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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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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WNC’s Virtual Hearing Results are IN!

In an unprecedented “virtual hearing” on a complaint from Secretary of State Sam Reed against KIRO7 Eyewitness News, dozens of people voted and added comments.
The votes were largely critical of KIRO and upheld Reed’s complaint. Of about 100 people who voted online, only a few defended KIRO while most supported Reed’s position.

See the Vote Results and Comments.

NOTE: If KIRO responds, we’ll post their full response.

Reed and his staff decided not to seek a full News Council hearing on the complaint, declaring that they “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 problems.”

As an alternative to a public hearing, the WNC invited citizens to view the stories, read the complaint, then vote and comment in a “virtual hearing” as a Citizens Online News Council. The deadline was April 30, during national “Media Ethics Week” sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists.

The complaint concerned two stories aired on KIRO (Oct. 15 and Nov. 3, 2008) about alleged voting violations.
You can download a copy of the complaint (page 1 & page 2)and Same Reed’s letter to the Washington News Council

Nov. 3 story on deceased voters:

YouTube Preview Image

Download a transcript of this story

Oct. 15 story on felon voters:

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Download a transcript of this story

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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:

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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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KIRO7 Eyewitness News Removes Two Stories from Website After Secretary of State Sam Reed Files Complaint with News Council

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: jhamer@wanewscouncil.org Address: P.O. Box 3672, Seattle WA 98124.

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