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More Mall Coverage? 

by Kevin Taylor and Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n the wake of the Mayor West recall, independent Spokane journalist Tim Connor wasted little time in reminding Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith about his pledge to take a closer look at the S-R's coverage of the River Park Square development.

Early this month, Connor sent a letter and packet of RPS documents to Smith and other media outlets in town, asking out loud (so to speak) about the audit Smith had promised to conduct.

It hasn't been forgotten, says Smith, who has been invited to attend a board meeting of the Washington News Council, a journalism watchdog group, on Feb. 4 in Seattle to formally pitch them on undertaking the audit.

Starting more than a decade ago, River Park Square and its parking garage was developed by the Cowles family, which also owns the newspaper. There is criticism that the newspaper did not aggressively cover the controversial project ... and worse. Connor, who has spent years writing about the scandal for the online Camas magazine, contends that mall developer Betsy Cowles and her brother, newspaper publisher Stacey Cowles, tinkered with the S-R's River Park Square coverage to bolster the developer's position.

A year ago, Smith, who was not at the paper during the heat of the RPS controversy, promised to audit the newspaper's coverage of the issue. Connor says the packet he sent out this month is just a reminder.

"I think it's a professional responsibility. There is clear evidence that for quite some time Betsy and Stacey Cowles are at least implicated," Connor claims. "So my question is, where is the audit?"

Smith says now that the West recall has ended, he has begun searching for an entity or individual to conduct the audit. Smith has stated publicly that he thinks mistakes were made in the newspaper's garage coverage, but he adds that an independent audit is the only way to make peace with the community and staffers at the paper who may still have questions.

"Some people still have very strong emotions as to what happened here," says Smith. "Could we have spared the city the turmoil if we had done things differently? I don't know. But we do intend to evaluate our journalism [via the audit], and acknowledge our mistakes -- and what we did right."

The News Council, which investigates complaints against media in Washington state, is one option, but Smith says an independent journalist, perhaps now in academia, could do the job, too.

"It would be new territory for us, a new type of project," says News Council Executive Director John Hamer. "And I've got to say it's a daunting challenge, depending on how many years they want us to look at -- how many stories? Is it a report card or is it content analysis?"

Smith agrees that the scope of the project would have to be worked out. And once it gets rolling, Smith expects the audit will take at least three months to complete.

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