by Ted S. McGregor Jr.

After a relatively River Park Square-free few months in the local media, the story that has defined Spokane for nearly a decade is back in a big way. Last week, Mayor Jim West unveiled a plan to possibly head off, or at least alter, the federal trial, which is set to start on April 19 in Richland. On Monday, the City Council endorsed that plan. And last week also featured the Spokesman-Review's eight-part series on the garage's woes, "Paying to Park."

Even though much of the information reported has been available for months or years, the timing made sense with the trial looming so close. But the question of why now is only partially answered by the proximity of the trial. For those who have watched the newspaper's coverage over the years, including those critical of it, the series was all about the subtext. In the battles over the garage, the newspaper has suffered a lot of collateral damage. The Review clearly hopes to start over with a new approach to the story of its owners' failed real estate deal.

"We know we face serious credibility concerns when we report an RPS story," wrote Editor Steven Smith in a companion piece to the series. Smith went on to say the paper has dropped old policies that allowed Publisher Stacey Cowles and his sister Betsy, leader of the mall redevelopment project, to preview stories before they were printed. He also pledged to conduct an independent audit of the Review's coverage sometime after this month's trial ends.

"I told the staff this was hitting the reset button for us," Smith adds. "But the goal isn't to suddenly be critical of our bosses, but to establish in a noticeable way that we will cover this in the way we would cover any other business story."

Apparently without anticipating it, the Review became part of the story of the River Park Square garage, and newspapers, by nature, don't aspire to be part of the story. As a result, questions have plagued the paper -- questions about whether more aggressive reporting could have "scotched the deal," to borrow a phrase from former editor Chris Peck, who was cast as the villain in last week's series for not assigning his reporting troops to the story. It's hard to say whether the outcome could have been changed; for one thing, the report that raised the first outside, disinterested criticisms of the deal -- the Coopers and Lybrand Report -- was only available to reporters hours before the city council voted to join the deal in January of 1997. Still, an escape clause from the deal could have been exercised in the summer of 1999, when developments in the deal seemed to guarantee the garage's failure.

Killing the project may have been a long shot, but critics of the paper's lack of news coverage at these crucial junctures (despite 300 or 400 stories on the matter) say it's more about a trusted institution not delivering on its mission to inform citizens.

Larry Shook, an editor for the online Camas magazine, which has criticized the Cowles leadership of the newspaper, says how the city's daily newspaper does its job is fair game, specifically "whether the Cowles family used their newspaper to serve the interests of readers or to serve the family's real estate interests."

Clearly it's a question that has been asked inside the Review's newsroom. Bill Stimson, a journalism professor at Eastern Washington University who has written commentaries on the subject for The Inlander, says the reaction to such controversies is often led by angry reporters and editors. When the New York Times had problems with faked stories from Jayson Blair, reporters and editors led the cleansing, largely in the form of a 14,000-word, front-page article outlining the mess. Same story at the Los Angeles Times when a secret deal between the paper's owners and the Staples Center was revealed. Stimson says the script generally includes big stories that attempt to set the record straight for readers.

"This is a good start," says Stimson. "[Jim] Camden did a masterful job of organizing it all, so you've got to give them a lot of credit for that."

Stimson adds, however, that to dig out of the credibility hole they've dug for themselves, the paper will need to follow through on Smith's promise of an outside analysis of the reporting

Steve Blewett is also a journalism professor at EWU, and he has followed the coverage closely over the years. He agrees with Stimson that the reporting was strong, but he says keeping the job inside the newsroom was a mistake.

"[Review reporters] are all too close to the story," says Blewett. "It puts the staff in an almost impossible situation. Again, it is a failure of the top editor to determine how the story should be covered. Peck abysmally failed in the first go-round. Smith should have simply said we need somebody from outside."

There is precedent for such a move right here in Washington state. As the Seattle Times attempts to extract itself from its joint operating agreement with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, it has hired an independent journalist to cover the story, a move that has been hailed by journalism ethicists.

Smith says hiring an outside reporter was discussed, but he was against it. "To replace [staff reporters] this deeply into the story would have been me telling my staff that I didn't trust them to recover their professional pride and sense of independence," Smith says. "The newsroom feels they have regained their independence, and we wouldn't have gotten that if we had gone outside."

Stimson agrees that there is a benefit to having a veteran reporter like Jim Camden tackle the bulk of the stories. Since Camden has followed it so closely, Stimson says he is uniquely positioned to tell it like it is -- and was. In other words, he's spin-proof -- except for the influence of whatever sense of personal allegiance he may have to his bosses.

However, it appears any such allegiance didn't prevent him from angering the newspaper's owners. Newsroom sources say that Cowles family members were extremely upset over the series. Perhaps that's some measure of how the newsroom has reclaimed its independence.

Still, Tim Connor, also an editor at Camas magazine, argues that the series didn't tie Betsy and Stacey Cowles -- two key figures in the deal -- closely enough to the controversies surrounding the deal. For example, Connor believes a document he has uncovered proves that Betsy Cowles changed a figure in a news story. He bases that charge on a handwriting analysis, but he questions why the series didn't tackle that and other questions.

"It's important, to be sure, that Steve Smith acknowledges that it was unethical for the publisher or his sister to review stories," says Connor. "How can the S-R come clean about its RPS credibility problem and then go leaving Betsy Cowles out of crucial stories like this?"

Smith says the newspaper's research has found no evidence so far of Betsy Cowles changing a story.

John Stone is a Spokane-based developer who has been a critic of the parking garage project. He says he found it odd that blame was assigned to Peck -- an all-too-convenient scapegoat. Peck left the Review two years ago.

"To me," Stone says, "it looks like they teed up the apology but never made it."

Stone says the way the newspaper harangues Duane Hagadone's business plans in Coeur d'Alene offers proof that there's a double-standard in the way the newspaper treats Cowles-backed business ventures. He also believes the buck should stop with the owners, not the employees.

"Hey, they were young, they made some mistakes, they'll try to do better in the future," continues Stone, "that's all they have to say. But to hide behind, 'It's the editor, it's Pupo, it was Robideaux, it was everybody else's fault.' If they want to apologize and if the Cowles want to reestablish their good intentions, then they should give the property under the garage to the city. That would mean something."

Smith says apologies are under consideration, but for now the Review wants to admit to its mistakes and focus on covering the trial this month.

Blewett says the final irony is that the paper's soft coverage was no favor to its owners -- in fact, had the deal been scrutinized it may have resulted in a more affordable purchase price for the garage thereby keeping the matter out of federal court.

"The Cowles family came out of this as badly as anyone else, and that's a tragedy, too," says Blewett. "There are not many cities that have had a family as generous as the Cowles. And here they finally step out of the shadows to take a prominent role, and it blows up in their face."

For the Review's newsroom, however, the struggle to regain its credibility continues. The federal trial will offer its own special challenges for the paper, as opposing lawyers are likely to say some nasty things about their owners. And no matter what the editors and reporters do, it's unlikely they'll be able to please their harshest critics.

"This was a very tense and important week for us and the owners of this newspaper," Smith says. "Looking back on it, I think we passed our test."

Starting last week, the Review appears to be finally taking the advice offered up by the Washington Post's media critic Howard Kurtz. Upon pondering the Review's dilemma, he told The Inlander that, "the ethical thing to do is cover the hell out of it." Kurtz made that comment in June of 1995.

Publication date: 04/08/04

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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...