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About the Audit 

by WILLIAM STIMSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ne can't help but think if this had happened to anyone else, this would have been a BIG STORY in the Spokesman-Review. The just-released independent audit of the Spokesman-Review ("Reporting on Yourself" by Bill Richards) concludes that, as citizens of Spokane were drifting toward a fateful policy decision, "The newspaper suppressed financial information of importance to the decision-makers and the public at-large..."





Usually Spokesman-Review editors deal with that kind of scandal in black headlines on page one followed by several Section A pages festooned with doleful photos of the principals, charts and sidebars. But when the long-awaited Washington News Council audit appeared May 6, it was quietly tucked into Section B and printed in a type size normally reserved for legal notices.


That's how hard it is for the newspaper to apply the same standards to itself it applies to all the rest of us.





Publisher Stacey Cowles, in an article that accompanied the Washington News Council report, found some worthwhile guidelines for the future in the report, but added, "I reject substantially all of the allegations of influence [by owners on editors and reporters] collected in the News Council's report."





In his own commentary on the report, Spokesman-Review editor Steven Smith seemed to feel it must be difficult for readers to grasp that it was none other than the Spokesman-Review on the hot seat. "It's not about the checkered record of other journalists who reported on the controversy," Smith clarified.


Smith declares there are no "smoking guns" in the report that prove the publishing family exerted influence on the reporting of River Park Square. That depends upon the meaning of the metaphor "smoking gun."





For example, on Oct. 22, 1996, reporter Alison Boggs wrote that the cost of renovating and expanding the parking garage the Cowles family wanted to sell to Spokane taxpayers would be a mere $8.6 million. Before that story got into the paper, the figure mysterious grew to $20 million. Where did the inflated figure come from?





During legal discovery for subsequent lawsuits, a draft of the Boggs story turned up in Betsy Cowles' files. Boggs' original draft of the story was edited in Betsy's handwriting. The $8.6 million figure was scratched out and $20 million was inserted. That's the figure that appeared in the paper.


Is that a smoking gun?





On the other hand, it may not be correct to assume that all River Park Square problems began at the top. One of the few real surprises in the discussion surrounding the audit is Stacey Cowles' flat assertion that he had disagreed with Chris Peck's decision not to probe the Coopers-Lybrand Report.





In 1997, the city council more or less inadvertently commissioned an independent evaluation of River Park Square that uncovered a lot of the deal's financial problems. A council anxious to close the deal studiously ignored the critical report.





Three Spokesman-Review reporters -- Alison Boggs, Kristina Johnson and Jim Camden -- went to editor Chris Peck and suggested they look more closely at Coopers-Lybrand.





This should not have been a hard decision. Examining a government report that contradicts other government figures is standard journalism. Peck ordered the reporters not to inquire further. Richards' audit is full of devastating facts like those.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ut here's another important fact that emerges from the report. However belatedly and grumpily, the Spokesman-Review did commission it and did print it. Nothing like this audit could have happened under the old regime.





Steve Smith (despite his checkered record) is no Chris Peck. In his commentary accompanying the Richards report, Smith says:


"Publisher W. Stacey Cowles says he rejects the report's findings of interference ... I appreciate the freedom he extends me to draw differing conclusions. So, in the newsroom, we accept the findings."





That is a verified instance of separation of ownership and editorship.


Smith goes on to say: "[W]e sincerely apologize for not adequately living up to our journalistic standards ... Our failure to produce complete, accurate and balanced coverage ... was a disservice to our readers..."





That's as much as critics of the Spokesman-Review ever claimed.


When I first began criticizing the newspaper's coverage of River Park Square in 1999, I could maintain that the Spokesman-Review fell well below the current standards of journalistic ethics. I compared the Review's behavior, for example, with how a similar influence scandal was handled at the Los Angeles Times.





Since then, the Chandler family has sold theTimes and that great newspaper is now owned by investors who do not live in Los Angeles. The Wall Street Journal was another of my journalistic models. It played a role in River Park Square when it came to Spokane and wrote a key investigative report. Alas, as we speak, the Journal is being stalked by billionaire Rupert Murdoch, a publisher who not only has no regard for journalistic ethics but is positively against them.





Though Stacey Cowles insists that the newsroom was always independent of family influence, he at least seems chastened by the report. In his commentary he allows that the newspaper must take "extra steps" to prove to readers that there is editorial independence.





It's a different era at the Spokesman-Review and it's a different era in journalism. Given the trends in modern journalism, we may yet come to value a publisher who can still wince when criticized.





William Stimson is a journalism professor at EWU.

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