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Flynn's Harp:Washington News Council weighs future in changing new-media era

The nation's last fully operating news council is engaged in some soul searching about its future, including whether it has one, at a time when the proliferation of social and other forms of non-traditional media may make some sort of media "watchdog" more important than ever. "We're in the middle of a process with a core group that I call my 'strategic transition posse' to look at our vision, mission and whether we're sustainable," says John Hamer, co-founder and executive director of the Washington News Council (WNC), which he helped create in 1998.

Meanwhile, as the Washington News Council (WNC) goes about its introspection, it's scheduled to hold a full-blown hearing in a few days on a complaint against the oft-offending but never-repentant major Seattle television station, KIRO.

John Hamer

 That scheduled hearing points up the long-term importance of an organization like the News Council as a forum for public engagement with the media. But it also indicates the key challenge that has largely been beyond WNC's ability to overcome during most of its 14 years of existence.

The importance of such an organization is stated compellingly by Ken Hatch, a founding board member and the influential former president of KIRO in the days when it was a TV-AM-FM titan owned by Bonneville Broadcasting.

"This mix of journalism and mass media compulsions, basically at the whim of anyone with an uncontrolled point of view, will not create a better world without some sort of 'point-counter point' forum like WNC," Hatch said.

The challenge has been the reluctance of the media to help any organization, including WNC, keep an eye on its performance, a reluctance put in perspective by Blaire Thompson, whose Washington Dairy Products Commission was among the entities that have come to WNC with complaints.

"The media readily arrogate to themselves the freedom, indeed, the right, to hold everyone in our society accountable to their scrutiny," said Thompson. "Unfortunately, what many media are reluctant to do is to allow themselves to be held accountable for their actions. The disinclination of most media to be held accountable can express itself in hostility to anyone who tries, and this has includes the Washington News Council."

Part of the challenge to "sustainable" is that WNC, which has operated on a relative financial shoestring and been run by a chief executive who has stayed committed more for love than money, saw its primary funding source come to an end last year.

That key funding for the past three years has been a $100,000 matching grant from the Gates Foundation, guided by Bill Gates Senior who has been a strong supporter of WNC and its role.

The end of the Gates challenge is part of the reason Hamer has guided the News Council to assess what he characterizes as "a crucial transition year."

The News Council's annual Gridiron West Dinner, a roast of prominent political or business figures, has become the key fund-raising event for the organization. And this year's November roast of retiring Gov. Christine Gregoire and departing Congressman Norm Dicks has Hamer and WNC supporters enthused about the fund-raising such a special roast, attracting both Democrats and Republicans, may represent.

The WNC forum for public engagement with media has included a formal hearing in the event no accord was reached between a media entity and the aggrieved person or organization.

While the accused media have mostly always responded to the complaint in some manner, they frequently have boycotted the formal hearing when one has been held.

That was the case a few years ago when King County Sheriff Sue Rahr complained to the News Council about the unfairness of a Seattle P-I series. After a hearing in which WNC found for Rahr, with the P-I declining to be present, the Seattle Times did devote a full page to the hearing and its outcome damning the P-I.

But in most instances, the accused media knows that regardless of the outcome of a WNC hearing, other media will provide little public visibility on those proceedings. That removes much of the concern about being found "guilty."

So it is with CBS-affiliate KIRO TV, which has thumbed its nose in two previous complaints against it for reports by the same reporter, Chris Halsne, who is described by himself and the station, but by few who see his work, as an "investigative" reporter.

Without going into details of the complaints, all of which brought major outpouring of support for those wronged by KIRO, including Secretary of State Sam Reed, the fact is, as Hamer puts it, "KIRO has never given us even the courtesy of a response by phone, email or letter."

The latest complaint is from teachers and parents at Leschi School about a piece, more accurately a job, Halsey did for KIRO on the school's custodian.

Hatch, the former KIRO chief, said of one of the KIRO stories that drew a complaint: "It was a hurtful and stupid example of a bad performance by a reporter who carries the mantle of public trust. The reporter failed and so did the news director who must have been asleep at the wheel."

WNC was patterned after the respected Minnesota News Council, whose operation was supported by basically all newspapers and prominent broadcast outlets in the state. That included financial support from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune.

During WNC's early days, it became the key to growth of the concept nationally, getting a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to sponsor a nationwide contest to start two more news councils. California, which has since closed its doors, and New England, which still exists but has metamorphosed out of a watchdog role, were launched by WNC.

The Minnesota News Council recently closed its doors, due to change in leadership and the financial travails of the state's largest daily newspaper, leaving the Washington News Council as the last in this country whose scope extends all the way to full-fledged hearings.

That's why WNC's discussions about its future are important. Again, quoting Hatch: "We are seeing media and journalism destroying some of the quality parts of our free speech process. Lies and slander must be challenged by good minds and good people for this country to truly have a freedom of speech fostered by people of integrity."

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Mike Flynn is retired publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal who now has a consulting firm, Mike Flynn & Associates LLC, and writes a weekly column called Flynn’s Harp. Contact him at Mike@emikeflynn.com if you would like to be added to the list of those receiving it via email, or to see previous Flynn’s Harp columns, go to emikeflynn.com and click on blogs.

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