KIRO Report on School Janitor 'Bullying' Tainted by Complaints and Dubious Video

Last month, KIRO TV aired an "investigation" that purported to expose alleged bullying by a Leschi Elementary janitor. The piece touted a video it had obtained, via hidden camera, of the janitor "grabbing a child on the schoolyard"--which was a pretty strange way to characterize the footage. Stranger yet was what the janitor's angry defenders, who are now pressing complaints with the non-profit Washington News Council, point out he was doing.

According to none other than the mother of the boy supposedly grabbed, janitor Chester Harris was breaking up a fight. And she thanked Harris for it, according to a follow-up piece KIRO ran just two days later, after the station started getting complaints. "Had my son hit that boy, he would have got into trouble," Michelle Ruiz told KIRO.

What's more, in a letter to the station, the International Union of Operating Engineers, to which Harris belonged, claims that Ruiz told KIRO the circumstances before it ran its original story. (To the station's credit, it published the union's letter as well as putting Ruiz on camera.) Asked for comment, KIRO's outgoing news director, Todd Mokhtari, said only that the station "stands by its stories."

But, really, regardless of the circumstances, the video clip makes for a poor expose. As Ruiz told the station, Harris "wasn't rough, wasn't grabbing my son." He actually appears pretty gentle as he's trying to calm a boy who seems steamed about something.

A packet of material SW obtained from the News Council reveals a litany of other complaints from the union, the school district, Leschi parents and school staff, dozens of whom signed a petition decrying the KIRO piece and lauding Harris.

Among the objections: KIRO downplayed separate school and police investigations that found no wrongdoing in regard to two other allegations of bullying made by students' family members; the station neglected to mention that those allegations came from members of the same extended family; and the report brought up criminal charges that Harris had faced but not been convicted of.

"KIRO is perpetuating the idea that African American men are criminals," lamented parent Victoria Summerquist in her News Council complaint. Also from her complaint:

When my 8-year-old boy was in kindergarten, Mr. Harris would let me know if he was getting into trouble on the playground. In first grade, he let me know my son was throwing away full lunches I was making him. I have been deeply moved by the attentiveness and care Mr. Harris has exhibited.

In all, the News Council says it received more complaints about the KIRO piece--15--than it has about any stories it has looked into in its 14-year history. That may say as much about the News Council as it does about the piece.

Despite years of effort, the non-profit--which likes to call itself an "outside ombudsman" or "Better Business Bureau" for local media--has not exactly caught fire. A lot of people undoubtedly don't know what it is. With onetime conservative commentator John Hamer as its president, its cases are sometimes seen as having a political bent. And the media typically blow off the hearings it holds to publicly air complaints (an exception being KUOW's participation in the last hearing in March). KIRO hasn't even responded to the News Councils' phone calls, e-mails or letters.

Asked whether the lack of media participation has limited his organization's effectiveness, Hamer says: "Not in the eyes of the complainants, who have a chance to make their case in a public forum, broadcast on TVW and with significant follow-up news coverage." He pointed to a webpage of testimonials.

It's an upbeat spin. Yet it's true that here he has a juicy case that doesn't fit into any conservative paradigm. Indeed, the racial politics involved skew liberal. And even if KIRO doesn't attend the scheduled June 16 hearing, it apparently is worth pursuing for an outraged school community.

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