By Tim Connor (July 4, 2009)
Karen Dorn Steele arrived in Spokane in despair. And then she became one of the nation’s most versatile and accomplished journalists. In her first interview since leaving the Spokesman-Review, she reflects on the challenges she faced, and the hard choices she made.
If there was a golden era in Spokane journalism it ended, abruptly, in March of this year (2009) when two tenacious investigative reporters, Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele, chose to end their careers at the Spokesman-Review by taking early buy-out offers from the newspaper.
Of the two, Morlin is the quintessential law and order reporter, who nearly won a Pulitzer Prize for his work documenting the inland Northwest’s white supremacist movement. Dorn Steele is best known for Hanford and her other national award-winning environmental reporting. Among the many honors on her resumé is a prestigious George F. Polk Award which she shared with Jim Lynch in 1995 for a penetrating series on the squandering of federal dollars in the Hanford nuclear waste cleanup program.
Dorn Steele was a well-known and regionally respected broadcast journalist before being recruited in 1982 to join the the Cowles family’s afternoon newspaper, the Spokane Daily Chronicle. The following year, the staff of the Chronicle was merged with that of the morning paper, the Spokesman-Review, where Dorn Steele worked for the next quarter century. Though her national reputation is rooted in her Hanford reporting, her other work, including her investigation with Morlin that led to the recall of the late-Spokane Mayor Jim West in December 2005, would have put her in the upper echelon of the nation’s journalists even if she’d never done a Hanford story.
As one of America’s premier reporters, Dorn-Steele’s very presence in Spokane has changed the community in subtle and not so subtle ways. When she started her career here, she was very much a woman in a world dominated by an insular fraternity of white men who often felt threatened by her work. The daughter of a reporter who’d joined the U.S. Foreign Service, Dorn-Steele went to school abroad and became fluent in French and German before graduating from Stanford with honors. She’s not just very smart. She’s pretty tough too.
It wasn’t just a fierce intelligence and Norwegian resolve that Karen Dorn Steele brought to her reporting, but a worldliness that consistently challenged the attitudes and norms of Spokane’s parochial and insular power structure. She held public and private officials to higher standards than they were accustomed to, and in that way her work began to change public expectations about what was acceptable, and what is possible.
What has always been dicey about Karen’s reporting, of course, is that the family that owns Spokane’s newspaper has always been at or near the center of local and regional power structures.
Clearly, a turning point came early in her career at the Review/Chronicle when, in February of 1983, Wendel Satre, the board chairman of Washington Water Power Company (now Avista) was allowed to obstruct her reporting on a devastating exposé involving WWP. All it took was a phone call to the paper’s publisher, William H. Cowles III. As it turned out, the effort to spike and then re-write the story backfired, not only on on Washington Water Power, but on the newspaper. You can read my former colleague Larry Shook’s article about it for the Seattle Weekly here.
The episode could have been the end of her career in Spokane. But it wasn’t. She says she made her views known, and then tried to focus on regional stories that she thought would avoid future conflicts with the publisher. But the tensions never really went away. They re-emerged, most visibly, twenty years later for her, Morlin and other Spokesman-Review journalists during the River Park Square controversy in the way that the publisher’s conflicts of interest demoralized the paper’s newsroom. It is one of many issues she candidly discusses in the following interview.
On a personal note, I’ll add this. I owe Karen Dorn Steele. As a journalist, she’s been an inspiration to me for thirty years. Our careers have regularly crossed paths (we both wrote for the venerable Spokane Magazine in the early 1980s, where I started my own reporting on civilian and military nuclear projects at Hanford) and I’ve come away in awe of her resolve and her talent. I’ve never stopped being amazed by her work. To me Karen epitomizes why Thomas Jefferson believed you couldn’t have a healthy democracy without a free press. I’ve been proud to know her and I find myself among countless others in our community who recognize just what a brilliant gift we enjoyed, for so long, in having her work arrive on our doorsteps in the morning.
We recorded this interview June 17th at the south Spokane home she shares with her husband, Richard Steele.
TC: I know where I was when I learned March 24th that you and Bill Morlin were both leaving the Spokesman-Review at the end of the month. When and where did you find out and, more to the point, what happened?
KDS: Well, there’d been a series of lay-offs at the paper since 2001, so the staff was getting incrementally smaller. That meant beat reassignments and Bill [Morlin] and I had been on an investigative team since 2005. We’d done the Jim West stories and went on to do stories on Spokane’s home grown torturers, [James E.] Mitchell and [John Bruce] Jessen, a whole series of things. But the handwriting was on the wall at the paper that there was going to be a much smaller staff, that they were going to cut salaries and that we were going to be broken up as an investigative team. Actually we had already been broken up as an investigative team. So it just seemed like a good time to leave. I mean, I thought I’d be like [long-time CBS 60 Minutes correspondent] Morley Safer, that I might work until I was ninety (laughs) at the Spokesman-Review but I decided that the quality of the paper would be so degraded that it would probably be a good idea to do something else.
TC: Was there any sense on yours and Bill’s parts that because of the editorial budgets shrinking that if you didn’t leave, younger reporters would have to leave?
KDS: There would have been at least two young reporters that would have been laid off had we not left. And that was a factor for me because it’s a very hard time to get a job and I was coming to the possible end of my career. It was a factor.
“When I first saw downtown Spokane, I just cried. It had the elevated railroad tracks at the time. I mean, there was no downtown. There was no Riverfront Park. It had a lot of beautiful old buildings, and I liked history and old buildings but it was a very ugly city. So I was not happy to have moved here from San Francisco. But in some strange and ironic way it was easier for me to get a job here as a journalist than it would have been in other places.”
TC: I want to go back to the beginning because your biography is so remarkable. The daughter of a Portland journalist who went to work for the foreign service as a press attaché. You wound up growing up in Europe and going to high school in Morocco. Then you go to Stanford where you graduated with honors in history, then you became a Congressional staff person in D.C., then a teacher, and then you decided to go into journalism. You told an interviewer twenty years ago that it was the experience in D.C. that most influenced your decision to become a reporter? How so?
