Last fall, in the tense run-up to the November election, KIRO Eyewitness News broadcast the results of "an extensive KIRO Team 7 investigation" that accused Washington State election officials of allowing felons and dead people (or, as KIRO described them, "ghost voters") to illegally cast ballots. "Voting from beyond the grave was supposed to be a thing of the past," intoned KIRO reporter Chris Halsne on November 3, the day before the election, adding ominously that this type of voting is nevertheless "happening here."
Naturally, given the intense mistrust of the state elections system that has festered in conservative circles ever since Governor Christine Gregoire eked out a highly litigated victory over Republican Dino Rossi in 2004, the office of Secretary of State Sam Reed was immediately inundated with complaints. "I am writing to express my outrage that your office has still not managed to clean up the voter rolls in FOUR YEARS," wrote one angry citizen. "Ballots sent to 24,000 felons? Really? Do you not remember how close the last governor's election was?... DO YOUR JOB!!!"
The problem: It was KIRO that wasn't doing its job, according to a complaint that Reed's office filed with the Washington News Council, a nonprofit that seeks to foster public trust in the news media by publicly airing such charges and, essentially, delivering a verdict. John Hamer, executive director of the council, said KIRO's two investigative reports on alleged illegal voting (one about dead voters that aired on November 3, 2008, and another about felon voters that aired on October 14, 2008) exhibited a "lack of accuracy, thoroughness, and ethics." Prime example: The two voters who KIRO's Halsne used as case studies in his series turned out to be legal voters.
"In both of his stories, his poster child was dead wrong," said David Ammons, spokesman for Reed. "The felon was not a felon and the dead person was not a dead person. We just felt like we had to blow the whistle." In addition, the investigation's methodology was suspect: KIRO based its claims on a comparison of state and federal databases of felons, voters, and dead people—but one of those databases is unreliable and, of course, all of them are subject to errors of interpretation.
While the claim that some felons and "ghost voters" do manage to cast ballots in this state is credible, KIRO's alarm was undermined by its own reports, which admitted that Washington has a "relatively low number" of dead voters and that "the whole system for tracking felons is a mess"—a mess that extends far beyond the secretary of state's office and is likely to be addressed by the state legislature this session with a bill to make the felon-tracking process far more simple going forward.
Most news organizations would find these kinds of basic errors in an "exclusive" and supposedly important investigation to be highly embarrassing. Ammons, who is the former Associated Press bureau chief in Olympia, said that if his former employer had put out such a report, "We would have been mortified, for starters, and we would have corrected it within seconds."
KIRO doesn't appear mortified, and it hasn't offered a correction—though, according to Reed's office, KIRO officials tried to negotiate behind the scenes for Reed to withdraw the News Council complaint and "muzzle" himself in exchange for KIRO quietly removing the reports from its website. When the secretary of state refused this quid pro quo and chose instead to move toward a public News Council hearing on the matter (which would have been broadcast statewide on TVW, Washington's public affairs network), KIRO simply removed the stories from its website without comment and refused to participate in the public meeting, according to Ammons.
Asked to explain the station's actions, KIRO community relations manager Maria Lamarca Anderson offered this statement: "KIRO 7 Eyewitness News is proud of its stories on dead and felon voters. We remain pleased that as a result of the KIRO 7 Team Investigation, dead voters were removed from the Washington State rolls prior to the November election." She would not elaborate further, nor would she make Halsne available for an interview.
This is not the first time Halsne has been at the center of a complaint to the News Council, nor the first time that KIRO has refused to participate in the News Council's hearing process. A 2003 "hidden camera" report Halsne did for KIRO on the alleged mistreatment of "downer cows" by a Washington beef and dairy producer led to a multiparty complaint and a public hearing at Seattle's Town Hall (which KIRO also boycotted). That complaint was "upheld" by the council—essentially a "guilty" ruling after what amounted to a trial in absentia, though of course the council has no power to punish journalistic offenders in any way other than public embarrassment.
"I firmly believe that this kind of shoddy, second-rate journalism hurts democracy," Hamer said. "I think the only way to change KIRO's behavior in the long run is public embarrassment. Are they capable of being embarrassed? We'll see."