Cops in the Newsroom
More Q13 Employees Claim That Station Executives Are Shaping News Coverage to Appease Seattle Police
A second employee of Q13 (KCPQ), the local affiliate of Fox television, is accusing the station's management of colluding with Seattle police to suppress coverage of a racially charged video recorded last month that triggered city and federal investigations. In addition, a former longtime employee in the Q13 newsroom says the station got preferential treatment from the Seattle Police Department (SPD), while news editors would overlook stories that were unflattering to law enforcement.
"Q13 management complied with the spoken requests of their friends at SPD in order to preserve the exclusive nature of their long-term working relationship," says the current Q13 staffer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of getting fired. The employee says that Q13 routinely buries coverage that would cast law enforcement in a poor light and airs glowing pieces as part of a crime-centric newscast. Q13 also produces a ratings-grabbing show with the help of police called Washington's Most Wanted.
"Law enforcement benefits locally from KCPQ's biased coverage of their activity," the current employee says. "And SPD is clearly also complicit in suppressing the video."
As The Stranger first reported, Q13 sat on footage for three weeks of Detective Shandy Cobane apparently stomping on an innocent Latino man's head and threatening to "beat the fucking Mexican piss out of" him, and then threatened legal action when a competing television station bought the footage and aired it.
"They didn't want anybody to see it at all," says the employee.
After Q13 news staff reviewed the video, editors contacted police, Q13 management and SPD have confirmed. Shortly thereafter, according to the Q13 employee, the video was removed from an internal video-archive system. "They took it out of the system so that no one could access it," the employee says. "That is not normal at all."
The employee says staffers in the Q13 newsroom routinely go out for dinner with SPD officers, and get drinks, take personal cell-phone calls, and exchange text messages. "Police share information with reporters from other stations, too, but I don't know that they are going out to dinner with them, going out partying and drinking." The station, the employee says, gives flattering coverage to police: "If something looks bad for law enforcement, we bury it at the end of the hour." In turn, the station gets exclusive information, interviews, and stories, like a gushing piece that ran on May 14 that covered the intimate details of a romance brewing between two Seattle police officers.
This employee's complaints come on the heels of a nearly identical accusation from Jud Morris, the videographer who shot the "beat the fucking Mexican piss out of you" footage on April 17 outside the China Harbor Restaurant on Westlake Avenue North. Morris, who was fired from Q13 shortly thereafter, insisted that station officials refused to air his video because it was unflattering to law enforcement. Airing it, he says, would "affect their relationship with the police. That is KCPQ's top concern—what their relationship is with the police."
Coverage at Q13 shifted a couple years ago when the station began airing Washington's Most Wanted, a show on fugitives featuring a retired Seattle police officer as a cohost, present and past employees say. "Suddenly, police were looking at us in a different light," says a former Q13 employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because this former employee still works in the television reporting community. This former employee worked in the Q13 newsroom for several years and says the station had struggled to be taken seriously by police. "We were getting calls from them that we hadn't solicited." The former employee says there were "instances where we got preferential treatment because of the cops, who said [to sources], 'These are guys who will really get the word out—we want you to speak to Q13.'"
Editors at the station, meanwhile, were cool to negative police stories. "In editorial meetings, if there was something that would not fit their agenda, they could give you every reason that it is not a story. But the next day, it could be a story—if it didn't involve the cops," says the former longtime news staffer.
Q13 issued a statement apologizing for not airing the story for those three weeks before KIRO eventually broadcast it on May 6. Station heads at Q13 explained in a statement, "We were working to uncover important facts that we believed would add context to the story and better inform our viewers about what they were going to see on the video."
"Nobody in our newsroom was working on a police-brutality story last month," says the current Q13 employee. "They were not working on it. That is a total lie."
When presented with these accusations, Pam Pearson, Q13's general manager, says they are "supposition, rumor, and absolutely inaccurate." She adds that "the offensive audio was not even heard... News management did not refuse to air the tape. Their mistake was taking too long to vet the tape by waiting for official reports before acting." After an internal investigation that concluded on May 13, Pearson says, an assignment editor left the station and the news director resigned.
SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb says he can only speak on behalf of the officers in the media-relations bureau, not every police officer on the force. As for leveraging pressure to suppress coverage, Whitcomb says, "We couldn't presume to have that much influence over their editorial decisions."