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.