KDS: It was. I worked for [U.S. Congresswoman] Edith Green who was a Democrat from Portland, Oregon, who was very interested in education. She was an ally of [then President] Lyndon Johnson, and the work on policy issues was intriguing to me. At that time I was headed to graduate school to study 19th century German history, which still interested me but I got more and more interested in what was going on in the country, especially this time, ’65, ’66, ’67, ’68. Martin Luther King was assassinated, the riots at the Chicago Democratic convention and then it just seemed that focusing on Bismark and other aspects of 19th century Germany wasn’t as compelling as the fact that the country was going up in flames around me. So I decided to switch. I left Berkeley with a Master’s Degree in History and decided not to pursue the Ph.D., but to try to get a job in journalism.
TC: How much did your father’s work as a journalist influence that decision?
KDS: It had a lot of effect on me. I just loved the people that I met, especially when I was in Morocco as a teenager. He was a press attaché at the embassy in Rabat and I met Pierre Salinger and all kinds of correspondents who were coming through and their lives seemed very interesting to me. Plus some British women who were there working for the BBC and they just seemed to have very glamorous lives, very interesting and great story tellers. They would come to our house for dinner and tell stories. TC: You came to Spokane from the San Francisco Bay area in 1968 when your first husband accepted a teaching position at Gonzaga Law School. Given what was happening in 1968 it could have seemed that coming to Spokane was like traveling back through time. What was your mindset then, and what were your first impressions when you tried to settle into Spokane?
KDS: Well, when I first saw downtown Spokane, I just cried. (Laughs) It had the elevated railroad tracks at the time. I mean, there was no downtown. There was no Riverfront Park. It had a lot of beautiful old buildings, and I liked history and old buildings but it was a very ugly city. So I was not happy to have moved here from San Francisco. But in some strange and ironic way it was easier for me to get a job here as a journalist than it would have been in other places. This was the era in which many famous women, including Anna Quindlen, were relegated to the research staff and had to sue to get jobs as journalists. It was not easy to get off the Society pages if you were a woman journalist. But as soon as I came to Spokane, the paper asked me if I would like to write editorials for the Spokesman-Review. So I became an editorial writer and a music reviewer for one year at the Spokesman. They were very nice people but they were so conservative that I left for public television. Still, it gave me an entry into journalism.
TC: I’m one of the people old enough to remember your work in the early 1980s as a television reporter for KSPS-TV which was a delight, the breadth of your stories and the quality of your journalism. How did that job come about?
KDS: Well it took a couple or three years for the public affairs job to open up, because I was first hired at KSPS-TV as a tele-teacher. In fact, Stacey Cowles remembers being in sixth grade and seeing me come on the screen with my new show for kids. Because I had a teaching credential from California I was able to step into that job.
But KSPS was looking to expand its public affairs offerings. At that point they just had what the national network had. And so I lobbied to become the public affairs director and was able to start a weekly show, Spokane Weekly, and at one point we had five or six people working on the show and we did, as you know, ten minute segments mostly on local and regional news. Occasionally we would do a documentary on some subject like the eruption of Mount Saint Helens.
TC: I think you expressed to another interviewer that you were uncomfortable with broadcast journalism. That it wouldn’t have been your preference really.
KDS: To do broadcast journalism well is a very, very demanding. For every minute of finished product there’s at least an hour of editing that goes into it. And I didn’t necessarily like the celebrity-dom of it. I liked the writing and the producing of the pieces. And we did some very interesting pieces. With KCTS in Seattle we brought in former Presidential press secretaries and did a show called “Some of the President’s Men,” and got some fascinating insights into what was going on behind the scenes in those administrations. And other documentaries. I liked the regional documentary productions, like the Mount Saint Helens show. We did a piece on the proposed diversion of the Kootenay River up in British Columbia which would have really messed things up for both the nature lovers and the power generators in the United States. There were so many interesting subjects that we were able to tackle and at that time local television wasn’t doing very much. There was a huge hole and people wanted us to fill it. I found that there was a big audience for good public affairs journalism in Spokane. People were really hungry for it.
TC: There don’t seem to be many people in Spokane who remember that your career as a reporter at the Spokesman-Review didn’t begin at the Spokesman-Review, but at the Spokane Chronicle. The back story here, of course, is that, at that time, family-owned newspapers were a paradigm for what we think of as quality journalism because of the stability they bring in the ownership. And yet at the time it was conspicuous that the Cowles papers were notoriously mediocre, despite being family-owned. So they went out and tried to bring in new people, including Curt Pierson from the Bremerton Sun, who was brought over to be the editor for the afternoon paper, the Spokane Chronicle. And Curt’s lasting mark on Spokane was to hire Karen Dorn Steele. You’ve said, somewhat pointedly, that you went to work for Curt Pierson. Did he approach you? Or did you approach him?
KDS: He approached me. Through [former Spokane Chronicle assistant editor] Chuck Rehberg initially. They recruited me from KSPS. Curt was ambitious. He really wanted to improve the paper’s quality and he wanted to make it a regional newspaper. So he was out trying to hire people who could accomplish that goal. So he went out and hired me, he hired [columnist] Mike Murphy, and a couple of other people who’d had experience in other places that had impressed him. Unfortunately, he didn’t stay very long because the year after he was hired, they merged the staffs of the two papers and in that power struggle, or whatever you want to call it, among the top editors, Don Gormley the Spokesman-Review editor prevailed and Curt left town. But, yeah, there was a reason I said I worked for Curt Pierson because there were other people at the paper who actually were active impediments to some of the work I did. And so I tried to make it clear to people that he was the reason I came to the Chronicle.
TC: When you come into a situation like that, where you’re a journalist on the payroll of a family known at least as much for its business and political influences as its journalism, what assurances do you need to have the that you can do your job without fear of censorship and of losing your job?
KDS: Well, I did quickly run into some problems in that whole area. I really didn’t have assurances ahead of time except for Curt saying we don’t want this to be a parochial paper, we want it to be a regional force. When I started doing some reporting on Washington Water Power, especially how it was handling Legal Services–which was an entity that was intervening in rate cases against the utility and when they [WWP] were trying to shut people off for non-payment of bills. They were ‘negatively designating’ them,
withholding money from Legal Services through the United Way process. When I started doing that story, it was very much focused on Washington Water Power. But they made me change it to do a generic story on United Way policies. It was the first indication I got that some of the old ways were still very much in force, and I was told that the reason they were sensitive about Washington Water Power is that the Cowles family was, if not the largest stockholder, one of the largest stockholders of the company. That was just said directly in the newsroom.
