Letter: Seattle Times objects to News Council’s ‘quasi-judicial spectacle’ and online vote

karenseinfeld

Retired appeals court judge Karen Seinfeld chairs the Washington News Council hearing this morning, as viewed on the TVW webcast.

Update, June 4: The Seattle Times sent this note to the Washington News Council correcting a portion of its letter below.

“We at The Seattle Times apologize for any misunderstanding we may have created about Dr. Wollert’s status with Washington State University, Vancouver.  While the university’s director of communications had told us that the title “Research Professor of Psychology” was inaccurate and that WSU had “no personnel paperwork” for Dr. Wollert, the school has since located records indicating that he has an adjunct, non-teaching affiliation. WSU says a more accurate title for Dr. Wollert would include the word “Adjunct,” but they do not believe he was intentionally misleading. Nor were we. We regret the mistake, as does WSU.”

Original Post Follows … 

This morning at Town Hall in Seattle, the Washington News Council is holding a hearing on a complaint by Dr. Richard Wollert against the Seattle Times over his portrayal in an investigative series published by the newspaper last year.

As we noted yesterday, it’s the first time one of the News Council’s hearings has been webcast live. (The webcast is available here.) Members of the public will be able to vote online on the News Council’s questions. And that’s just one of the reasons the newspaper is objecting to the hearing and declining to participate.

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post, continue reading for the letter sent by the Seattle Times’ executive editor, David Boardman, to the News Council, to be read in full at the hearing. (Wollert at the hearing disagreed with elements of Boardman’s letter including its characterization of his affiliation with WSU.)

May 31, 2013

Dear Washington News Council Hearings Board Members:

I admire that you are taking time out of a Saturday morning to do something you believe can benefit journalism and our community. Regretfully, I and most journalists I know feel quite differently. As a result, no one representing The Seattle Times will be attending this event, for to do so would indicate support for a process to which we fundamentally object.

We at The Seattle Times are committed to accuracy and fairness, and we welcome questions about our work. To wit, every week we invite into our news-planning meeting representatives of various interests in our community – nonprofits, educators, health-care providers, small businesses, political activists, elected officials, arts and culture organizations, readers of all stripes – to talk about how we might do our jobs better. We take their suggestions, criticisms and complaints seriously, and regularly act on them. When sources of stories complain to us, we listen carefully and do our best to address their concerns.

As you likely know, The Times has been supportive of the News Council’s educational efforts around news literacy. However, we see this “public hearing” as something altogether different, and in fact as potentially detrimental to a free and independent press. The Society of Professional Journalists’ National Ethics Committee has labeled aspects of the News Council’s hearings process “gimmickry.”

Although Mr. Hamer insists this is an educational event and bristles at any characterization of it as quasi-judicial, it has all the markings of a public trial. From the beginning of this process, in language reflecting some sort of assumed authority, we were told of deadlines we were expected to meet or face consequences. Even the date of today’s hearing was set without any consultation with us; Mr. Hamer informed us of it as a court would inform a defendant.

As for the hearing itself, we find it unacceptable that we face a vote not only by the Hearings Board but by an attending audience formed with no controls and almost certainly dominated by supporters of the complainant, and by a viewing and online audience whose makeup we know nothing about. The Society of Professional Journalists stated in a 2009 release: “The News Council is wrong to emulate the ‘American Idol’ model of voting.”

Further, the framing of the so-called “votable questions” troubles us deeply. They are written from the viewpoint of the complainant alone and not with the public interest in mind. At their core, they assume “balance” is a fundamental journalistic value; it is not. Fairness and accuracy are what we value, and those often do not align with balance. The pursuit of balance resulted in years of articles and broadcasts that gave the 1 percent of scientists who were climate-change deniers the same weight as the 99 percent who were certain that human activities were having an adverse impact on global climate.

Likewise, in the matter at hand today, the evidence and expert analysis opposing Dr. Richard Wollert’s methods of sex-offender recidivism assessment – readily found in court records and academic journals – far outweigh support for his methods. Our goal was accuracy and insight, not “balance,” and we stand confident we delivered on that goal.

It is notable that Dr. Wollert repeatedly declined to be interviewed by our reporter before the series he complains about was published. Nonetheless, when he contacted us after publication of the “Price of Protection” series, we gave his concerns close consideration.

