRO to comment, but they did not respond to repeated letters, phone calls or emails. (NOTE: If KIRO responds, we’ll post their response HERE.)

READ THE COMPLAINT (page 1 & page 2) and SAM REED’S LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON NEWS COUNCIL.

The complaint concerned two stories aired on KIRO (Oct. 15 and Nov. 3, 2008) about alleged voting violations.

Nov. 3 story on deceased voters:

YouTube Preview Image
CLICK HERE TO READ STORY

Oct. 15 story on felon voters:

CLICK HERE TO READ STORY

In his written complaint, Reed contended that the stories were “factually incorrect, incomplete, misleading, sensationalized, inflammatory and unfair.”

However, Reed and his office staff decided NOT to ask for a full News Council hearing on this complaint. In an email to the WNC, they stated:

“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.”

True: We cannot order KIRO to do anything. However, we invite members of the public to view or read the stories and to read Sam Reed’s complaint and letter.

We also invite members of the public to vote on the Draft Questions that the News Council would have voted on IF this case had gone to a WNC hearing.

In other words, we’re inviting you to be members of a “Citizens Online News Council” and render a public verdict on the merits of this complaint. Call it a “virtual hearing.”

Your votes, comments and feedback will be helpful to the WNC, to Sam Reed’s office, and (we hope) to KIRO7. View Comments.

Thank you!

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