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May 7, 2007

Spokesman-Review reviews its own performance

Posted by David Postman at 10:52 AM

The Spokesman-Review Sunday published an investigation of itself. The report, written by independent journalist Bill Richards for the Washington News Council, looks into the paper's coverage of downtown River Park Square -- a major development project of the paper's owners.

The report was requested by the Spokesman as part of its unusual self-examination of the conflicts in the newspapers coverage of the Cowles' family business interests. The investigation found that the paper did not "investigate thoroughly in a timely manner and report promptly and forthrightly the financial structure of RPS." The paper also suppressed information that may have been unfavorable to the developers, and suffers from "the potential for self-censorship of the news product by reporters and editors."

Among documents the paper has posted on its website (though the links weren't all working this morning) was a response from the publisher, Stacey Cowles, and the editor, Steve Smith. Smith wrote:

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.

At Crosscut -- where Richards also writes -- editor Chuck Taylor writes that Smith was falling on his sword. That's probably right. My experience with Smith is that as aggressive and sometimes overly self-confident he can be in running the newsroom, he is also unusually open to criticism. His apology is even more unusual. Such things happen most often in the news business to settle litigation or to apologize for some less substantive transgression -- say publication of an offensive cartoon or photo.

I know that the paper's coverage of RPS -- and the family's development deals in general -- have helped foster distrust of the Spokesman's independence form the city's power structure. I wonder now if this will help get the paper past that.

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