by William Stimson
When a headline reading "It's Chapter 11 for Met" appears in the Spokesman-Review, anyone who did not arrive in town yesterday is bound to search around for a subtext. Is there any sign of gloating?
I don't see any. It seems to me that the stories about the bankruptcy of Metropolitan Mortgage are more or less the minimum required, given the importance of the business to the city and the circumstances.
The one instance in which the Review went beyond the obligatory -- the long profile of Met president and CEO Paul Sandifur in the Feb. 8 paper -- produced what I thought was a sympathetic and balanced portrait of a well-known community leader caught in a crisis.
Yet longtime newspaper critic David Bray wrote a letter to the Spokesman-Review in which he accused the paper of being part of a plot:
"Don't let a media monopoly dedicated to injuring any and all who oppose its drive for domination and influence over our community destroy one of the best companies in this country."
I find that silly. How has the Review tried to destroy Metropolitan? Would Bray have the Spokesman-Review fashion its coverage according to Metropolitan's pecking rights as an important business?
Nothing would be worse. A newspaper is not supposed to be sensitive or discreet. The main service of a newspaper to a community is that it is willing to play the role of the village idiot who blurts out embarrassing information others would rather keep quiet. The more people shush, the louder the paper should speak. Otherwise society's sympathies, embarrassments and fears would remain hidden in the dark.
The natural human distaste for such frankness is easily seen in the fact that almost any government that finds itself able to do so quickly shuts off the unpleasant bluntness of newspapers. These regimes then live in serene complacency and ignorance until the day comes when it all catches up with them and they collapse from within, as in the case of the Soviet Union.
Spokane needs a newspaper that reports unflinchingly.
Which brings us to the other point in Bray's letter. He claims that "There hasn't been nearly the effort toward reporting on the River Park Square fiasco as there has been on the recent troubles at Metropolitan Mortgage." If so, that would be a dangerous error for all the reasons outlined above.
But it would be even worse because nothing will undermine a newspaper's usefulness to a community faster than the belief that it does not shine its spotlight impartially. A newspaper has the same legitimacy as a football referee, which is the legitimacy of neutrality. Referees are allowed to make mistakes. They are not allowed to empathize with one side or another.
This is Bray's real complaint, and it is one heard practically every time the newspaper prints an embarrassing local report or admonishing editorial. Many people are cynical because they don't feel the Spokesman-Review applies the same rules to itself it applies to others.
When I suggested three years ago that the Review address such complaints with an internal investigation of its reporting on River Park Square, then-editor Chris Peck not only rejected the idea, but took it as an affront to his publisher. He wrote me in an e-mail: "People are sick of the spectacle of this sad, sordid affair. One more trashing of the Cowles family, which has given more generously to Spokane than anyone I can think of, will feed the stomachs of those who have developed an almost pathological hatred of the family."
This struck me just as Bray's letter did, as oddly disconnected from circumstances. First, since I suggested an internal audit, conducted by a team of the newspaper's own reporters, I doubt the result would have been a trashing of the Cowles. In fact, it's my opinion that the Cowles family would be among the prime beneficiaries of such a report.
Second, for a newspaper editor, especially, this shows a curious fear of the simple practice of gathering facts and putting them in print. How can the truth -- as gathered, remember, by the paper itself -- possibly pose such a threat? Newspapers argue every day the social utility of placing all that is known on the record, often having to struggle against those who would like to close records or avoid questions.
Finally, Peck's call to consider the special contributions of the Cowles family violates the cardinal journalistic rule described above, which is to report without fear or favor. The press is not in a position to grant indulgences. If it reports on anyone, it reports on everyone. Otherwise it is just another partisan.
This is a generally accepted principle in the profession. When the New York Times discovered last year that one of its reporters had been making up his stories, the Times investigated itself and published four newspaper pages full of scathing criticism of its own mismanagement. The editor and his top aides were later thrown out of their offices.
Peck resigned from the Review. There is still no internal report.
I have heard that the Spokesman-Review is contemplating such an audit of its coverage of River Park Square. It is only waiting, I hear, to get past the court activity over River Park Square so the two will not become entangled.
If true, that's good news. It's time.
William Stimson is a professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University.
Publication date: 02/19/04