When the Spokesman Attacks
People "in-the-know" seem to have long suspected the conflict between the private and political lives of Spokane's strong mayor, Jim West.
How many other "newsworthy" undercover investigations has our Cowles family-affiliated Spokesman-Review, with its newspaper and TV media interests, performed?
Was the Spokesman deceptive when reporting Tom Grant's opposition candidacy? Was it honest in reporting and about its own costly involvement in non-media ownership interests (River Park Square)? During the city's change from a good-ol'-boy to a strong-mayor form of government?
The timing of the S-R's reporting by screaming, prurient headlines is, alone, not to be trusted. It has spurred further costs: a mayoral defense against an FBI investigation that tends to have a "chilling effect" on future political participation in dissenting public candidacies.
What the Spokesman-Review's editorial board knew or didn't know about Mayor West's sexual proclivities isn't the point. Nor is the newspaper's use of a hired computer forensics effort to lure West into an explicit conversation that, thanks to the Review's relentless coverage, has now sealed West's political career and his reputation.
The point is the newspaper's hypocrisy.
In the Spokesman-Review story posted on the Poynter Institute's Web site, reporter Kevin Graman summarizes the national appeal of the Jim West story by quoting a CBS News producer: "When they say one thing and do another, that's a good story."
As everyone who is "in the know" in this town is aware, the story blown off the front pages by the West expose was the River Park Square debacle, a years-old controversy over a downtown revitalization partnership between the City of Spokane and corporations controlled by the Cowles family, owners of the very same Spokesman-Review. Any financial risk presented to the City by the partnership was downplayed by the Cowles newspaper.
But the financial failure of the city's portion of the "River Park Square" public-private partnership left the city with tens of millions of dollars in losses, including the loss of community development block-grant funding for its most vulnerable citizens.
Throughout the controversy and, ultimately, federal securities fraud
litigation over the city's losses, the Cowles insisted on privacy protection for not tens, not hundreds, but thousands of their development documents. The logs of documents withheld from public disclosure by the Cowles interests were a good inch thick, typically including 20 to 25 documents on each page. Most of the documents were unimportant. But a number were very important.
My colleagues and I were among the few people privy to these documents, because we were outside counsel representing the city in the federal securities litigation with the Cowles interests and others. The litigation, which lasted four years, was settled within the last six months. Throughout the litigation, not only did the Cowles' development companies withhold the documents in the first instance, but the Spokesman-Review, well aware it could intervene to challenge heavy-handed confidentiality protections (it has done it in the past), chose not to do so in this case.
The excerpts of Mayor West's electronic mail exchange with someone he believed to be another gay male cruising an adults-only gay Web site sure looked like a conversation he expected to be private. But the Spokesman-Review's editor, Steve Smith, answers that the mayor lost his right to privacy when he crossed the line and offered an unpaid internship at City Hall to "Moto-Brock." Maybe so. But did the Cowles' interests forfeit their right to development privacy when they came looking for $48 million in public financing for the renovation of their mall? Compare an unpaid internship at City Hall to more than $2 million a year in lost city street funds and community development block grants -- that's the relative magnitude of the West and Cowles issues to the city of Spokane.
Was the CBS producer right? When they say one thing and do another, is that a good story?
Laurel H. Siddoway
Publication date: 05/26/05