TC: That story, which was done 26 years ago, I sometimes refer it to people as the Rosetta Stone of how Spokane works, because, and I say this with all due respect, I just saw you being Karen Dorn Steele and following that story. And there it was, and you were focused on it, getting the facts right, seeing the broad reach of the story, and doing it. And then it gets spiked. And you wake up one morning, I gather, and it’s not in the paper the way you’d written it.
TC: And you have to start asking some hard questions about that happened and who made the decisions. Now, ultimately, you wound up having a conversation with [Publisher] William H. Cowles III about what happened there. Can you describe that?
KDS: He was concerned because of the the possible negative effect on the stock price of Washington Water Power. And I said this is exactly the kind of story we should be doing. I mean, if we’re really going to be a watchdog, we should be a watchdog of publicly regulated entities like utilities, not just of government. And we weren’t doing that great of a job of even being a watchdog of government. His editor, Gormley, was telling the rest of the press, because this story became controversial, and it became a journalism issue, he said, well, our job was to be a watchdog of government agencies. And I said, ‘no, our role is also to be a watchdog of private companies that have a big impact on the public.’ And so it was a difference of opinion and I just gave him my opinion on it. I wasn’t fired over it. I didn’t quit over it. But I thought it served an important function because it triggered a big debate over the kind of reporting we should be doing. I was on a panel down in Boise on this subject with Don Gormley sitting in the audience still saying that we should only be a watchdog of government agencies, and I was on the panel saying, ‘no, that’s not the case,’ with Jay Shelledy and a lot of other investigative journalists from the region. So, I think the fact that it was spiked embarrassed the company, but in a good way because they got negative feedback from the rest of the press corps on it.
TC: It kind of took a lot of the wind out of Curt [Pierson], I gather, because one of the things he told Larry Shook was that what happened here is that this was the good ol’ boy network rearing its head. He didn’t cast it as any philosophical difference as to what the newspaper’s job was. He said it was, you know, somebody with power who picked up the phone and called somebody else with power.
KDS: That’s absolutely right. I don’t think it’s unusual. It happens all the time at newspapers. It was just the first time it had affected me, directly.
TC: How do you think it affected Curt though?
KDS: Oh, I think he was disillusioned because he’d been brought in on all these promises that we would become a distinguished newspaper, a distinguished regional newspaper. And you can’t go on with that good ol’ boy, business as usual, knee-jerk reaction and be a great newspaper. You have to be brave. And I think he saw the handwriting on the wall, that he wasn’t going to be able to do many of the things that he thought he could do at the Chronicle. I’m not privy to the inner workings of the power struggle between him and Gormley, but he was the one who left. And Gormley stayed. The controversy had another effect on me because I was going to stay there. I wasn’t going to be leaving for another city. I was raising children here. But it made me think about, well if there are going to be these sensitive local issues, then maybe I should be looking for other regional stories that aren’t just, you know, so sensitive in Spokane. I don’t mean I pulled my punches on Washington Water Power after that, necessarily, because I covered the bribery trial and the obstruction of justice trial that Washington Water Power was involved in. But it did make me think, well maybe there are some other stories out there in the region that I should be pursuing.
TC: Yeah, I want to get get to your Hanford work in a moment. But I want to ask you what you took away from the meeting with William H. Cowles, III. Because, ostensibly, it’s a philosophical, news judgment difference, but if it had happened to me my first question would have been, maybe I don’t have a career here. I think you’ve answered how it shaped your orientation about the work you would do since that time but were you at all disappointed that, from that point on, you realized that you weren’t going to be on the same page with the publisher about what the craft is all about?
KDS: Yeah, I was disappointed, very disappointed, and I didn’t know what it would mean for the future but I just tried to convey to him that if he was going to have a distinguished newspaper, they couldn’t treat stories that way. And he didn’t try to fire me. I just felt we had a genuine difference of opinion. But I was disappointed.
TC: And you let him know that from your perspective those kinds of decisions really undermine the quality of the newspaper?
KDS: Absolutely. Absolutely.
TC: And by extension the goals that he said he was trying to achieve.
KDS: Absolutely. I said it in public, and in these various journalism forums and in private to him.
“His [William H. Cowles III] editor, Gormley, was telling the rest of the press [that] our job was to be a watchdog of government agencies. And I said, ‘no, our role is also to be a watchdog of private companies that have a big impact on the public.’ And so it was a difference of opinion and I just gave him my opinion on it. I wasn’t fired over it. I didn’t quit over it. But I thought it served an important function because it triggered a big debate over the kind of reporting we should be doing…The controversy had another effect on me because I was going to stay there. I wasn’t going to be leaving for another city. I was raising children here. But it made me think about, well if there are going to be these sensitive local issues, then maybe I should be looking for other regional stories that aren’t just, you know, so sensitive in Spokane.”
TC: You’ve commended the Spokesman-Review for giving you the time and resources to develop the story that earned you so much national attention, and that is your work on the health, safety and environmental problems at Hanford. You once shared the story of being approached by an FBI agent in the Spokesman-Review newsroom in 1984 to talk about why you were so interested in reporting on plutonium production at Hanford. To me it sort of crystallizes the tension in the whole Hanford story, which is the dueling realities about a secret place supposedly there to protect America’s interests in the world, and the other side of this interpretation of Hanford is that it is essentially a betrayal of democratic expectations of government accountability and, with regard to exposed workers and downwinders, the expectation that the government would look out for their interests. How did you feel about it at the time, when you realized that the FBI was there because the government saw you as a threat to national security?
KDS: I was not completely surprised because I knew that the material inventories at the plutonium plant down there were still highly classified. But it also made me angry because we were not asking for the secrets of building a bomb or any of those kind of things that should legitimately be probably secret. We were just trying to find out what the history of accidents was and the history of environmental pollution had been at Hanford. And so, I’m a stubborn Norwegian. I just kind of got my back up really. First of all I didn’t think an FBI agent should be sauntering into a newsroom. That’s not proper. It sends a chilling message. And secondly, it made me angry.
TC: Karen I guess we should explain that part of your first reaction was that your first husband was, I believe, a sitting judge at the time. And originally you thought that was why the FBI agent might have been there. [To do a background check for a possible federal appointment.] And it was only during the course of his conversation with you that you figured out why he was really there.
