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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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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 possee' 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.

 

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 compelling 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 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 Halsey, 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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