Chasing the KCTS Story

How the Weekly got the scoop, if not the credit.

The rumor was going around that The Seattle Times was preparing a major takedown of KCTS and its president, Burnill Clark. This was after the Seattle Weekly‘s own expos頯f the station’s deep problems, reported extensively by senior editor Nina Shapiro, notably in her cover story, “KCTS Mess” (Dec. 4, 2002), and in follow-up pieces that added to the picture of a station deeply in debt, cash poor, and mismanaged by Clark. Our sources included current and former KCTS employees, consultants, and supporters, plus others knowledgeable about public television and how it should work.

For some months, we waited for the Times package, wondering what we’d missed. We’d heard that members of the Times’ highly respected investigative team were on the job. Meanwhile, we continued to report new details as we uncovered them, including the fact that a station consultant had recommended that Clark resign. Clark was unhappy over the disclosure and sent a memo to Channel 9’s staff that hinted at legal action, even though the report was true. Despite stonewalling by Clark and the stationthe refusal to let us copy some important financial documents and putting up reportorial roadblocks such as requiring our reporter’s questions to Clark be put in writingShapiro managed to get the story.

Then, late last week, the Times reported that Clark had abruptly “retired” (effective at the end October), and that his resignation came “amid a Seattle Times investigation into mismanagement at the station and questions about Clark’s leadership.” The paper had been set to run its KCTS package last Sunday. Readers might infer that the mere threat of the Times story was enough to bring down Clark’s house of cards, and perhaps it was. After all, the Times has won multiple Pulitzers for its reporting and has sometimes brought about dramatic change with its investigations (remember Sen. Brock Adams?). But judging from the KCTS stories the Times has run in the wake of Clark’s resignation, I haven’t seen anything of significance that the Weekly hasn’t already reported over the last four months. Mostly, it’s confirmation that our stories were on the mark. If the impending Times package indeed toppled Clark, then it’s safe to say it was in part because the Weekly had already exposed the station’s rotting foundation. And we’ll continue to dig. Shapiro’s still on the beat, and the story is bigger than Burnie.

Here’s a further example of being ahead of the curve on KCTS. It’s a cover story from November 1996 by Mark D. Fefer, then a staff writer for Eastsideweek (our late sister paper) and now the Weekly‘s arts and culture editor. The storynow on lays out in detail the risks of Burnie Clark’s vision for the station and the signs of trouble to come: the big investment in HDTV, steering away from local programming to bet the farm on expensive national productions, growing deficits, and mounting fund-raising woes. Many people back then were raising huge red flags. Five years later, Shapiro documented the disastrous consequences of ignoring the warnings that Fefer wrote about in ’96. And they say only hindsight is 20/20.

In his Sunday column, Times executive editor Mike Fancher offered Shapiro and the Weekly kudos for our KCTS reporting (though it was buried, at least in the online version, after the 20th paragraph). This is a rare act of acknowledgment on behalf of the Times, received only, I imagine, because we beat them badly on a major story. I suppose it was especially magnanimous in light of the Times‘ recent run of bad luck. First, they got aced out of a Pulitzer, while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer won. Then their big Sunday investigative feature got tripped up by Clark’s announcement. And earlier in the week, we quietly scooped the Times on another story: Philip Dawdy’s report that the spotted owl is in deeper doo-doo than previously thought.

“We told you so” is hardly an endearing newspaper motto, let alone the breakfast of champions, but sometimes it’s all we little guys have. While a daily like the Times is the 900-pound Bigfoot, our advantage is being nimble and selective in what we coverno baggage of being a paper of record.

Shortly after resuming the editorship of the Weekly late last summer, I lunched with Ancil Payne, the longtime CEO of King Broadcasting during the heyday of Bullitt-family ownership and mentor to many. (Yes, Virginia, local TV once featured in-depth reporting.) I asked Payne what advice he had for me, and he said, “Run stories before they’re ripe.” He didn’t mean half-assed. Our KCTS coverage was thorough and extensive. But part of our job in journalism’s ecosystem is to be an early warning system. We often cover stories that aren’t on the mainstream media’s radar. Sometimes, that puts us ahead of the Times; often it means we are the unacknowledged source of stories churned out by our competitors.

So it goes. We take our consolation in the sour mash of “we got it first,” sweetened by knowing that we’ve done our job.