KDS: Right. I had written a Freedom of Information Act request about, well, they call them material discrepancies, MUFs, that wonderful acronym at Hanford, materials unaccounted for. What had happened to that plutonium? Was it missing somewhere in the pipes of the plant? Or was it stolen? What happened to it? So, that’s why he was there, responding to my paper inquiry.
TC: And he came in uninvited?
KDS: Yes he was uninvited, and under a false pretext, not telling us what he was really there for. So, it actually just piqued my curiosity. I guess some people would have been intimidated by it, but I thought, well, maybe there’s something really interesting here if the FBI is coming in and asking questions. I should pursue this.(laughs).
TC: As you sit here today, what intrigued you most about the Hanford stories, and does it still hold any mysteries for you?
KDS: Well first of all, as you well know because you worked on it too, it was an evolving story when we all started out. We didn’t know what we would find out. It got more and more dramatic but the thing that interested me the most was that a big national security enterprise could have taken place in eastern Washington and we still–forty and fifty years later–didn’t know any of the details about environmental pollution or accidents or mishaps that might have happened in that enterprise. That, still, after all this time the government was saying there was no need for citizens to know. Citizens paid for this enterprise, it was important in ending World War II, and was important in the Cold War. But those people who pay the bills should have some insight into what was done in their names, and I’ve always felt that way. And I think also because my father was a government official. Not with the CIA or the Defense Department, it was with the U.S. Information Agency. But he had a somewhat jaundiced view towards what’s a real secret and what’s not. And I knew from conversations with him that there are a lot of things that are classified that shouldn’t be. So I just have that in my background, knowing to ask questions of government officials and not just accept their answers at face value.
TC: Spokane is often referred to as a company town, but I remember as a young journalist, I actually interviewed at the Tri-City Herald for a job and got whisked into an interview with their famous publisher, Glenn C. Lee who, as you know, was also the head of the Tri-City Nuclear Industrial Council. The perception I had at that time with the Herald’s coverage of Hanford–it being the major newspaper in the area–was that Hanford expected in some ways to be treated as a journalism-free zone, impervious to hard questions.
TC: I was stunned to learn when I started working at the Hanford Education Action League (1985) that there was still a law on the books of the State of Washington that actually prohibited a state Department of Ecology official from going on the Hanford site without the permission of the federal government.
KDS: That’s right.
TC: So it really was that kind of a fortress and that was the fortress that you were encountering at the same time as you were beginning to get into the Hanford story.
KDS: That’s right. And the Spokesman-Review had never covered Hanford before except for running Associated Press stories. And there was a real hurdle to gain any credibility, because the Tri-City Herald stories that were usually pro-Hanford, or didn’t go into very much depth, were the ones that made the AP wire all the time. I was writing stories and the AP wasn’t picking them up. Until the documents came out [May 1986], the large stack of Freedom of Information Act documents on the historic emissions. It was at that point that they started paying attention to my stories, and the Green Run [an experiment in 1949 during which Hanford officials secretly and purposely sent a large burst of radioactive iodine out of a plutonium plant’s smokestack] and all the things that your group as well as our newspaper fought to get.
“Sometimes it takes a great deal of self-control, but I try not to become part of the story. I mean, if they’re trying to drag me into the story, I try not to act in kind because then it becomes impossible to report on it, because you can’t report on yourself.”
TC: I want to go back to Spokane because I’m one of those who think the deserved recognition you’ve gotten on your regional environmental stories, like Hanford, has overshadowed some of the invaluable work you’ve done exposing corruption and just plain seedy activity in Spokane. I was in the County Commissioner’s hearing room, not that long ago, when you were there working, and the-then chair of the Commission, Phil Harris, just decided to go off on a diatribe in the middle of the meeting about how awful he thought you were. And this was over your reporting on Eric Skelton, the former director of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority (SCAPCA) who was being drummed out of town for trying to do his job. I know you’ve experienced this time, and time, and time again in Spokane–powerful white men trying to intimidate you–and outwardly it just seems to roll off your back. How do you absorb that kind of public spectacle and then just go on about your work without boiling over emotionally?
KDS: Yeah, I’ve run into lots of bullies in my life. And Phil Harris is a bully and an ignorant bully. And I tend to use humor. That’s one of the things I love about the newsroom too. You can go back after an incident like that and, you know, people are saying ‘atta girl!,’ you know you must have done something right if you got that sort of reaction (laughs). The same thing during the Jim West coverage when Jim West said I was not a credible reporter.
TC: And there’s that famous story of Curt Pierson giving you a t-shirt at a birthday party that said “Beware, Attack Journalist.”
KDS: That’s right, after Kaiser Aluminum got after me. I don’t know, it just didn’t bother me–well, it did bother me, of course, because nobody likes to be assailed in public–but on the other hand, again, maybe it’s that stubborn Norwegian component to me, it just got my back up. Because it became a pattern. You’d report on something and someone would react with this defensive anger. Then I would say to myself, there’s more to this story than I’m on to yet, so I need to work a little bit harder to get the rest of it. I just kept going.
TC: As I was sitting there, one thing that was clear to me is that Commissioner Harris wasn’t challenging a fact of your reporting, he was just going after you personally and saying how bad you were and how awful a thing this was that was coming out. If it would have been me, I’m quite clear that I would have come unglued enough to shout out, ‘how about picking a fact and telling me what I got wrong?’ And yet, you just sat there, not perspiring that I could tell.
KDS: (Chuckling) Well, I try. Sometimes it takes a great deal of self-control, but I try not to become part of the story. I mean, if they’re trying to drag me into the story, I try not to act in kind because then it becomes impossible to report on it, because you can’t report on yourself.
TC: So one thought you were having at this meeting is he may be trying to bait me into his story, and I’m here to do mine?
KDS: Absolutely. Right. And other people in town have been perfectly great at defending me. Like when Jim West insulted me in a press conference, the former mayor Sheri Barnard wrote a letter to the paper saying ‘you’re way off base, West.’ So, you know, that’s been good, that’s been gratifying. But I think those situations sometimes they just require a lot of self-control, as they are trying to bait you.
