News Council will audit Spokesman Review coverage of development controversy

by Mark Fitzgerald, Editor and Publisher

For more than a decade, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., caught local flak for the way it covered a controversial downtown parking garage owned by the same Cowles family business that owns the newspaper.

Now in an unusual move to open its editorial workings to public scrutiny, the newspaper has hired the Washington News Council -- itself a sometimes-controversial media organization -- to review how it covered the so-called River Park Square controversy.

Spokesman-Review Editor Steve Smith announced the agreement publicly Monday in the paper's "News is a conversation" blog. The agreement is the subject of the editorial in the current September issue of E&P.

"I had pledged shortly after coming here four years ago to conduct such an independent review after all of the various lawsuits were resolved and the case closed," Smith wrote. "The review will consider some of the allegations made against the news staff by RPS critics that our coverage was slanted and unethical because the newspaper is owned by the same people who own River Park Square."

The River Park Square controversy stemmed from a parking garage at the mall that was unable to pay for itself, leaving bondholders, local city officials and taxpayers angry, and believing they had been ripped off. The Spokesman-Review coverage was regularly blasted by some local media outlets, especially a now defunct alternative weekly.

Smith wrote that the review "is not designed to silence our harshest critics -- nothing we ever say or do will do that."

Instead, he added, "This critique will give our reporters a chance to speak up for the first time, will give us a chance to acknowledge those failures that did occur (and apologize for them) and provide us with an ethical framework that will guide decisions when faced with similar conflicts of interest in the future."

The paper has previously reported its coverage was not aggressive at times. "I've said publicly...(that) we failed on couple of fronts," Smith said in an interview for the E&P editorial. "There were times we did not exercise appropriate independence from our owners, who are the operators and owners of the downtown mall and parking garage."

A three-person review team will be led by Cliff Rowe, who head of the journalism program at Pacific Lutheran University in Seattle.

Like many papers in Washington state, the Spokesman-Review has never before cooperated in hearings held by the news council, a voluntary body of public and media representatives that issues non-binding decisions on complaints about news media unfairness. Most recently, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said it would not attend a Washington News Council hearing on complaints about its coverage from the Kings County (Wash.) Sheriff's Department. The paper said it had "serious issues" about the impartiality of the panel because of links between some members and the sheriff.

In an interview three weeks ago, Smith told E&P that its lack of previous contact with the news council is a good thing. The paper has pledged to make available to council investigators all documents and any staff members willing to meet with them.

"They do represent an independent media review process and they have no ties to this newspaper or its staff," Smith wrote on the blog. "After considerable discussion, beginning in February, I'm convinced they are qualified to conduct the review."

The newspaper is funding the study to a limit of $10,000. The agreement between the paper and news council is posted on the Spokesman-Review Web site at

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey