“The Kibosh”

“The Kibosh”

I was supposed to be on the radio this morning a little before noon which, among other advantages, is pretty good timing for my mom who is fond of staying up late. There’s a very handy radio with a cassette recorder built into it in her kitchen and she just loves to use the thing. She’s still finding and passing on to me old audio tapes of shows that I did, years back, with Tom Grant, or with Rick Miller, talking about River Park Square. That’s usually what I talk about when I go on the radio. River Park Square.

But not today. Today the show, and its startled and frustrated host, went on without me.

The host is veteran Spokane broadcaster Rebecca Mack. Rebecca is featured on “Spokesman Radio” at 790 KJRB and she’d sent me an e-mail Tuesday afternoon inviting me to come on for a few minutes to talk about the recent Justice Department findings on its River Park Square investigation. I was just getting set to assemble my notes when I got a followup e-mail from her, at 10:21 a.m. to be exact, reporting simply, “We cannot have you on the program this a.m.” and asking me to call her. I was on the phone at the time, but when I got off, I called her back, expecting there’d been a scheduling snafu and that we’d try again later in the week.

But that wasn’t it. No, her apologetic message was that the plan to have me on her radio show had gotten “The Kibosh” from “Spokesman Radio” management. In a message she’d left earlier, that I later discovered on my voice mail, she used the same expression, “the kibosh” again with apologies, but also with the concern that if I showed up at the studio I might be escorted off the premises.

There’s an interesting story behind this and to tell it I’m going to get into the forensics of this abrupt disinvitation. It is not for the purpose of settling a score, or furthering a grudge. It is for the purpose of explaining how this kind of thing works in Spokane and why we, as a community, are worse off because of it. It’s not just ideas and opinions we lose.

When I joined the Center staff earlier this year Breean and I talked a lot about what we would be trying to accomplish with the new CFJ website. The goal is to better communicate what the Center does in our community in the hope that the more people know about the work, the more likely they will be to support the Center. As the line from the James Taylor song goes, that’s why I’m here. Even so, River Park Square will probably always be unfinished business for me. It may not be the elephant in my room, but it does follow me around and Breean knows that as well as anyone, having represented me and my editors at Camas Magazine for several years. He has never told me not to write about RPS, or the Cowles family, or Cowles media. And he wouldn’t.  Nevertheless, there are so many other worthy stories and topics to get to, I’ve tried to resist doing RPS data dumps here. You can find that wonderfully organized pile at Camas. The RPS saga is a splendid solar system of a story, but it’s just a small part, really, of what the Center has taken on over the years and I’m committed to keeping it in that perspective.

Having said that, what happened to me today is important because it starkly discloses, again, that the Cowles family is willing to use its media control in Spokane to effect what you get to know and how you get to know it. In short, somebody in upper management cracked on Rebecca to keep me off the air. How they rationalized this, I don’t know. To me it’s fairly open violation of the newspaper’s ethics code and, beyond that, the newspaper’s basic compact with readers (and listeners) to be an honest and even-handed broker of information and opinions about the community’s affairs.

It may surprise people to read this from me, but most days the Spokesman-Review is one of the better regional newspapers in the country. For starters, I admire Rebecca Mack. I’ve known of her for years and followed her work. She’s a very classy journalist and one who, by the way, knows the RPS story about as well as any reporter who has worked it.

And just to be clear. Rebecca is by no means the only person I respect who works at the Spokesman-Review. There’s actually a whole bunch of them I admire. Jim Kershner, Rich Landers, and John Blanchette are as good at what they do as any newspaper, anywhere, could hope to have. I deeply enjoy reading them. I love that they work here, where I live. Say what you will about Doug Clark, but I’m grateful for every morning he makes coffee come out my wife’s nose. Because I’m trained as an investigative reporter, and have known them for nearly 30 years, I have deep admiration for Bill Morlin and Karen Dorn Steele. I know how difficult it is to do what they do, and they’re just very damn good at it. I know Karen better than I know Bill because our paths have crossed more often through the stories we’ve been involved with. I’ll say this about Karen. If she were a surgeon and I needed a heart operation, I’d want her wielding the scalpel. I trust and admire her reporting that much.

The one really big problem with the Spokesman-Review is that when it came time to dig into River Park Square neither Bill nor Karen got the assignment. Others did, and they were usually young, and usually afraid of what they were finding, and unwilling to lose their jobs over it. It’s noteworthy that none of them even filed a single public records request for the documents that Camas Magazine and the Center for Justice fought for years to get from the City. See no evil, report no evil.

The reason Bill and Karen didn’t get this story is that it would have created inexorable discomfort on the people who own the newspaper, the same people who patiently organized the RPS fiasco, and are primarily (though by no means wholly) responsible for the grief and lost tens of millions taxpayer dollars that it caused. Who knows, with the furnace of public pressure a first-rate investigation would have created, someone may have even gotten indicted. What I’m very sure of is that Morlin and/or Dorn Steele would have cracked River Park Square the way a sea otter takes apart abalone. And because they would have done it in the newspaper of record (followed closely, I’m sure, by packs of broadcast reporters) we would have had a much different civic conversation about River Park Square than the one we’ve had to date.

Mark Fuhrman and Rebecca Mack came late to the River Park Square story at KGA radio in 2007. After Steve Eugster had come and gone, after Rick Miller had come and gone (twice), after Tom Grant was exiled to Augusta, Georgia, and after Camas Magazine had become an on-line archive, Fuhrman and Mack started digging into River Park Square. They’re both good at what they do and it was clear the story they were pursuing had legs, particularly in the direction of U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt who was personally involved in the River Park Square garage transaction as a private attorney representing the small non-profit organization that issued over $30 million in bonds to purchase the garage from Cowles real estate companies.