TC: Part of what I experienced there is that Harris was going after a Spokane institution. You’ve worked here so long, you’ve earned your credibility day after day with your stories. And I’ve got to think that part of your mindset is, well, ‘you’re just elected, I’ll be here when you’re gone.’
KDS: Exactly (laughs). And for someone like Phil Harris who had exhibited many sleazy qualities during his tenure as County Commissioner, it was just par for the course.
TC: I know you try not to become emotionally involved in your stories, because that’s part of your professionalism, but the Skelton story, he was widely regarded as a conscientious, well-qualified person with a regional and national reputation. And yet it was pretty clear to those of us who were following that story that he was leaving because he was doing his job.
KDS: Absolutely. I was furious with what happened to Eric Skelton. But the only way I could do it–because I’m in a traditional newspaper, I’m not a commentator and I’m not an editorial page writer–the only way I could tell that story is to keep doing the reporting, about what they were doing behind the scenes to undermine Eric. That was a terrible thing. I think it contributed to Phil Harris’s defeat in the next election when Bonnie Mager defeated him, and, sure, I would have loved to have written an editorial about how terrible they treated Eric Skelton. But we [the Spokesman-Review editorial page] did it anyway. And my reporting backed up the opinions that were in the paper. There’s just such a strong divide between the editorial function and the reporting function that, the strong reporting is just what I try to stick to.
TC: On the one hand, you’re a consummate professional, your work, the awards you’ve won, have always demonstrated that. But over time you had to have changed from the woman who saw downtown Spokane for the first time and started crying to someone that raised her children here, who developed some ownership as a citizen.
TC: And I imagine it was your hope that the city would progress to the point where someone like you, who was trying to do high quality journalism, wouldn’t be rejected by the power structure as somebody that just had to go.
TC: Not just on a personal level but at the city, the county, in the civil society area, that it would get more sophisticated so that what happened to Eric, wouldn’t happen to Eric. That had to be a frustration.
KDS: And it is still my hope for Spokane that we get better quality people in office. We have these ridiculous debates at City Hall about whether global warming is a reality and whether sustainability is a communist word. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I think we have made some progress. We just appointed a [police] ombudsman this week. Not a perfect position because, as you know, the police union and city attorney’s office negotiated an agreement that doesn’t allow independent investigations by the ombudsman. But, you know, these are baby steps but there is some progress being made.
“I think there was a sense of discouragement about River Park Square because early on reporters were, as you know, heavily pressured not to report on it the way it should have been reported on. And then nobody really had a full sense of ownership covering River Park Square, and nobody challenged their editors, really, about how River Park Square should be covered. Many of us wanted absolutely nothing to do with River Park Square as a result of that.”
TC: I have to ask you about River Park Square and how you experienced its effect on the newspaper and the morale of the journalists who work at the Spokesman-Review. When I was writing a piece for Washington Law & Politics a few years back Bill Morlin told me he thought River Park Square created a stench in the newsroom. He also complained to me that Duane Swinton’s dual role as First Amendment lawyer for the paper, while serving as lead attorney and often the spokesperson for River Park Square, tainted the whole newspaper, including his efforts, Bill Morlin’s efforts, which had nothing to do with River Park Square. What were your feelings as this whole chapter unfolded, and what do you think about it now, in hindsight?
KDS: Well I agree with Bill. I think River Park Square really besmirched our reputations and made it harder for the rest of us to do our jobs. I also complained about Duane Swinton having the dual role. My daughter’s a lawyer and she said well, for a lawyer like Duane Swinton, the client is the client is the client. That it doesn’t matter whether it’s the newsroom or whether it’s Betsy Cowles’s KHQ, or whether it’s their real estate properties out in the valley. But it really does matter if you’re a newspaper because you have a higher function as a newspaper. So that was a conflict of interest for Duane which I think he realized. I had one example where it just directly affected my reporting. It’s not a really important story but, in a way, it was telling because I was at City Hall. It was the Colbert landfill. There was going to be a meeting in executive session. I stood up and objected to the council going into executive session because it didn’t seem to me to be an issue that needed an executive session. And the City Attorney just kind of laughed at me and said Duane Swinton’s been in here five times in the last two weeks trying to get every RPS meeting in executive session. So it made me look foolish, in a way, and I didn’t appreciate that, that we were trying to have things occur in secrecy at City Hall and not disclose documents on RPS when the rest of us were working diligently to try to pry documents out of City Hall.
TC: It was always conspicuous to me, as hard as we were working at Camas Magazine to get River Park Square records out of City Hall, that the Spokesman-Review didn’t ask for those records. That just struck me as something you could take a picture of in terms of how the publisher’s influence was affecting reporting at the newspaper. There were months and months and months there where it was just [KXLY investigative reporter] Tom Grant and I that were requesting and looking at these documents.
KDS: I think there was a sense of discouragement about River Park Square because early on reporters were, as you know, heavily pressured not to report on it the way it should have been reported on. And then nobody really had a full sense of ownership covering River Park Square, and nobody challenged their editors, really, about how River Park Square should be covered. Many of us wanted absolutely nothing to do with River Park Square as a result of that.
TC: Bill Morlin told me very candidly: I didn’t ask to cover it, and they didn’t ask me to cover it.
KDS: That’s about it.
TC: Was it the same for you?
KDS: Well, I didn’t ask to cover it, but I was covering a lot of other things that I thought were equally important. But, no, I didn’t ask and, frankly, I agree with Bill. I didn’t want anything to do with it either because by that time it had become an embarrassment. I think it was good that Steve Smith did what he did, imperfect as it was, to bring the News Council in and do an audit of the whole process that clearly showed that we didn’t uphold our responsibilities. At that point, so many years into the process, that was about the best we could do. But it’s like the Staples Center controversy and the Los Angeles Times. It was just something that shouldn’t have happened and it made us look really bad.
TC: One of your stories that I point people to that had a tremendous influence was the story the story about former Spokane solid waste system manager Phil Williams and City Manager Bill Pupo. We had this tremendous heartburning controversy in Spokane over the Waste-to-Energy plant that, supposedly, was going to be placated by an independent health study. And, yet, it turns out that Mr. Williams was having an affair with the scientist that the City had hired to do the health study.
KDS: Right, Dr. Kathryn Kelly.
