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Originally published Saturday, October 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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News council to weigh unfairness allegations in sheriff, P-I fight

The Washington News Council will convene a public hearing this afternoon to examine allegations that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Washington News Council will convene a public hearing this afternoon to examine allegations that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has covered the King County Sheriff's Office in an unfair and irresponsible manner since August 2005.

In the council's best-case scenario, the Sheriff's Office and the P-I would air their grievances and resolve their differences. The public would be given a rare view of how a major media outlet covers a local public institution. And the council would advance its mission to "maintain public trust and confidence in the news media by promoting fairness, accuracy and balance."

But achieving those goals will be difficult. Since Sheriff Sue Rahr filed a formal complaint against the P-I with the news council in July, the acrimony of the dispute with the P-I has increased.

The P-I will not participate in the hearing, questioning the impartiality of several council members and the council's executive director. The newspaper did respond to the complaint by publishing a 17-page answer on its Web site in which the newspaper said it made — and corrected — some errors but stood by the essence of the series.

And by being swept up into the controversy, the council will find itself short-handed during today's hearing, with eight of its 20 members declining to vote on the sheriff's complaint, to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

The P-I and the Sheriff's Office have been feuding since August 2005, when the newspaper kicked off its "Conduct Unbecoming" series with three days of stories about former vice cop Dan Ring, who agreed to retire rather than face criminal charges stemming from multiple allegations of misconduct.

In subsequent stories, the P-I reported on several instances of misconduct by sheriff's deputies and claimed the misconduct was the byproduct of a weak system of internal discipline within the Sheriff's Office.

Washington News Council hearing


Where: Town Hall Seattle, Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street

When: 2 to 6 p.m. today

What: A discussion and vote on a complaint by the King County Sheriff's Office that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's "Conduct Unbecoming" series has been unfair and inaccurate

Who: King County Sheriff Sue Rahr and her spokesman, Sgt. John Urquhart, will represent the Sheriff's Office. The Seattle P-I will not attend, but the Washington News Council will read portions of the newspaper's written reply into the record. The 20 members of the council will discuss the complaint; eight will not vote on its merits because of potential conflicts of interest.

Admission: Free and open to the public

Source: Washington News Council

Rahr and sheriff's spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart said they expressed concerns about the stories to P-I writers and editors but were not happy with the response. After several months of consideration and discussions with several people, including Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen, Rahr filed the complaint with the news council on July 28.

Blethen said he did not give Rahr the idea to file a complaint.

"I heard her out and expressed to her what my concerns had been about the news council, but also said to her, if she feels she's not being heard by the P-I, and her side is not being told, then that is precisely what the news council is set up for," Blethen said.

Rahr acknowledged she met with Blethen, but declined to discuss the substance of the conversation.

"We have tried to correct erroneous information. We have done our best to change the tone of the articles. Rarely were any corrections made. Usually we were ignored," Rahr wrote in a cover letter attached to the complaint.

Rahr said last week she went to the council as a last resort.

"I had been very frustrated because I had felt as if there is nowhere to turn, when you have an issue with a newspaper. There's no internal-affairs unit to go complain to. There's not an appropriate way to get the situation resolved," she said.

The points of contention between the P-I and Rahr are numerous. The P-I, for instance, said Rahr's July complaint ignored 13 clarifications and corrections the P-I published to "Conduct Unbecoming" stories.

Rahr, in turn, said some of those corrections were published nearly a year after the original stories appeared.

Their dispute escalated in mid-August, when the P-I published a story declaring it would not participate in today's hearing because of concerns about ties between the Sheriff's Office and the news council.

P-I Managing Editor David McCumber said in the article the paper had "serious questions about the council's ability to be impartial."

The P-I noted that Mariana Parks, the wife of news council Executive Director John Hamer, is the district director for Republican Congressman Dave Reichert, who preceded Rahr and whose tenure as sheriff is assessed in many "Conduct Unbecoming" stories.

