When investigative reporters have the resources to do their jobs, public officials are held accountable. Or sometimes they just resign.
The sad state of affairs for professional journalism may have achieved cliché status, but the past two weeks have brought bright spots, highlighting both the value and the quality of those who continue to practice the trade.
Three stories stand out these past two weeks, bringing accountability to those who wield power: First, Emily Heffter’s piece in the Seattle Times detailing the ethical lapses of first-term Seattle Port Commissioner Rob Holland. Second, Scott North and Noah Haglund from The Herald exposing the nearly Nixonian dirty tricks emanating from Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon’s office. And finally, Brandi Kruse from KIRO radio exposing an email exchange (brought to her attention by an anoynmous source) where newly court appointed SPD monitor Merrick Bobb complains that he has to report expenses like every other city consultant.
The first two reports resulted in Mr. Holland and Mr. Reardon resigning. The third has put Mr. Bobb on notice that he is being watched and that city taxpayers have someone looking out for them.
What these cases all highlight is the crucial need for full-time, independent reporters who have the skills and resources to follow leads and dig deep into what can be very complex issues.
Independent reporting is particularly important in one-party or company towns. In Seattle and King County, where Democrats dominate, an obscure election like that for port commission comes under very little scrutiny. The vast majority of voters have no idea who their commissioners are, and party politics and endorsements tend to carry the day. Ironically, Mr. Holland was endorsed by the same Seattle Times he now derides as the Seattle “Corporate” Times. But fortunately, The Times has the resources to put Ms. Heffter on the port story and has led to the public finding out abut Mr. Holland’s problems. Hopefully, that helps the port become a better organization as a result.
Mr. Reardon, in resigning his post, echoes what so many politicians, including Mr. Holland, have said — that they are the victims of pernicious attacks by the press. There is a familiar theme here, that everyone else is to blame for their problems. The Herald reports that Mr. Reardon said in his resignation that the reports are “part of 'a concerted effort by groups that oppose' him that are intent on undermining his ability to lead.' "
Mr. Holland similarly complains that the Times reports “cheapen us.” For his part, Merrick Bobb feels “humiliated” by having to answer questions about his expenses beyond his $250 per hour rate. He further states that this is an example of the city thwarting his efforts to reform the police department. No wonder city employees responsible for processing these contracts feel threatened for just doing their jobs.
This is where an independent press free from government pressure is so important. Public officials enjoy seeing their names in print for the good stuff, not so much when they are caught doing something wrong or questionable or making statements that reveal elitist, entitled or arrogant thinking.
There is a difficult and strained relationship between public officials and the media going back to the beginning of our country. It will always be so.
Reporters spend a lot of time with the people they are paid to cover. They see each other at social events and they share the same instinct for public service. It is inevitable that there is a kind of comity that develops. But the reporters, especially the good ones, have a kind of mental toughness that allows them to report hard truths that outrage the people they cover, and even like and respect.
Nowhere is this love-hate relationship expressed more clearly than in two quotes from Thomas Jefferson, a man himself filled with contradictions.
Here, he sounds like the politician frustrated by reporters: “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” And here (in a quote that long stood in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's offices) he sounds more the philosopher: "If I had to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without government, I wouldn't hesitate to choose the latter."
The fourth estate here in Washington state has a number of victories exposing corruption and forcing those in positions of power to be held to account for their actions. I remember as a 9-year-old boy, my dad, Charley Royer, then a KING-TV reporter working with Don McGaffin on a TV documentary exposing state Senate Majority Leader August Mardesich for taking garbage hauler money, handed over in white envelopes, as he worked on legislation to help the industry. After winning a 1975 court acquittal on charges of extortion, Mardesich ultimately resigned his leadership post. It was not easy taking on the most powerful man in the Legislature. Following the money was a lot tougher then than it is now. But follow it they did, and Senator Mardesich was forced to resign as majority leader. A few years later, he was defeated in a Democratic primary.
While it was tough to follow the money back in 1975, it is tough now to get the resources and the attention of the public to do this kind of reporting. Exploring issues is simply not a huge priority. The same KING5 that allowed my dad and McGaffin and a research team to go after Mardesich has now cancelled the only public affairs news show dedicated to local and regional issues – "UpFront" with Robert Mak. While KING and others do have investigative reporters, there just isn’t the air time devoted to these stories that there once was.
On the bright side, however, reporters have many more tools at their disposal to use in their investigations. Public disclosure requests of emails and information obtained by social media postings provide clues and documentation that didn’t exist in 1975. Open government rules also provide better access to both reporters and citizens. These tools are to investigative journalism what DNA testing is to crime fighting.
But good old-fashioned reporting, walking halls, talking to people, reading through obscure documents and putting it all together in a coherent and compelling way is still the job. And that takes people, resources and commitment. The Seattle Times has announced this week that it is going to begin charging readers for on-line content. Already, people are criticizing the move. But over the last two weeks, we have seen a few examples of why we need these underpaid overworked people called journalists. And why we need to pay them for their work.