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Washington News Council founder looks to future of media oversight as WNC closes

The Washington News Council, the nation's last media-watchdog organization, shuts its doors this month at a time when the proliferation of social media, bloggers and self-styled online "journalists" may make the need for some sort of "critical observer" for their offerings more important than it ever was with conventional media.

John Hamer, who founded the organization in 1998 through one-on-one conversations with some of the area's most prominent community and business leaders to create his founding board, in many ways became a national torch-bearer for the concept of media oversight.

John Hamer

After 16 years of overseeing the News Council's successes and challenges, Hamer decided at the age of 68 it was time to step down, but a successor didn't emerge and so the board, guided by Fremont businesswoman and longtime chair Suzie Burke, decided it was time to shutter the organization.

He doesn't plan to retire so much as "change the method" of seeking to advance his cause, and suggests "the public needs to find new ways to engage in media oversight and maybe take the news council concept to the next level."

"Oversight has to become much more democratic, with much more public engagement," Hamer said. "If everyone can be a journalist in this social-media era, then everyone needs to become a media critic, or at least a media skeptic. They need to hold their social-media favorites to be accountable."

During WNC's early days, Hamer guided it to become 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 metamorphosed out of a watchdog role, were launched by WNC.

And he created the concept of a "TAO of Journalism pledge," which provides for media, whether conventional, blogger or Facebook poster, to promise its audience that they will be "Transparent about who you are, Accountable for your mistakes, and Open to other points of view."

Hamer says the pledge has come to be adopted, including use of the TAO of Journalism seal, by a large number of high school and higher education publications. He hopes to pursue broader awareness of and commitment to the pledge.

"Basically what the News Council sought to promote was accountability, which incorporates all the key issues like truthfulness, integrity, accuracy," said Hamer, adding that those are the things that the public must now demand of the media entities they support.

But the News Council always operated on a financial shoestring, with Hamer having to serve as the equivalent of development officer as well as guiding day-to-day operations.

And the end might have come sooner had it not been for a $100,000 matching grant from Bill Gates Sr., an initial board member and constant believer in the importance of WNC's role, in each of the past three years.

One who isn't so sure of a process by which the public becomes watchdog for whatever their favorite media happens to be is workable is Ken Hatch. As a member of Hamer's founding board and a retired broadcast executive who as head of KIRO Inc., when it was a television-and-radio property owned by one of the nation major broadcasting corporations, was one of the most powerful media people in the region.

"This is a major loss to a civil society that believes in a balanced freedom the press," Hatch told me in an email exchange. "The loss of WNC allowed unchecked forces with money to have a power not healthy for our society. I fear for the future when there is no 'point-counterpoint' to create reason."

I was a member of the WNC board for several years after my retirement as publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal and Hamer and I discussed on various occasions how the organization might move beyond keeping an eye on conventional media and look to watchdogging the new media filled with journalistic wannabes.

The concerns about internet and social media integrity and accountability are not much different than concerns that have always existed about newspapers, broadcasters and similar communications entities.

A key challenge is knowing what motivates the writer ofsomething on the internet. One that routinely concerns me is when bloggers or others are paid to write something and there is no indication for the reader that "hey, I got money to write this."

Of course that sometimes happened, and still does, in what Hamer refers to as "legacy media," for example as when a newspaper might write a story that the subject paid for. Some in what I view as media myopia, might ask "Why does that matter," as if integrity should somehow not be a part of accuracy.

I once suggested to the publisher of a daily newspaper that there was an ironic opportunity for those in legacy media to carve out an indispensable role for themselves by occasionally, perhaps weekly, doing a review of new-media or blog sites to offer "trustworthy" and "non-trustworthy" blog sites. Perhaps using a panel of experts to evaluate those sites.

My sense was that those who really care about the legitimacy or accuracy of what they are reading might well look to experts for guidance.

As Hamer summed it up for me:

"In my view, everyone needs to become part of a new 'Citizens News Counsel,' or some such name, to hold ALL journalists (mainstream, bloggers, Facebookers, Tweeters, etc.) accountable for accuracy, fairness and ethics," he said.

"It's time to 'crowdsource' media ethics. But citizens need guidelines to know who they can trust."

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