The P-I also said Hamer and four council members contributed to political campaigns of Rahr and Reichert.

The P-I's questions of bias prompted the Sheriff's Office to fire back with its own conflict-of interest concerns in an amended complaint.

The filing questioned McCumber's ethics, alleging he failed to disclose he had sought deals to ghost-write books with Reichert on the Green River killer investigation.

The P-I dismissed the claims and called them "an effort to tar the reputation of an editor who has dedicated more than 30 years of his life to public-interest journalism."

Rahr said she reluctantly added the charges against McCumber only after the P-I raised questions about bias.

McCumber acknowledged meeting with Reichert in 2003 and discussing the possibility of ghost-writing a book, but he said he did so at the request of his agent, who also was representing Reichert at the time. McCumber said he didn't want the job and recommended another writer. He said he never heard from the former sheriff again after the meeting.

For his part, Hamer was upset by the P-I's questioning the ability of him or council members to be impartial.

"That's an insult and a smear," Hamer said. "You're questioning these people's integrity, and these are upstanding citizens of the highest ethics."

Nonetheless, the council's executive committee decided this week to advise those members who had given money to Rahr or Reichert to recuse themselves from voting on the complaint.

Additionally, Cindy Zehnder, president of TVW, the state's public-affairs television network, is recusing herself because the P-I has often given her organization free advertising space. News council member Erik Lacitis, a staff reporter for The Seattle Times, is also recusing himself.

The questions over the news council's impartiality had a certain ring of déjà vu for Hamer. Questions about the council's independence have been omnipresent since Hamer, a former Times editorial writer, founded the organization in 1998.

Much of the problem stems from one of Hamer's previous jobs. In the late 1990s, Hamer and his wife wrote a media column for The Seattle Weekly and now-defunct Eastside Week. The pieces skewered missteps and bias the authors perceived in local media.

Consequently, Hamer received scant local media support when he decided to launch the Washington News Council after watching a "60 Minutes" story about a dispute between a Minneapolis television station and Northwest Airlines heard by the Minnesota News Council.

Hamer has patterned the Washington News Council after the Minnesota model. A crucial difference, however, is that the Minnesota body was created by members of local news organizations.

Stephen Silha's father was the publisher of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and a founder of the Minnesota News Council. Today Silha, a freelance writer and communications consultant living on Vashon Island, is president of the Washington News Council.

He acknowledges that the fact the Washington News Council was not created with the backing of local media organizations appears to be a problem in how it is perceived. Whatever the reason, news organizations targeted in complaints received by the news council, including The Seattle Times, have declined to take part in the public grievance process.

The council has received 22 formal complaints since 1998. Roughly half were dismissed because they failed to meet the council's minimum criteria; for instance, only an institution or a person who is the subject of a story can file a complaint.

In other cases, the media organization and the complainant have resolved their differences, sometimes with assistance from the council.

But in the three previous cases that resulted in public hearings, none of the media organizations — The Seattle Times, KIRO-TV and The Olympian — agreed to take part.

The complaints against The Times asserted that the paper improperly characterized the findings of a task force that investigated the causes of the 2001 Mardi Gras riots.

The Times did not attend the hearing, claiming the council's involvement wasn't necessary since the newspaper said almost all complaints it gets from news sources about accuracy or fairness are resolved between editors and those sources to everyone's satisfaction.

The council dismissed the complaint.

Hamer applauded the P-I for its lengthy and thoughtful written response to the Sheriff's Office complaint, but he is clearly frustrated the P-I won't attend today's hearing.

"Some people still don't think the news council is worthwhile," he said.

Yet Hamer insisted that media outlets, not the news council, are the ones losing out by failing to embrace his organization.

"They're missing an opportunity" to connect with readers, he said. "What are the buzzwords in the media today? Openness. Transparency. Accountability. Why are we losing readers? ... Well, one answer is, you don't talk to them enough."

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com

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