Times editors spent many months corresponding and talking with Dr. Wollert and his attorney. At one point, it appeared we had addressed their concerns when we agreed to publish a clarification on the one issue on which we agreed we had been errant – the specifics of the end of the Multnomah County contract – and to provide an online link to Dr. Wollert’s vita. But when we refused to also pay Dr. Wollert’s legal bills, the apparent resolution fell apart and they informed us there was no need for further discussion.

Our next contact with Dr. Wollert was notification of his complaint to the News Council. The gist of that complaint is this: We did not portray him as a well-regarded scientist whose theories and risk-assessment tool, the MATS-1, are generally accepted in the sex-offender field.

Dr. Wollert is correct in that assessment. We did not do so, because such a portrayal would have been inaccurate.

We are not going to go point-by-point through Dr. Wollert’s lengthy submittal. We have addressed most of his assertions previously. We refer you to our May 25, 2012, letter to him, which is in your packet.

We do, however, offer to you this central, unassailable point: In “Price of Protection,” we reported that Dr. Wollert has made a lucrative business, at public expense, of offering unorthodox views and using generally unaccepted methods to assess the likelihood that sex offenders will re-offend, and consistently finds in favor of sex offenders’ release. After months of review, we have seen absolutely nothing that leads us to a different conclusion.

In fact, we continue to discover information that reinforces our findings and should give you concerns about Dr. Wollert’s statements.

For instance, Dr. Wollert indicates that Dr. Karl Hanson, architect of the most widely used and respected sex-offender assessment tool, and in our stories a staunch critic of Dr. Wollert and his methods, has changed his opinion. He has not. Dr. Hanson says he stands behind his 2008 sworn affidavit in which he said of Dr. Wollert: “More troubling is that he appears to be relying on my research to suggest that I agree with his analysis, when in fact I disagree. … These false statements include both misrepresentations of facts as well as misrepresentation of statistics and research methods.”

In a 2012 federal court case in North Carolina, another respected expert, Dr. David Thornton, co-creator with Dr. Hanson of the industry-standard assessment tool, the STATIC-99, said in a sworn statement: “There are potentially large and unquantified levels of error in the recidivism estimates used in the MATS-1.”  Relying on Dr. Wollert’s methodology to determine whether a sex offender is likely to re-offend is “unsafe” because of “potentially large margins of error,” Thornton said.

This May, in another 2012 federal case in North Carolina, the presiding judge called Dr. Wollert’s testimony on behalf of a convicted pedophile “incredible and unpersuasive.” That judge also found Dr. Wollert’s $45,675 fee to the public to be “unreasonable” and reduced it to $18,267. As you are aware, a major theme of our series was the lack of oversight and regulation over large payments to Dr. Wollert and other expert witnesses in such cases in Washington state.

Finally, you should also know this about Dr. Wollert: He claims in his vita, his publications and even in his correspondence to the News Council to be “Research Professor of Psychology, Washington State University, Vancouver.” According to WSU, he is not. The title he offers “is not accurate,” the WSU director of communications said. The University says it has “no personnel paperwork for Dr. Wollert.” Dr. Wollert may say he is “nonsalaried,” but WSU said that only makes his use of the academic title “even worse.”

In closing, I remind the News Council and interested observers of today’s event that our justice system provides an effective system through which aggrieved parties can pursue claims of libel and slander. Meanwhile, in today’s highly competitive media environment, subjects of stories and the public have innumerable opportunities to hold the press accountable for the quality of our work.

Against that backdrop, we again offer our thanks to you for your interest in the role of the press in our democracy, but our strong objections to this quasi-judicial spectacle. If you must judge us, though, we hope that you will make a clear-eyed assessment of the facts at hand. If you do, we are confident you will find that we have served the public ably and responsibly.

Sincerely,
David Boardman
Executive Editor and Senior Vice President
The Seattle Times

This morning’s hearing is the seventh in the 15-year history of the Washington News Council. John Hamer, the group’s president, says the News Council plays an important role not only through hearings but by working behind-the-scenes to help complainants get a response from media. See our earlier story for more.

  • Josef K.

    What a great time to be alive! It’s like Kafka’s The Trial combined with American Idol. Where’s the Facebook page so we can vote there too and share it out? How about an app so we can ruin someone’s career and further destroy a free and enquiring press quickly and easily?

