We exalt the praises of local-owned media, especially newspapers, but today's shout from the Washington News Council is a reminder that this, too, has its problems. Of the Spokane Spokesman-Review and its coverage of the locally controversial River Park Square redevelopment project, it concluded among other things:
"The newspaper did not investigate thoroughly in a timely manner and report promptly and forthrightly the financial structure of RPS. The newspaper suppressed financial information of importance to decision-makers and the public at-large, but potentially unfavorable to developers. . . . Ownership’s involvement in news stories it deemed sensitive was inappropriate. . . . The Spokesman-Review suffers from the potential for self-censorship of the news product by reporters and editors. . . . The same attorney simultaneously influenced decisions on related business and newsroom matters."
And yes, those conclusions reflect the tenor of the findings: Damning, essentially. And not softened by the fact that the Council's inquiry had been sought, and partly paid for, by the newspaper itself. The many critics in town who thought the paper blew the story of one of the biggest downtown development squabbles in the region are sure to trumpet vindication.
The River Park Square history is too twisted and complex to recount fully here. (There's a good summary at the opening of the Council's report.) Briefly, it centers on a large-scale plan to redevelopment downtown Spokane, a proposal centering on the River Park Square area. The Square, along with other sizable chunks of downtown, was owned by the Cowles family; the Spokesman-Review was owned by it too.
In 1994 a reporter happened on information about development plans at River Park. Between her writing of the story and when it appeared in the paper, it was heavily rewritten by the paper's editor on request of a Cowles family associate. The Council report noted, "Over the next decade, the RPS redevelopment touched off a torrent of controversy in Spokane, spawning nearly two dozen lawsuits and an IRS investigation. It tore apart the city’s political structure and pulled down its bond rating. The Spokesman-Review’s coverage of RPS raised questions about the paper's editorial judgment, ethics, and impartiality that persist today."
It argued, "What Spokesman-Review readers did not get were many details about the project’s intricate financial underpinnings that the developer and Spokane’s city officials were quietly cobbling together." And: "If there is a moral to this RPS story, it is that the publisher-editor relationship got in the way of the public interest in the reporting of a sequence of events of great importance to Spokane’s citizens."
A strongly-recommended read.
Editor Steve Smith (who arrived at the paper after most of the River Park Square developments had occurred), and who proposed the Council investigation, had this to say: "The council's findings are troubling, and in my view, they illuminate as nothing else has done why some in our community questioned our RPS coverage and why that story so wounded our credibility. In an accompanying column on these pages, Publisher Stacey Cowles says he rejects the report's findings of interference, direct or indirect. I can appreciate his viewpoint, though we come at the situation from different perspectives. Furthermore, I appreciate the freedom he extends me to draw differing conclusions. So,in the newsroom, we accept the findings. And we sincerely apologize for not adequately living up to our journalistic standards." His comments are worth a good view, too.