Sheriff files News Council complaint against P-I

by Philip Dawdy, Seattle Weekly

Last Friday, July 28, the King County Sheriff's Office and Sheriff Sue Rahr filed a complaint against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with the private, non-profit Washington News Council, which offers to broker or judge disagreements between people and the press. The complaint is in response to the P-I's yearlong series "Conduct Unbecoming," which has reported on several badly behaving deputies and the kind of discipline they received or didn't receive for their misdeeds.

In an accompanying letter to the council, Rahr states, "The P-I has tried to destroy public trust in the Sheriff's Office." She further accuses the paper of writing stories that have been "intentionally biased, unfair, malicious and lack[ing] balance." The series, principally authored by investigative reporters Eric Nalder (a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his work at The Seattle Times) and Lewis Kamb, in short, painted KCSO as a police department where deputies can violate department policies, such as those governing use of force, and either get a slap on the wrist or be allowed to retire.

Earlier this year, Rahr met with Executive Editor Ken Bunting, Managing Editor David McCumber, and Publisher, Roger Oglesby to complain about the series. Rahr claims that since the meeting, 33 more stories have appeared "still lacking fairness and balance."

Bunting did not immediately return a call requesting comment. McCumber was unavailable. Glenn Drosendahl, the paper's reader representative, says that, initially, the paper will focus effort on trying to hash out an agreement between it and KCSO. What form that might take is anyone's guess.

But given the breadth of the complaint, encompassing 100 articles and editorials, and the bad blood between Rahr and the P-I (she has refused to speak with Nalder and Kamb since last fall), it is difficult to imagine the two parties could iron out their differences.

The Washington News Council is controversial in journalism circles. As a non-profit private organization, the council has no power to force a media outlet to do anything. The council fields complaints by citizens and others about press coverage, decides whether to accept a complaint, attempts to broker a compromise between the two parties, and, failing that, may hold a public hearing whereby its board (comprised of other journalists and members of the public) decide who's right. The idea is to give people steamed at the media a means to redress their grievances with the press short of legal action.

In 2003, the council held a hearing on allegations involving KIRO-TV and an investigative series the station aired on so-called downer cows. KIRO refused to participate in the process. The news council found KIRO at fault in a complaint brought by the Washington beef and dairy industries.

John Hamer, the council's executive director and a former columnist for Seattle Weekly and the Times, says the council delivered the complaint to the P-I this morning. "We think it is a serious complaint," he says. "We make no judgment of the merits at this point." For the council to accept a complaint, the complaint must raise "serious questions of journalistic performance or ethics," according to Hamer.

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