Rob Curley's ethical lapse as the Spokesman-Review's editor is too egregious to ignore

click to enlarge President Joe Biden, left, is sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, right, at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Looking on are Biden's wife Jill Biden, second from left, daughter Ashley Biden, third from left; son Hunter Biden, center; and Vice Kamala Harris, second from right. - ANDREW HARNIK/POOL VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
Andrew Harnik/Pool via The New York Times
President Joe Biden, left, is sworn in by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, right, at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Looking on are Biden's wife Jill Biden, second from left, daughter Ashley Biden, third from left; son Hunter Biden, center; and Vice Kamala Harris, second from right.

I have a few questions for our local congresswoman, Cathy McMorris Rodgers. I am certain you do, too.

But you won’t get any answers to those questions from the local press. She is stonewalling Fifth District reporters, including the journalists from this publication.

And now it seems you won’t be getting any answers from Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley who was given the opportunity to attend Joe Biden’s inauguration alongside McMorris Rodgers, her plus-one,  it seems.

Why was Curley afforded this opportunity? His next-day column, published Jan. 21, says only that it was an opportunity to view the unprecedented event first-hand. The accompanying editor’s note explains the newspaper paid all of Curley’s expenses and insisted that no strings be attached to his time with the congresswoman.

click to enlarge Steven A. Smith is a former editor of the Spokesman-Review.
Steven A. Smith is a former editor of the Spokesman-Review.

Reading the column, it appears no such demand was necessary. Curley clearly decided to avoid disrupting the harmony of the moment with, you know, hard-hitting questions of the sort journalists routinely ask. 

Curley writes regularly, often for Page 1. He almost never addresses significant public issues, serving instead as folksy community cheerleader, boosting the Zags or the Cougs or Bloomsday, or whatever else strikes his fancy. His day-after-inaugural column is typically folksy but provides no insights not already reported by others. Did we happen to see on TV the man who was cleaning the podium between inaugural speakers? Uh, yes, we did Rob. The guy was all over CNN. They even named him. It was all so patronizing.

But I am not here to critique Curley’s over-the-backyard-fence writing style.

After leaving the Spokesman, I spent 10 years teaching journalism at the University of Idaho, specializing in mass media ethics. For the first time since retiring in May, I wish I were back in that ethics classroom to talk about Curley’s trip.

The importance of the McMorris Rodgers invitation was not the opportunity to attend the inauguration. It was the opportunity to seek answers from the congresswoman to questions from her constituents. You know, the questions she has refused to acknowledge, let alone answer.

Why did you not recognize Joe Biden as the president-elect when election results were clear to everyone but Donald Trump and his enablers? Why did you not recognize the election results when court after court after court rejected the former president’s groundless claims of massive election fraud?

Why did you not recognize the election results when the 50 states certified those results and selected their Electoral College electors?

Why did you sign on to an absurd, legally indefensible Texas court case that was clearly designed to overturn the results of a free and fair election, disenfranchising millions of voters, most of whom are people of color? Then, after the Supreme Court rejected that suit with a dismissive sentence, why did you join other Republican House members willing to vote to reject electors from the battleground states Trump had lost?

Do you bear any responsibility for the violence that erupted on Jan. 6? That violence was fueled by the former president’s false claims of election fraud, claims you and other Republicans could have countered months earlier.

On Jan. 5 you were prepared to vote against certifying results from Arizona and Pennsylvania. But on Jan. 6, after the insurrection, you shifted your position, saying you would vote to certify because, as you said, enough was enough. If fraud made the results in Pennsylvania and Arizona suspect on Jan. 5, why were they suddenly valid on Jan. 6? To what extent did political expediency play a role in your decision?

I could go on. Confronting McMorris Rodgers with those questions might have spoiled Curley’s kumbaya moment with the congresswoman. But asking those in power the tough questions, the toughest questions, is what journalists do.

It is possible, I suppose, that there is more to come. Maybe Curley is saving the hard-hitting interview for, say, Sunday’s paper. But my sources inside the Spokesman tell me there are no plans for a follow-up. If I am wrong, I will be the first to apologize.

The ethics issues here are clear. Journalists, among other vital, value-driven functions, are to serve the public interest, providing information citizens need to exercise their citizenship. That is a fundamental ethical obligation, and one Curley looks to have disregarded. 

Being editor of a major metro newspaper is a hard job. Criticism can be relentless. In terms of rebuilding a quality local newspaper, Curley has done a good job. The people working for him are among the best journalists in the Northwest. But his immediate ethical lapse is just too egregious to ignore.

Message to the editor: Spokane does not need a community cheerleader. It needs a community watchdog.

Steven A. Smith is a former editor of the Spokesman-Review. Prior to joining the S-R, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of the Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Smith is now clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full-time teaching at the end of May 2020. Reach him at newsman46@yahoo.com.

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