TC: And Mr. Pupo was aware of that. Your reporting exposed that and it ultimately led Pupo–in the middle of the River Park Square controversy–to step down. Even though you weren’t the City Hall reporter, this was an instance where the quality of your reporting took you into City Hall and it made a huge difference. To me that highlighted the difference between, I don’t mean to be critical of the City Hall reporters, but they tended to be younger and less experienced over time.
KDS: That’s right. And less willing to follow the paper trail, or even ask for the paper trail, for a really long time, and keep the broader context. I think that was a very important story because that plant had been sold on its science not hurting people, although it had a lot
of critics, and the fact that they hired someone who had a direct conflict of interest–sleeping with the public works director–was just a real betrayal of both the public money and the public trust. And that’s how I try to look at these things, on the broader picture, and that was a very important story because it just gave the lie to it. You couldn’t believe her study, and it just shot its credibility.
TC: These stories take a lot of smarts and reportorial savvy to do. They also take courage. I think we know that, just as journalists, that there are stories where, if you don’t have courage, you’re going to back away from them.
TC: Because when you get into the middle of them, they take over your life. When you’re pursuing a scandal such as the one that Mr. Williams, Dr. Kelly and Mr. Pupo were involved in, that’s a gut wrenching time for them, but it’s also a gut-wrenching time for the reporter. Because the reporter’s willingness to see that story through, on a personal level, is not casual. I wonder how much that gets talked about in newsrooms and I just wonder if you could comment on that. That extra ingredient to landing tough stories like that and what it takes.
KDS: Well, there’ve been some editors at the paper who’ve been very good at backing up reporters in that kind of work. There’s others who just don’t. And it really helps to have an editor or two who are just behind you in saying ‘way to go’ and leading the charge.
TC: I have your back.
KDS: Yeah, I have your back, absolutely. It’s very, very important. I didn’t always have those in some of the early days of the Hanford reporting but as time went by, I did, and the Phil Williams story was one of them.
TC: Don’t you think Karen that your reporting on Hanford in some ways forced the Spokesman-Review’s hand on Hanford?
KDS: Yeah, I do.
TC: Because there was a previous Spokesman-Review staffer (Bob Jebb) who complained that when he tried to write critical editorials about Hanford he was just shut down, that there wasn’t going to be a lot of criticism from the Spokesman-Review about things Hanford, and yet your stories, because they began to be picked up nationally, they really raised the stakes for everybody.
KDS: They did. One young editor early on said, ‘Hanford has never told us that anything ever went wrong there, so why should we believe you?’ That was kind of the bottom line. She was just willing to go with the line from the nuclear establishment.
TC: This was a reporter?
KDS: This was an editor when I first started doing my reporting. Her name was Brenda Tabor and she was very, very skeptical that there would be anything to find at Hanford and when the responses came in to the document requests and we did find things, like exposed people, and massive exposures and all that, then I just disproved her position. And the other editors said ‘just go for it, and keep doing your reporting.’ So, yeah, I really had to push them on that subject, at a time when I really didn’t know where it was going. I mean, it’s easy to look at it in retrospect but this was at a time before we knew there really was a large Hanford story. There were some months of frustration there.
“We were just trying to find out what the history of accidents was and the history of environmental pollution had been at Hanford. And so, I’m a stubborn Norwegian. I just kind of got my back up really. First of all I didn’t think an FBI agent should be sauntering into a newsroom. That’s not proper. It sends a chilling message. And secondly, it made me angry.”
TC: I well remember the day, it was after you’d done the ‘death mile’ story, your first reporting on the downwinders, we were both sitting in an amphitheater at Columbia Basin College with William F. Buckley, Jr., and his Firing Line sidekick that day asked for a show of hands of people in that room with thyroid disease [Hanford’s radioactive iodine emissions are known to have inflicted high radiation doses on downwinders’ thyroids] and all these hands shot up. And he and Buckley just looked at each other, like, my god! And yet as this unfolded through the Center for Disease Control, basically if you ask people in the scientific community if people got hurt downwind at Hanford, basically the science says no. Of course, I was one of the critics of the CDC study but I’ve never asked you about it and how you responded to it after all the reporting that you did. There seemed to be an element of ‘don’t believe your lying eyes’ when it comes to Hanford health effects.
KDS: Well, the Hanford Thyroid Disease Study obviously was a disappointment because it didn’t find an effect. Dose response effects have been found after Chernobyl and other facilities around the country but I don’t think it’s quite true that there’s no scientific evidence. I mean even in the Hanford downwinders trials going through the courts now, I mean juries have found for some of the plaintiffs. There have only been the bellwether plaintiffs so far, very few of the thousands, but they have found [liability] for thyroid disease sufferers at a high enough dose. And they’re going to get awards, eventually and we don’t know yet how the other two thousand cases are going to turn out.
I think the decline in newspapers is likely to lead to a further decline in journalism. I think the two things are definitely linked. Now, at the Spokesman-Review, I couldn’t do the kind of reporting I did on Hanford back in the eighties. There’s just not time. And there’s not, frankly, the will. All publishers are looking at their bottom lines and the economic survival of their papers and that’s not a time when you’re paying lawyers large retainers to keep you out of trouble or even having an investigative team. We had a small investigative team and now there is absolutely no investigative team.
TC: I wanted to ask you about one of the more recent stories you worked on before you left the paper, one that has continued to boil away, and that is about police violence in Spokane and the inability of Spokane government to respond to it in a way that the public has any faith that reports of police abuse will be taken seriously and investigated credibly. How difficult has that story been to cover?
KDS: It’s been one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever worked on. Because after the Jim West investigation was over and West was recalled, our editors wanted us to turn our attention to the long, known problems with the police department, under Police Chief Bragdon and former police chiefs. And just getting sources was incredibly difficult. The police guild didn’t want to talk to us. When I asked them [the police department] for their policy and procedures manual, they said we’re not going to give it to you because we didn’t like the last story you did on the firefighter sex case. So, there was this reaction, it was very knee jerk, you know, ‘we don’t like what you write, we’re not cooperating with you at all.’ And of course our lawyer got immediately involved and said that police chief pique is not an exception under the public records act. Those documents have to be given to us and we were going to go to court the get them. So they knew right away that we were going to play hardball on this issue.
TC: Let me ask about Anne Kirkpatrick, because you were already reporting on this story at the time she came in.
