WNC To Hold Hearing on Vitae Foundation vs. KUOW Complaint

***UPDATE*** we now have the hearing video and full set of documents involved with the complaint as a downloadable PDF. We also have national coverage by The Washington Times and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s Ombudsman. Plus local coverage in Sound Politics and the Northwest Daily Marker.

The Washington News Council’s Board of Directors has set a date for a hearing on a formal written complaint from the Vitae Foundation against KUOW 94.9 FM concerning a story that aired April 13, 2011.

The hearing will be Saturday, March 31, 2012, from 9 am-noon, at the University of Washington’s Communication Department, Room 120. It is open to the public.

You can download a PDF collection here to read the basic complaint and initial correspondence between Vitae and KUOW.

WNC Hearings Board Chair Karen Seinfeld presiding over the Sue Rahr v. Seattle Post-Intelligencer case

Karen Seinfeld, Chair of the WNC Hearings Board and former Chief Judge of the Washington State Court of Appeals, will preside at the hearing. (UPDATE 3/16/12: Former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander will be presiding in Judge Seinfeld’s place at the hearing.)

The WNC Hearings Board will be comprised of current and former WNC Board Members, including Martin Neeb, Scott Forslund, Shannon Myers, Bill Gates Sr., Steve Boyer, John Knowlton, Erik Lacitis, Charles Rehberg, David Schaefer, Paula Selis, Chris Villiers and Walt Howe.

The WNC recently received two grants from the Gates Foundation and Microsoft for 2012 operating expenses.

To see how a WNC hearing works, here is a link to a video and background information of a 2006 hearing in the Sheriff Sue Rahr vs. Seattle Post-Intelligencer complaint, held at Town Hall Seattle.

(The P-I chose not to participate in the hearing, which is their right as media participation is voluntary. They posted a 17-page written response on their website, much of which was read into the record by Judge Seinfeld at the hearing. Had they attended, they would have had full opportunity to “stand by their stories” in public, respond to questions from the Council, and make their case in an open forum.)

The WNC received the Vitae Foundation’s formal written complaint on June 9, 2011, and the Council’s Board of Directors accepted it for our process after careful review. The WNC’s Board unanimously agreed that the complaint raised “serious questions of journalistic performance or ethics,” which is our main criterion for acceptance. The Board takes no position on the merits of a complaint at that stage, however.

We notified both sides that the complaint had been accepted and began a 30-day resolution period, encouraging both Vitae and KUOW to seek a compromise resolution. WNC convened a meeting on July 14, 2011, at the WNC office with Guy Nelson, News Director of KUOW and Pia de Solenni, representing the Vitae Foundation. The resolution period was extended for another 30 days, and extended again through the end of the calendar year. Both sides were urged to continue seeking a compromise.

Following WNC’s three-part recommendation of a proposed compromise resolution, Guy Nelson did conduct a brief telephone interview with Debbie Stokes (CORRECTION: An earlier version identified her as “Debbie Nelson.” We regret the error.) of the Vitae Foundation on Sept. 30, 2011, and posted the transcript on the station’s website. However, the station did not acknowledge that the original story was incomplete and misleading, as they had conceded privately. Nor did they do an on-air story, which was part of the proposed compromise. Nelson said they would “seriously consider” doing a follow-up on-air story, which was part of our proposed compromise, but set no timetable.

The WNC tried through 2011 to mediate Vitae’s complaint, hoping that a satisfactory compromise resolution could be reached. WNC Board Members believed that a resolution was possible. However, in January 2012 it became clear that resolution was unlikely. More than six months had passed — far exceeding the WNC’s normal 30-day resolution period — and there had been little progress.

Under the WNC’s Complaint and Hearing Procedures guidelines, if the complainant is not “satisfied with the news outlet’s proposed resolution to the complaint,” a hearing date to air the issues is scheduled. Vitae was not satisfied with KUOW’s response and therefore requested a hearing. The WNC’s Board, after careful deliberation, agreed to set a hearing date.

A hearing is not a trial, but an open discussion of journalistic standards, which is healthy and helpful for both sides — and for the general public. WNC has asked both parties to submit final written statements by March 10 that include “any new information obtained or agreements reached during the process of trying to resolve the complaint.”

WNC’s Complaints Committee will phrase questions for the Council to consider at the hearing, identifying “which actions by the news outlet allegedly violated standards of accuracy, fairness and/or journalistic ethics.” Final wording of the questions will be shared with both parties and made public at least 10 days prior to the hearing.

One resource the WNC may use at the hearing is National Public Radio’s newly revised Ethics Handbook, which was just released last week.

WNC’s guidelines also state: “Parties may continue to try to resolve the complaint prior to a hearing, but if they do not reach a resolution before the day of the hearing, the hearing will proceed.” If the complaint is resolved to both KUOW and Vitae’s satisfaction by March 30, the hearing will be cancelled.

For further information about the complaint or questions about WNC’s process, contact:

John Hamer (206.262.9793)
President and Executive Director
Washington News Council
1201 1st Ave. South, #331
Seattle, WA 98134

8:30 a.m. – Doors open to Room 120, U.W. Communications Building, to public and news media. (Open at 8 a.m. to WNC Hearings Board)

9:00 a.m. – WNC President John Hamer welcomes attendees,
makes brief remarks about WNC complaint & hearing process.

9:05 a.m. – Hearings Board Chair Gerry Alexander calls hearing to order, asks all Board members to introduce themselves

9:10 a.m. – Opening Statement (15 minutes) by Vitae Foundation

9:25 a.m. – Opening Statement (15 minutes) by KUOW

9:40 a.m. – Rebuttal Statement (5 minutes) by Vitae Foundation

9:45 a.m. – Rebuttal Statement (5 minutes) by KUOW

9:50-10:30 a.m. – Questions (40 minutes) by WNC Hearings Board

10:30-10:45 a.m. – Break

10:45-11:30 a.m. – Discussion (45 minutes) by WNC Hearings Board members (questions of Vitae and KUOW only to clarify issues)

11:30 a.m. – Chair Alexander asks if either party wants a brief recess to reconsider positions or eliminate questions. If so, action is taken.

11:35 a.m. – Closing Statement (2 minutes) by Vitae Foundation

11:37 a.m. – Closing Statement (2 minutes) by KUOW

11:40 a.m. – WNC Hearings Board votes on written ballots, which are counted by WNC staff. Vote results announced by Chair Alexander.
Hearings Board members confirm their votes by show of hands.

12:00 p.m. – Hearing is adjourned by Chair Alexander.

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Our 10th Annual Gridiron West Dinner on Nov. 9, 2008

Guests arrived at the reception to find a table of “Bobbleheads” of Kemper wearing his leathers with a motorcycle helmet under his arm. On sale for $20 each, they served as raffle tickets for the evening.

The lobby outside the ballroom featured a brand-new Harley and an HD gas pump, thanks to Eastside Harley Davidson, which sponsored a table of 10 and supplied Harley decals for the table centerpieces. City Flowers provided orange tulips in black vases. Orange, black and white balloons onstage added to the ambience.

The evening began with a welcome by Mike Egan of Microsoft, who has emceed nine out of 10 Gridiron West Dinners. [Read more...]

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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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