If you watched KIRO TV on May 10 and caught reporter Chris Halsne's investigation into a "hands on janitor" at Leschi Elementary School who'd been accused of "manhandling" and "bullying" students, you might have come away with a bad impression of the janitor in question, a man named Chester Harris.
That would be unfortunate, according to a local journalism watchdog group called the Washington News Council, which on June 16 at Town Hall staged what amounted to a mock trial of Halsne and his employer, KIRO. Led by former appeals court judge Karen Seinfeld, a panel of journalists and civic leaders essentially cleared Harris of wrongdoing and determined Halsne and KIRO had engaged in bad, irresponsible, "inaccurate" journalism.
KIRO's portrayal of Harris, the panel ruled, had harmed Harris's reputation and should be retracted—with an apology and follow-up story to set the record straight. Halsne did not respond to a request for comment, but Jake Milstein, interim news director and web manager for the station, provided a brief statement: "KIRO TV stands by its stories."
Among the problems cited in testimony to the News Council: Halsne's on-air description of complaints that were coming from "two parents, two students, telling a very similar story," in the story about "custodian Harris threatening, yelling, intimidating, and manhandling kids at school." Actually, according to Mike McBee, an official from Harris's labor union who testified at the News Council hearing, "all the complaints leveled against Chester came from one extended family, which Halsne failed to point out."
That family has been "a nightmare for the staff of Leschi Elementary School," said Leschi administrative secretary Teresa Stout (she added that the family has lodged "complaints against at least 12 staff members over the time that they've been there"). One of the family members, according to documents filed with the News Council, "has been instructed to not enter Leschi during the school day and is only allowed in to drop off and pick up her child" due to "multiple disruptive confrontations between [the family member] and teaching staff."
None of this was reported in Halsne's initial "KIRO Eyewitness News Investigation," which used a hidden camera—a violation of students' privacy, said seven News Council panel members—to catch Harris "putting hands" on a student.
Halsne aired the footage, saying, "We don't know who the child is or why he's so upset trying to pull free of the grasp of Mr. Harris."
In fact, outraged parents and staff said later, Halsne either did know or should have known that Harris was breaking up a fight—something the mother of one of the kids involved was grateful for. ("Not all parents are as understanding when their children say Mr. Harris grabbed them," Halsne shot back, in a follow-up story that featured him skeptically interviewing the grateful mother.)
In addition, Seattle Public Schools told KIRO before the first story aired that school officials had found no information to suggest any wrongdoing by the janitor.
Given all of this, the council's panel found KIRO's decision to stand by Halsne's two reports difficult to fathom. "This was the largest outpouring of complaints against a story—or two stories—we've ever received," said News Council executive director John Hamer, who recused himself from the voting because he'd been involved in two other investigations of Halsne by the council, both of which found problems with his reporting.
David Schaefer, a former Seattle Times reporter who served on the panel, added, "There's no excuse for Halsne not to have known that the story was wrong." John Knowlton, who teaches journalism at Green River Community College, was similarly outraged and said he wanted to tell Halsne, "If this is the kind of journalism you're going to practice, then get out of the business."
Among the things that most upset people about Halsne's stories: In his initial report, Halsne had ticked through Harris's "criminal record"—which amounts to one 2002 theft conviction—and then spent time introducing viewers to "six other crimes since 1997" that Halsne admitted Harris has not actually been convicted of. Those "other crimes" were displayed visually on KIRO in a gradually materializing list with handcuffs as visual accompaniment and a mug-shot-like photo of Harris. "Arrests are not proof of criminal conduct," said McBee, Harris's union representative at the hearing, pointing out that Harris is African American, and African Americans are arrested at a rate two to three times higher than the general population.
And, as a number of people involved in the hearing process pointed out, Halsne himself has a court record. Douglas E. Stall, a partner at the Oklahoma law firm Stall Stall & Thompson, has twice represented clients who sued over Halsne's reporting. In the first case, from 2001 and known as Mitchell v. Griffin Television, Stall's client was a veterinarian, Dr. H. L. Mitchell, who Halsne had investigated over his treatment of race horses.
"In the Mitchell case, my client alleged that Chris Halsne and Channel 9 in Oklahoma City aired seven defamatory stories about Dr. Mitchell," Stall said. "The case was tried to a jury, and the jury awarded $6 million in actual damages to Dr. Mitchell, $250,000 in punitive damages against the TV station, and $250,000 in punitive damages against Chris Halsne. Both Halsne and the TV station appealed the verdict... My recollection is that the Court of Civil Appeals for Oklahoma upheld the finding of defamation with malice but overturned the actual damages for the verdict on a technicality."
After that, Stall said, "the case settled before we went back for the second trial [on the proper amount of damages]. It was a confidential settlement agreement, but Dr. Mitchell was very pleased."
In the second case, Brain v. Halsne, a Tacoma pediatric dentist named George Brain sued Halsne and KIRO in 2007 for defamation after Halsne investigated Dr. Brain's treatment of his patients. Stall, the Oklahoma lawyer, worked on that case, too. "Before trial, the parties settled the case," Stall said. "It's mixed emotions on the part of Dr. Brain. He was glad that he felt vindicated in this matter and that the stories were taken off the internet."
Neither KIRO nor Halsne responded to requests for comment on these previous cases.
Harris, for his part, said he doesn't have the money for a lawyer but is considering his options. "I feel used by a lot of parties," he said. "The KIRO people didn't do their homework." He did appreciate, however, the "tremendous support from the people who I've worked with and known."