TC: It wasn’t the only issue she was facing, but it was pretty high on the list, that she had to come in as an outsider to, if not reform the department, at least move it in a different direction. I think we’re all curious as to how the relationship between the police chief and the reporter unfolded, and also just get your assessment of Chief Kirkpatrick.
KDS: Chief Kirkpatrick was so much more accessible than Roger Bragdon, who didn’t even deign to return phone calls. I mean he was really, really aloof and inaccessible and Acting Chief Nicks wasn’t very much better, especially after we did the reporting on the firefighter sex case, he just said he wouldn’t talk to us any more. So, when Kirkpatrick came to town, I didn’t think she was strong enough in what she had to say about the need for independent police oversight. She said she hadn’t needed it in her previous town and she was used to giving her own discipline–giving her own spankings is how she put it. But in terms of being responsive to us, she was much more so. I mean, one day she picked me up in her big Crown Vic and took me out for coffee and, you know, we just had a talk. She wanted to know about me and where I came from.
TC: Was this after she first arrived?
KDS: Yeah, this was after she was hired, in the first four or five months after she was hired. She was just getting started. And she sought out some other reporters, like Rebecca Nappi. She seemed to be particularly interested in the women reporters, in where they came from and how the did their jobs. So I thought that was interesting, that she would do that. She hasn’t always liked what I’ve reported and what Bill Morlin and I have reported. She had a very defensive press conference once with [Spokane County Sheriff] Ozzie Knezovich, about the death of a meth addict, Trent Yohe, that we had reported on and said that the witnesses told us a different story than they told the police, but by and large she has always responded either by email or in person in response to requests for comments for stories. She sometimes, I think, is too categorical in the way she responds, she can be defensive and snippy, but at least she’s responding. And that’s a huge difference from the way things were in the past.
TC: I have to ask you this because it isn’t just the Spokesman-Review reporters but the Spokane press collectively really lost confidence in Jim Nicks, the Acting Police Chief.
TC: Who, according to reporters, really misled them as to what happened in the Otto Zehm case. I don’t want to go too much further into the Zehm case because we’re litigating it and I want to be sensitive to that but just in terms of how she dealt with that issue. I think it’s fair to say that it was curious when she came on that she decided to keep him as the Assistant Chief. What is your take on that? And did you ever get a chance to ask her about that decision?
KDS: I also found it curious because he was mired on the Otto Zehm controversy. I did ask her about it and she just said she had the utmost confidence in him. She liked him and thought he was very upstanding and he knew the history of the department. She wanted somebody who knew the history of the department but wasn’t particularly scandal plagued. He hasn’t had any big scandals in his career although he definitely misled the press and the public in the Otto Zehm case.
TC: I should have prefaced my questions by saying that one of her mantras in her public talks is ‘if you lie, you die, I expect complete honesty.’
KDS: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
TC: Do you think the decline in newspapers is inseparable from the decline in journalism?
KDS: Well, I think the decline in newspapers is likely to lead to a further decline in journalism. I think the two things are definitely linked. Now, at the Spokesman-Review, I couldn’t do the kind of reporting I did on Hanford back in the eighties. There’s just not time. And there’s not, frankly, the will. All publishers are looking at their bottom lines and the economic survival of their papers and that’s not a time when you’re paying lawyers large retainers to keep you out of trouble or even having an investigative team. We had a small investigative team and now there is absolutely no investigative team.
TC: You and Bill Morlin were the last?
KDS: We were the last investigative reporters and we both left.
TC: That says a lot.
KDS: Yeah, I don’t know what the answer is going to be. I know my colleagues at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are scrambling for some sponsors, for some consortia for investigative reporting and all that, but it’s very expensive and it’s very difficult to come up with people. And then people have their own agendas. If Arianna Huffington funds your reporting are you supposed to come up with a liberal outcome? I mean, there’s all these questions of bias that creep into it too.
TC: I think what you’ve shown with your work is that top quality investigative reporting means as much locally as it does internationally, because whole communities that are supposed to be viable, healthy civic societies, democracies, really need good journalism to work. What do you think it is going to look like ten years from now?
KDS: It’s going to be really different. We’re going to continue to have this fractionalization through technology, the experiments with Twitter and skyping and all those kind of things. Those are really technologies in search of a mission in a way, to me, and I think there will be fewer establishment newspapers, a lot more freelance people out there. But the question of funding is the big one. Who is going to pay for all the important work? I think we’re always going to have a few large papers and they will being doing things like Abu Ghraib or the big international stories and bureaus in Washington, D.C. to cover the Presidency and Congress. But what really worries me is regional and local reporting because I just don’t see it unless the industry comes up with a great new business model. I just don’t see the support for it there. We may not even have home-delivered papers in ten years, we may be getting them only on our computers or through Kindle, electronic books, or something like that.
TC: I’ve also wondered too about the credibility of local journalism. One of the things that embarrasses me as a reporter is when some citizen, who’s just really worked up about something has done my job better than I could, because I simply haven’t had the time. I’ve worked on newspapers where I’ve had to cover four beats at once and run the darkroom, and I couldn’t possibly do more. But I still feel like my job as a journalist is to know what’s going on at City Hall if that’s my beat. What we find with the public records act is as often as not we’re contacted by irritated citizens who are trying to use the act to get records.
TC: And yet these are often folks, and I don’t mean to disparage them, who often just have a single ax to grind.
KDS: That’s right.
TC: And it just seems to me that this shift, to activists doing more that work as opposed to journalists that that’s not necessarily a good thing, that it could undermine public confidence in newspapers.
KDS: Well, unfortunately in the blogosphere there’s been a kind of contempt for the so-called MSM, you know, the mainstream media, which I haven’t quite figured out because I always thought the two things could be complementary. Like when we did the stories on Mitchell and Jessen and the stories broken by the New Yorker and Vanity Fair and several others. The fact that they [Mitchell & Jessen] are here, and the torture policy was being played out right here on Riverside Avenue in Spokane. There were lots of on-line sites that picked up on our stories, that disseminated them, commented upon them, added new information on occasion, although often it tends not to be very reliable. But I thought that that synergy is a good thing and what it means for us in the mainstream media is that our work gets out much more widely than it used to, where the AP used to be the gatekeeper for any of these stories coming out of Spokane.
