Power of Providence

by ROBERT HEROLD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he Spokesman-Review's reaction to its own independent audit of the River Park Square coverage calls to mind the New York Times' Frank Rich's recent characterization of the Bush crowd's reaction to the George Tenet book as "a circular firing squad." Everyone's shooting everyone else.

About the RPS findings, Stacey Cowles lays the blame on Chris Peck -- but not too much, just a poor editorial decision here and there, nothing all that deliberate. Steve Smith plays his usual role of the disinterested, virtuous editor. And Chris Peck? He weighs in as our very own George Tenet. Leading off with a rebuke of Smith (whose sanctimony seems all too clear to the deposed Peck), the former editor justifies his editorial decisions, then, without missing a beat, lays claim to the reforms that followed in their wake. What a neat trick!

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & bout the reforms recommended by the Washington News Council: Stacey Cowles rejects them all, and Steve Smith rejects the most important one, the conflict of interest reform involving attorney Duane Swinton, who represents both the family's property interests as well as the newspaper.

I dare say, Peck's claims of unbiased journalism do seem a tad self serving. For example, by way of disclaimer, he mentions a number of stories that he regarded to be more important than River Park Square. Not all that important a story? The issue that led to the demise of the council-manager form of government? That led to the largest public bond default of the year? That led to a pile of lawsuits? No, says Peck, not high enough priority, not when compared to, oh say, Tom Foley's loss.

That's when my jaw dropped a few inches. Foley lost in 1994 -- two years before the RPS issue got serious.

Peck claims to have provided even-handed coverage -- this from the editor who referred to the mayor as an "urban terrorist" for his opposition to the project. (The same mayor whose winning campaign had centered around his opposition to the RPS project.)

In his 2004 RPS retrospective, S-R reporter Jim Camden analyzed how it came to be that way back in 1996 the garage revenue projections had been purposely inflated by the city. I'd bet money that Mr. Camden could have written that same piece back when it mattered. Frankly, he may well have. We do know that he filed a number of timely stories that Peck's editors simply refused to publish. We are supposed to believe that the editors, on their own, dropped Camden's articles into the round file.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hile the circular firing squad stories have their appeal, we learn more about our town when we compare how we did what we did to what took place in other cities that were faced with the same problem of a declining downtown and the threat of losing Nordstrom. Providence, R.I., I learned, had completed a similar project, albeit a much larger and much more costly effort. The Providence deal included much more subsidization than did the Cowles project. There Nordstrom made off with long-term sales and property tax waivers. Yet despite the promise of so much public largess, so far as I could determine the Providence deal came off without a hitch: no acrimony, no bond default, no finger pointing, no lawsuits. What had Providence done that Spokane didn't do?

The most obvious difference? Right up front, the mayor of Providence told the whole truth. He acknowledged the corporate welfare aspect of the deal. He acknowledged the subsidization. He acknowledged the high cost. Only then did he make the case for the project, which he saw as essential to a revitalized downtown. After making his case, he asked for, and received, public support. At no time was the Providence deal sold as a business proposition that would "pencil out." The community was brought in like adults and asked to get behind an important project.

To the contrary, our mayor and city council, urged on by the developer (and with a real assist from the Spokesman-Review), insisted that the garage did justify the $26 million pricetag and peddled the fantasy that it would pay for itself. When requesting that the council put the parking meter money in hock, Betsy Cowles was very clear on this point: She couldn't imagine that the garage would not pay for itself. (Others, like Coopers & amp; Lybrand not only could imagine it, but predicted it; their report, however, was suppressed by the city council/developer team to the point where it had no impact on the city's decision.)

Could it be that the citizenry in Providence stuck with the mayor because the public believed that he spoke for the public interest? And could it be that our citizenry suspected that their representatives were just doing what they were told to do by the private sector? Is this suspicion the cause of all that "naysaying" that Peck harped on so often during his tenure?

My theory is that Spokane clings to a discredited private power mythology, which holds that the public interest is realized only through the fruits of behind-the-scenes deal making. In our heart of hearts, of course we know this never works. (And Providence proves it.) But in continuing to go along with the gag into the River Park Square era, we cultivated a cynical, self-destructive political culture.

If I'm right, it follows that the RPS issue goes far deeper than what can be blamed on a compromised press or even a weak and uncertain government. Rather, RPS should be viewed as symptomatic of a deeper and more disturbing civic condition here in River City: an anemic public life.