And then suddenly, the Fuhrman show was gone, the casualty of new ownership decisions at KGA. Management decisions were also the explained reason for Rick Miller twice being knocked off the air in Spokane, the second time for good. Miller was a truly wild on-air personality, but he smelled a rat in the RPS deal early on, and merrily dug his way into what he called “the Cowles Gang.” Betsy Cowles and her lawyer tried to intimidate KXLY-TV and Tom Grant when Grant, in partnership with Camas, took up the River Park Square investigation. It’s unclear the extent to which this pressure led to Tom’s departure from KXLY, but what’s more ominous is what happened to him after he very nearly won the mayor’s race in 2003 running as a reform candidate. He had a hard time getting another job, but finally landed at the Spokane FOX affiliate. As it turned out, he’d just completed his first RPS story for the new station when he was summoned to a meeting to learn FOX was going to outsource its news gathering to the Cowles family’s KHQ-TV, Spokane’s NBC affiliate. And that was the last people in Spokane have seen of Tom Grant.

Rebecca Mack was out of a job when KGA dropped the Fuhrman show. But earlier this year she landed a column in the Spokesman-Review’s “7″ Weekend insert, and shortly thereafter became the voice of the new “Spokesman Radio.”

So, that’s the context for what happened today. No, actually that’s just part of the context.

The other part is Steve Smith, the paper’s editor who was brought in to replace Chris Peck five years ago. Steve and I don’t get along very well. When I sent him a first e-mail in March 2004 criticizing, among other things, his decision to postpone an audit of the paper’s RPS news coverage until all the RPS legal battles were resolved, he gave it right back to me. I was accused of “irresponsible reporting, bald-faced conjecture, falsification of facts and political and social advocacy under the guise of journalism” among other things.

The “falsification of facts” charge is, by far, the most serious. Journalism is about facts and, because reporters are human, sometimes they get facts wrong. But to knowingly falsify facts is beyond unethical, it’s immoral. So, I immediately insisted that he go public with that accusation, show his cards, and get the charge resolved. I’ve never received a reply to that request, just more invective about what a rotten person I am. There is nothing charming about these exchanges. In this freakishly small world, Smith once worked for my uncle when my uncle was the managing editor of the Eugene Register Guard. Sometimes when Steve pens a really nasty insult, he’ll invite me to share it with my uncle.

The worst turn in this rather hopeless dialogue came in June of thisdocs year when Smith, on a Spokesman-Review blog, was explaining his position on the banning of a particular blogger who often cited Camas reporting in criticizing Smith and the newspaper. What got back to me was Smith’s complaint that the blogger had allegedly accused members of the Cowles family of murder and arson, and he explained, “of course there is nothing behind these accusations, first aired publicly by the Connor/Shook duo.”

For those of you who don’t know Larry Shook, he was my editor and sometime reporting partner at Camas. The idea that I, or Larry and I, have “aired” accusations that members of the Cowles family are involved in arson or murder is just crazy. It has just never happened. So, I requested an apology, as did Larry.

Here’s Steve’s apology, published on the S-R website, on June 4th:

Good afternoon,

Messrs. Connor and Shook take issue with my assertion that they aired publicly the belief that the Cowles family may have deliberately burned down two downtown properties, one fire leading to a firefighter’s death.

They believe I have libeled them.

I clearly recalled that they aired these views on the Fuhrman show in the weeks before Fuhrman was dumped, singly or together.

I suppose I might misremember, and if that is the case, I do apologize. I certainly had no intention of libeling them.

Insulting them, marginalizing them, ridiculing them, well yes, that is often my intention with Connor/Shook.

Now that I have apologized to them, how about my apologies for the slanders, libels, accusations, false assertions and accusations of ethical misdeeds that are part and parcel of their anti-Spokesman agenda.

Whoa, that isn’t going to happen. Apologies, for these two, go only one way.


Posted by Steven A. Smith | 3 Jun 4:09 PM

Larry and I did appear on Fuhrman’s radio show last summer, but we were never on the same show. I was only on one show. Nothing at all having to do with arson or murder ever came up. And, by the way, it’s hard to have discussions about facts when the person you’re arguing with supposes he might “misremember” the facts and then conditions apologies on the possibility that he might well have done so.

And now it turns out that I’m the guy who’s too dangerous to get air time on “Spokesman Radio.”

The telling passage in Smith’s blog “apology” is his expressed intent to “ridicule” and “marginalize” me and Larry.

Larry’s a formidable guy, a combat veteran, who can speak for himself. I’ll speak for me. I don’t think Smith’s effort to marginalize me is because I got facts about RPS wrong. I think it’s because I got them right. They are unpleasant facts, to be sure.

But the real issue here is that whether you believe Smith or believe me (and, by all means, draw your own conclusion), we should both get an equal chance to be heard, on the merits of what we have to say, not on the basis of whose ox we’re goring, or feeding.

That’s where things still break down in Spokane. A feature of the proverbial “Spokane Nice” syndrome is that it’s just so much easier to keep your head down, make the sale, collect the check, or, say, sell the damn parking garage bonds. But another feature is censorship and banishment.

Rebecca Mack had a tougher morning than I did today. But we still both have our jobs and you can say hi to us at the market. That’s not the case with so many of the names that are scribbled on the tape boxes that my mother collected for me over the last several years. They’re gone. And none of us is any better for it.
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