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Review-ing The Facts 12/13/01 

by William Stimson


At the risk of violating local custom, let's give credit where credit is due. The Spokesman-Review is the first of the parties involved in the whole ridiculous River Park Square feud to examine its own actions publically. Challenged over its fairness in the issue, the Review voluntarily assembled a "Credibility Roundtable" and invited its critics to blast away.


What's more, the Review acted upon the criticism. I have heard even such a determined critic as David Bray say that recent reporting of the River Park Square issue is sharper, and I agree. The Review also revised its ethics code to shore up the wall between business and journalism.


But I am afraid these actions are not enough to clear the air. Credibility Roundtables and ethics codes are all well and good, but if some other public institution admitted error, Spokesman-Review reporters would hardly be satisfied to receive a press release saying that the agency will alter its ethics code and do better in the future.


Newspapers believe in disclosure. If the Review believes it made errors in covering River Park Square, it should handle the examination of its own behavior as it would handle the examination of the actions of any other public entity. It should gather up all the facts and lay them before the public.


The Review has a newsroom full of talented reporters. The editor should tap three or four of these on the shoulder and tell them their next assignment is to examine how the Review did its job in reporting River Park Square.


Among the questions reporters will seek to answer are these:


4 Review editors have admitted it was a mistake routinely to route River Park Square stories past the publisher, given the company's business interest in the issue. But what blinded the editors to this obvious appearance of conflict? Somehow they were not seeing the situation as outsiders would see it. Editors themselves need to understand how that happened.


4 Did developer Betsy Cowles preview or influence news coverage of River Park Square? If so, report it in detail. When we know exactly what happened, and what various parties say about it, we can talk about specifics and quit this endless whispering and shapeless accusation. All human institutions make errors, and there is no reason to expect newspapers themselves to be an exception.


If Betsy Cowles did not affect coverage, on the other hand, report that and don't worry if hardcore critics refuse to believe it. A full and frank report by a group of senior reporters is all the newspaper can do. If some critics still refuse to accept it, they can do their own report on the report. In any case, the newspaper will have met its obligation to the situation.


4 Finally, the editors admit they can "look back and see occasions where coverage could have been more aggressive." What occasions? Without knowing the specifics, we cannot tell if this is a significant part of Spokane's recent dilemma or just routine Monday morning quarterbacking.


At least one instance requires careful explanation. Review reporters admit now they should have made more of the 1997 Coopers and Lybrand Report, which turned out to be an accurate warning that the garage would run into the kind of financial problems it is now experiencing. An official report criticizing the city's biggest project should have been red meat to a newspaper. Why was it so lightly dismissed? Were S-R editors blinded by their own editorial stance that all criticism of River Park Square must be motivated by mischief?


I'm sure disclosure will be no fun for the Review. (But it is the newspaper's chance to prove it can take it as well as dish it out.) But disclosure serves two indispensible purposes in the American political process. First, it is a democratic diagnostic tool that it allows everyone to view the problem and thereby participate in repairing it.


Even more important, disclosure is the only antidote to the normal human inclination toward paranoia. When people are not told the facts, they suspect the worst. Knowing everything, no matter how embarrassing, at least fixes an outer limit to the problem. Imagination is no longer our primary method of judging each other's behavior. Revelatations may cause people to shout and demand. But having seen it all, they will eventually quit suspecting and start fixing. No one has made the point better than the Review's own editorial page that Spokane is held back by unchecked suspicion.





William Stimson, a professor of journalism


at Eastern Washington University, was


a participant in the Spokesman-Review's "Credibility Roundtable."





Stimson comments...


When Chris Peck declined to publish the attached article, he said he was refusing it because I was a member of "the anti-newspaper/anti-Cowles gang." This is not true. I challenged him to cite anything in my books or articles that would support such a charge. But what if it were true? How are we going to get anyplace in this city if its newspaper editors sort ideas according to whether the writer is for them? To allow opinion you consider wrong-headed is the whole point of free speech. Every censor says, "Of course we allow sensible, useful, healthy, constructive opinion. It's only bad opinions we disallow."


I wrote this article because the Spokesman-Review had a credibility problem, knew it had a problem, yet was unwilling to take the next obvious step, which by journalistic tradition is full disclosure. In a private letter to Peck, I cited four precedents for such a step -- involving the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CBS's 60 Minutes and the Los Angeles Times. Each of these prestigious news organizations, at various times over the past 25 years, found themselves in situations that cast serious doubts upon their credibility. In each case the response was the same. They turned their investigative capabilities upon their own actions.


The case of the L.A. Times in 1999 had some interesting parallels to the Spokane situation. The owners of the Times had a financial stake in a major downtown development, the Staples Center. Since the success of the Staples Center would profit the owners of the paper, readers might think that positive articles about the project were motivated by the potential for gain.


In fact, editors and writers at the Times, those who made the decisions about how Staples Center was portrayed, did not know the paper's owners had a financial interest in the project, so their stories could not have been influenced by the potential for profits.


Nevertheless, when the connection between the Times owners and Staples Center became known, Times editors and writers insisted upon a complete investigation. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest was too much. As a result, instead of feeding cynicism, the Staples Center episode is a proud moment in the newspaper's history. Investigating itself was the smartest thing the Times could have done.





Editor's Note: Last January, the Spokesman-Review assembled a "Credibility Roundtable" of two dozen citizens to assess damage done to its credibility resulting from its coverage of River Park Square, a project that belongs to the newspaper's owners. In June, journalism professor Bill Stimson, one of the Roundtable participants, made his recommendation to the newspaper in the form of a guest editorial. Spokesman-Review editor Chris Peck, who has just left the paper, declined to print Stimson's article. Recently the Review announced its solution to the credibility problem, which was to appoint an "omsbudsman" to examine reader complaints. Stimson feels this is a fine idea, but that it does not address the basic problem, which is about how the paper has covered River Park Square for the past five years. The article Stimson originally submitted to the Review is printed for the first time above, along with comments from the author.

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