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Coming Clean 

by William Stimson

There are so many interesting things to be noted about the Spokesman-Review's eight-day investigation of itself that it would be easy to overlook how historic an event it was.

For more than a century, the Cowles name almost never appeared in the news pages of the Spokesman-Review. Even when it did, it was only with the explicit permission of the publisher himself. Now the Cowles family is not only mentioned in the Spokesman-Review but is the subject of an expos & eacute;. This is a significant event in Spokane.

Of course, most of the information in the River Park Square series was reported long ago by other sources. Nevertheless, it is important that the newspaper itself finally acknowledged the facts. The Spokesman-Review is back in step with reality.

Jim Camden did more than the obligatory job of confession and catching up that the paper had to do sooner or later. He laid out the information so clearly and professionally that it is going to help settle a lot of the turmoil.

For example, why did the whole thing fall apart? It wasn't because of Steve Eugster's legal meddling and it wasn't because the city didn't live up to the deal. It was because the deal's finances were a fiction from the start.

As Camden's reporting makes clear, Walker Parking Consultants figured out almost exactly what the new parking garage would earn right from the start. In 1996, the consultant estimated the garage would take in $1.7 million, and when the garage opened it earned $1.8 million.

The trouble began -- as critics have pointed out for years -- when Walker came in with a new estimate that the garage would earn more like $4.5 million a year. What happened? You no longer have to hear theories of the critics who the Spokesman-Review used to write-off as disreputable "naysayers." Now you can read it in the Spokesman-Review.

To his credit, Camden questions his paper's editorial decision not to delve into the criticisms raised by the Coopers and Lybrand report, as some reporters wanted to do. Camden interviewed former editor Chris Peck, who defended his decision like this: "There was not a secret motive. Government reports are issued all the time. The news media... tend to focus on the vote."

That, of course, is hogwash. First, there was no reason for the editor of a newspaper to get involved in such a work-a-day reporting decision except for personal interest. Second, the most obvious ethical analysis would suggest that when one's own interests might be involved, it might be better to over-report rather than to under-report. Third, the idea that conflicting government reports about the biggest event in the city would not make an interesting news story is ridiculous. The distance between Camden's series and Peck's staunch refusal to admit error is a measure of how far the Spokesman-Review has traveled.

Unfortunately, the Review's editorial page remains closer to Peck than to Camden. The editorial that commented on Camden's series was one long, muddled non sequitur to the facts Camden had laid out. The editorial's determination to face the music is suggested by this grand declaration: "Good intentions and positive outcomes aside, mistakes have occurred."

The editorial mind seemed to have trouble focusing. It talked about trends in local government. It said Portland used to have influential business leaders, too. The Review declares forthrightly it is for open government now -- and it recommended as much to current Mayor Jim West.

After eight days of stories about what a calamity the River Park Square deal was, the Review's editors seem to have drawn the major lesson that good things came out of it. The editorial ends with this thought: "[A]s we speculate about how differently things might have turned out with a more open process, we also have to wonder how things might have turned out if the project hadn't happened at all." So maybe the ends justified the means?

The editorial of April 4 was so out of touch with the Review's own reporting that one suspects it was intended as an act of diplomacy. These stories, after all, were about the newspaper's owners. Maybe it's kind of like when accusations fly at a family dinner table and the wise father uses the first opening to say, "This salad is sure good."

The Review's editorial page will soon have another chance to comment on the whole affair. In the series, Editor Steve Smith re-affirmed his promise to invite an outside ombudsman to assess the newspaper's performance in reporting River Park Square.

When that is complete, the Review will be expected to make clear its aspirations for behaving professionally. When it does, my advice would be: Don't look at the history of urban government, or Portland, or Spokane's building statistics. Look in the mirror.

Publication date: 04/15/04

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