    I’m not a fan of the Times necessarily, I think their series on Amazon was a sensationalistic hatchet job. But a free press is crucial (even if it means we have to live with crappy reporting). This “Washington News Council” is positively Orwellian to begin with. Adding gimicky, mob-enabling technologies to their crusade only makes it worse. And by the way, what guarantees are there that this “vote” can’t be rigged? Online votes are notoriously insecure and unreliable.

    This is a horrible precedent that’s bad for the free press and all of us. If there’s libel then take it to the real courts. Not some creepy, private, paramilitary court.

  • JHamer

    We cordially invite anyone who missed seeing TVW’s webcast of the Washington News Council’s hearing this morning at Town Hall on a complaint against The Seattle Times to watch the video that will be posted on TVW’s and the WNC’s websites early next week, review the complaint materials, and vote online. We ask for a name, email address and affiliation to discourage anonymous votes. Just go to http://wanewscouncil.org/vote/ to see the questions. You may vote anytime up until June 15. Our process isn’t perfect, but if you know of a better media-ethics accountability system anywhere in the world, please let us know.

    • Josef K.

      “Our process isn’t perfect”.

      Who are you and WHY do you have a process? Who appointed you judge, jury and executioner besides yourselves?

      And I love the fact that you won’t approve my comment on your blog. Way to practice transparency there. Typical of corrupt, self-serving entities.

      I’ve never heard of you and your group before but now that I know of you I want you to go away. You have no business “overseeing” the press. And you certainly have no business setting up easy to hack systems that encourage mob justice to persecute the press.

      I may not love the Seattle Times but I hate abridgment of freedom of the press even more.

  • panacheart

    While I have not been a supporter of the Seattle Times, and have often criticized their journalism and reporting, I would have to agree with them here. The notion that this Orwellian, independent group with no authority and a voting method like popular TV shows can bring fairness proper oversight to a free and independent press is laughable.

    This sets a very dangerous precedence and appears very dangerous to the notion of free and independent press, or what little we have left of it.

    • Ashley Zander

      dangerous precedent? Really? This council has no authority. They only strive to inform the public and allow the public to participate in the process. It’s pretty telling that they haven”t heard a Seattle Times complaint in 10 years. Kinda tells me this one is legit…..and from reading the Times bias slant on most things, this should be happening every weekend!

  • William Landon

    Nice to see someone looking at the tactics of a news organization more committed to selling newspapers than accurate journalism. Ms. Willmsen is the poster-boy (girl?) for hack journalism. Moreover, the Seattle Times is in an industry disintegrating before our eyes and the only way they keep paying the bills is to act like “Entertainment Tonight” !! Not surprising they would choose not to attend the hearing and instead fire off a letter. They are guilty as charged and they know it. It was clear as an attendee of the hearing that the complainant has his facts straight and the Times had no chance of looking good in the eye of the public. If any subscribers are reading this, you may want to consider the National Enquirer, its more accurate though less entertaining.

    • panacheart

      We have a court system for this.

      I don’t disagree with anything you say regarding the Times and the state of journalism in general, but we already have a court system for this. Ad hoc private committees like this can only hurt what little integrity is left in journalism, if we can even call it that anymore.

  • Tanya Lancaster

    Good to see someone trying to control hatchet job reporters like Willmsen. Her inability to report in a non biased fashion is perfect for a company committed to nothing more than selling newspapers. Hey Seattle Times: you’re supposed to be doing journalism, not sensationalism. Doesn’t matter though, you’re on the way out with the rest of your daily newspaper buddies! Goodbye!

  • Paul Allen

    Glad to see Willmsen and the Times getting what’s due to them!

  • Beverly L

    Willmsen should lose her job! I attended the hearing and it’s abundantly clear to me that she has displayed total disregard for the truth. Her propensity to tell only one side of the story is a tribute to only her employer who epitomizes sensational journalism.

  • BWH

    Reminds me of the so-called human rights commissions in Canada, entities that are starting to gain a foothold in this country. Remember this Orwellian episode when you come across one …

  • Bill Dahl

    Willmsen and the Seattle Times printing something one sided? What a surprise! A ruthless hack reporter, willmsen is thecerfect fit for a paper caring little about about ethics and accuracy.