TC: But certainly one of the stories that affected that [contempt of the mainstream media] was how the New York Times botched to story on the run-up to the Iraq war.
KDS: Oh absolutely.
TC: Which actually is in an area of your expertise, because the aluminum tube story that the New York Times gave so much credence to, and I mean this in all sincerity, is not a mistake that you would have made.
TC: You would have gotten that story right. You would have gone to [WMD technology and proliferation expert] David Albright, you would have gone to the experts at Oak Ridge..
KDS: That’s right.
TC: And you would have debunked that story before it wound up on the front page of your newspaper. But part of the frustration with the mainstream media is that when the New York Times not only does a story like that, but then stands behind the reporters, and basically says ‘tough, we’ve got our story, we’re sticking to it’…
KDS: Yeah, that was terrible. I was at a forum at Stanford [for Knight Journalism Fellows] about six months after the New York Times had to say that some of these stories weren’t accurate. People were furious. Judith Miller [the now former New York Times reporter who pushed the easily debunked aluminum tube story] had been given a big award by the Society of Professional Journalists, the First Amendment Award, and people were furious. These are veteran journalists, in a room, like three hundred of them. And they were absolutely furious because they thought it made the rest of us look so bad, that she could be honored for fabricating a story and not vetting her sources and being so cozy with the Vice President’s office.
TC: I remember David Albright saying how frustrated he was that, even though he was a source for her, that he felt that she just wouldn’t listen to the information..
KDS: Yeah, that was a huge embarrassment. Actually, the New York Times should have done what Steve Smith did with River Park Square. There should have been an outside person looking at that coverage and coming to an independent conclusion, and they were never willing to do that. So, yeah, I think the arrogance of the mainstream media, especially when they get it wrong and won’t be accountable for why and how, really, really hurts also. It’s shooting ourselves in the foot.
TC: But you and Bill [Morlin] did a story that, frankly, many in the mainstream media would have been too cowed to do, and that was looking at George W. Bush’s history in the National Guard. Which, of course, is one of the stories that, I won’t say ended Dan Rather’s career, but certainly derailed it. I don’t mean the two stories are comparable, just that there was a whole push back from the political sector on those kinds of stories.
KDS: We weren’t able to nail down the story definitively that George Bush was kicked off his plane because he used drugs. But we were able to establish that his unit was under the human reliability program because they flew nuclear equipped planes and that allowed them to kick you out of your plane for drug use, or marital problems, or whatever. So that missing link that CBS tried to fill with the allegedly phony documents, we didn’t have. But it still raised all kinds of interesting questions about this guy flying a nuclear capable plane over Canada.
TC: And now that I brought it up, how did you get to do that story, was this through a Fairchild connection?
KDS: Yeah, it was through a Fairchild connection and another nuclear connection, who said you really out to look at this human reliability program. And to Steve Smith’s credit–obviously, George Bush’s National Guard record is not a Spokane specific story–but he said we’ll just go for it. We got some very indignant generals, Air Force generals on the phone who said they’d like to take us out back and shoot us because we were asking these questions.
TC: But you did the story.
KDS: But we did the story anyway.
“I was at a forum at Stanford about six months after the New York Times had to say that some of these stories weren’t accurate. People were furious. Judith Miller had been given a big award by the Society of Professional Journalists, the First Amendment Award, and people were furious. These are veteran journalists, in a room, like three hundred of them. And they were absolutely furious because they thought it made the rest of us look so bad, that she could be honored for fabricating a story and not vetting her sources and being so cozy with the Vice President’s office.”
TC: I was told by a friend who heard you speak this spring that sometime in this transition out of the newsroom, you actually met with Stacey Cowles and had a conversation with him during which you broached the subject of operating the newspaper as a not-for-profit.
KDS: Yeah, I did raise that because it is happening in a couple of other places. It’s sort of like the Poynter Institute running the St. Petersburg Times.
TC: Could you tell me how that meeting came about, and how it unfolded?
KDS: It’s just protocol for Stacey, when someone leaves, to do what he calls an exit interview. And I didn’t know what it was going to be like, but there were strong feelings in the newsroom about what was happening, so I wanted to express some of those, about how the buy-outs and the downsizing were really hurting the quality of the paper. So, I told him that. That’s how I felt. But then I asked him what would be the scenario. This is still a family-owned paper. They come here once a year to have their family meeting, to talk about money and how things are going. And I said I know it’s a bad economy but a few other papers in the country have gone to this non-profit status for their newspaper and I said to him ‘you’re not just a newspaper company, you have vast real estate assets, timber, you’ve got a pulp and paper mill, you’ve got t.v. stations, you’ve got a lot of money that you could use to support a non-profit foundation.’ And he said it was a model that he was interested in, but he was very non-commital about it. He said he didn’t know if the family would want to go in that direction. But it was something they were looking at.
TC: But if it were run as a non-profit, do you think it would give the newspaper more independence from the family, on things like River Park Square?
KDS: Well it could. The St. Pete Times under the Poynter Institute has a great reputation and has done very worthwhile projects. I look at it as a possible best-case scenario. But I’m a little..(pause). I guess from my experiences with the family so far I don’t think that they are visionaries and great creative people. I think they really do care about the bottom line as the main thing. When Stacey’s father died suddenly he came in as the new publisher and when he addressed the newsroom, he kept using this term KRA, ‘our KRA for this year,’ and we’re all looking at each other, ‘what’s a KRA?’ Well, it’s a Yale MBA term that means key result area. So he tends to think in the world of the MBAs, at bottom line issues, and very little in the world of journalism, in my opinion. So I just would rather doubt that the family has the intellectual creativity and sort of venturesomeness to try something like that. I wish they would.
TC: So what are you going to do next?
KDS: I’m just giving myself, after 42 years of largely full time work, I’m just giving myself a few months off.
TC: How’s that going?
KDS: (Laughs) I’m getting a little stir-crazy. I actually think that after Labor Day I’m going to start back on a book on the Hanford downwinders trial. Sort of a Civil Action type of book about the personalities in the trial, everybody from the from the colorful (late) Judge Alan McDonald to the plaintiffs. I think it will be one way telling the Hanford story. I’m not interested in writing a straight history of Hanford but I think that this is a book that should be written.