What Crosscut learned from a public records request by Real Change

The Seattle Police Department’s hidden involvement in two 2020 opinion articles is an opportunity to reflect upon newsroom trust.

Seattle police wear blue masks and line in a row

Protesters face off with members of the Seattle Police Department on Capitol Hill, July 25, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A little over a week ago, the newspaper Real Change reached out to Crosscut for a comment regarding a story they were working on about the Seattle Police Department and its media strategy during the 2020 George Floyd protests. In their reporting, they learned that in two cases the SPD had heavily influenced/ghostwritten opinion pieces in Crosscut.

Real Change discovered, after making public records requests for SPD emails, that in July 2020 SPD Chief Strategy Officer Chris Fisher helped Deputy Mayor and former Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess with research for a Crosscut op-ed in which Burgess argued against cutting SPD’s budget. That research was not attributed to the police in the op-ed, but appears to be information the general public could obtain. The paper notes that Burgess, a former SPD officer who served on the City Council from 2008 to 2017, continued his police consulting work for Mayor Bruce Harrell for a while after he was elected.

“For another op-ed, Fisher was even more involved: He appeared to ghostwrite or produce an initial draft of the piece for Antonio Oftelie, a Harvard scholar and business consultant. Oftelie eventually published the piece under his byline on Crosscut,” Real Change reported.

These pieces were penned before I became Crosscut’s executive editor. After doing some internal research and reaching out to the former Crosscut associate opinion editor, Mason Bryan, I responded to Real Change with the following statement:

“I did confirm that the editor at the time did not recall Antonio Oftelie mentioning that SPD staff was involved. It is difficult after the fact to say whether, given what we know now, we would still have published the op-ed, but I believe we would not have. Transparency and honesty are both important values in our newsroom. We would not publish this op-ed if we knew it was ghostwritten by someone in the Seattle Police Department.

“Based on the emails you provided and having conversations with our former op-ed editor, we will be pulling the op-ed down.”

We pulled the story down because it was misleading. The op-ed was supposed to be a first-person account, and Oftelie did not communicate with us at the time that he was in fact working closely with the SPD in writing the piece. You can read the entire op-ed in question here.

I would like to respond to a question Real Change did not ask, but that has been the topic of discussion in our newsroom: Would we have published the op-ed under Fisher’s byline if they had been honest about the source of this opinion piece? Again, it’s not really possible to know what we would have done in the past, but Crosscut strives to include as many perspectives as possible in its coverage and we likely would have welcomed an opinion piece from the SPD on their perspective about this topic. Why they didn’t try the direct and honest approach, we probably will never know. 

The Real Change story is a good one and I encourage you to read it. Crosscut is still working to answer our own questions about the genesis of this op-ed.

Transparency in journalism is a key pillar of what we do at Crosscut, and we are going to hold folks accountable. Had we known the relationship between Oftelie and Fisher at the outset, who knows what would have been the decision regarding publication of the op-ed, but at least there would have been full disclosure of who was involved and what their interest might be.

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