After watching Chris Halsne's reporting on Leschi Elementary School custodian Chester Harris, one journalism teacher was outraged. "If this is the kind of journalism you're going to practice, then get out of the business," said Green River Community College's John Knowlton. "This is not the kind of journalism that I believe in. It gives the whole industry a black eye."
On Saturday morning at Town Hall, the Washington News Council, a local media watchdog group, staged what was essentially a mock trial of KIRO Television's Chris Halsne over his recent reports (here and here) about a "hands on" African-American custodian at Leschi Elementary School named Chester Harris.
After a three-hour-long proceeding, supervised by retired appeals court judge Karen Seinfeld, eight members of the News Council's panel voted unanimously that Halsne and his employer, KIRO TV, had inaccurately described Harris as "manhandling" and "bullying" students at Leschi, and unfairly damaged Harris's reputation.
Seven of the panelists voted that KIRO is now obliged, "under generally accepted media-ethics codes," to retract its stories on Harris, remove them from its web site, air a follow-up story setting the record straight, and "apologize to all those whose reputations were damaged." (One panelist voted for just two of those things: that KIRO should air a follow-up story and apologize.)
“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 News Council, including this one.
To the extent that this could be compared to a mock trial, then, it was a mock trial in absentia. And, of course, the News Council doesn't actually have the power to punish Halsne or KIRO in any way other than this well-orchestrated and exceedingly earnest effort at public shaming.
Halsne did not respond to a request for comment on the News Council's findings. But Jake Milstein, interim news director and web manager for the station, provided a brief statement: "KIRO TV stands by its stories."
The people overseeing Saturday's hearing found this hard to fathom, given testimony that said Halsne made numerous journalistic errors in his reporting, including, for example, Halsne's on-air statement that complaints about Harris's behavior came from "two parents, two students, telling a very similar story—custodian Harris threatening, yelling, intimidating, and manhandling kids at school."
Actually, according to Mike McBee, an official from Harris's union, “all the complaints leveled against Chester came from one extended family, which Halsne failed to point out.”
That family, said Leschi administrative secretary Teresa Stout, has been "a nightmare for the staff of Leschi Elementary school." 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." Stout added: “This family has filed complaints against at least 12 staff members over the time that they’ve been there."
None of this was reported in Halsne's initial "KIRO Eyewitness News Investigation" of Harris, 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 video ("shot by Team 7 investigators April 10th outside Leschi Elementary"), 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 or should have known that Harris was just breaking up a fight—something the mother of one of the kids involved was grateful Harris did. (“Not all parents are as understanding when their children say Mr. Harris grabbed them," Halsne shot back, on TV, in a follow-up story that featured him skeptically interviewing the grateful mother.)
In a letter to KIRO sent after the story aired, Seattle School District spokeswoman Holly Ferguson pointed out that Halsne's own hidden camera footage appears to show Harris did nothing wrong. "From your video, it appears Mr. Harris and another adult acted appropriately to intervene with an upset student," Ferguson wrote. "Mr. Harris is very well respected in the school community and our staff and families are very upset by your coverage."
She added that KIRO had, in advance of Halsne's initial story, been provided with school district documentation showing that the school district—and the Seattle Police—had investigated the past allegations against Harris and found "no information to suggest any wrongdoing."
"There’s no excuse for Halsne not to have known that the story was wrong," said former Seattle Times reporter David Schaefer. Schaefer admitted he's no lawyer, but said that in his opinion, what Halsne did "meets the test of reckless disregard for the truth."
Other concerns raised about Halsne's reporting at the hearing on Saturday:
- In his initial report, Halsne ticked through Harris's "criminal record"—which amounts to one 2002 theft conviction. Halsne, however, spent time in his story introducing viewers to "six other crimes since 1997" that he admitted Harris has actually not been convicted of, but that 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 African Americans are arrested at a rate two to three times higher than that for the general population. He called Halsne's presentation "discriminatory."
- A KIRO cameraperson working with Halsne shot what appears to be hidden camera footage of Harris in his office, although people at the hearing said KIRO never checked in at the school's central office for a pass to wander the halls, as required by city code. ("As you know," school district spokeswoman Ferguson wrote KIRO, "all visitors, including parents, must sign in and state their reason for visiting the school.")
- Halsne said on air that Harris "ran off" when confronted with hidden camera footage of him putting hands on a kid, but Halsne's own report shows Harris walking away from the encounter with Halsne.
- Halsne's report blurred out the face of one of Harris's accusers, "due to an unrelated domestic violence issue," but did not blur out the faces of students shot on the hidden camera—though Leschi Elementary, Stout said, has a number of students who should not be shown on camera due to domestic violence at home and other issues. “Their faces should not have been shown," she said. "It totally disrespected their right to privacy and their right to safety.”
Ferguson, the spokesperson for the district, agreed in her letter to KIRO:
We believe it is inappropriate for you to have included under-cover camera footage of our students that clearly identifies their faces. While you did blur one student's face, the others were clearly recognizable. The families of these children are very upset and our principal reports that one of the students was in tears today as a result of your having him on television last night. We request that you take down the video immediately to protect the identity of these students.
KIRO has not taken down the video.
- Stout and multiple other people at the hearing said KIRO deleted their online comments on Halsne's initial story. KIRO has not offered a statement on why or whether this happened, but the current first comment on Halsne's initial report is: "Why KIRO keeps deleting comment section on this story?"
- And, finally, McBee suggested the whole thing should never have been aired in the first place, contending that KING 5 news was also tipped off to the family's complaints about Harris, but that "KING 5 chose not to run a story."
“The Leschi school community feels violated, feels bullied," Stout said. "All we are asking for is that KIRO apologize to the Leschi school community and Mr. Harris on air, and on their web site, and admit that their story was false... KIRO really needs to be held accountable. Just like we’re held accountable for what happens at the school."
Harris was at the hearing, but as an observer, not a participant. He declined to be interviewed for the time being. One possible reason: All the people who testified at the hearing were required to agree in advance that they would use the News Council—not the courts—as their way of resolving this matter. Harris, by not testifying, keeps his legal options open. (That is, if he's in a position to afford an attorney on his custodian's salary.)
Laura McMahon, a parent at Leschi and a former broadcasting journalist in the U.S. Army, called Halsne's reporting "character assassination" and added that as a journalist, she could see Halsne trying to stay on the right side of the law, if not journalistic ethics, in his report. "I knew how very carefully worded it was," McMahon said. "It was gleeful… And I thought it was outrageous and it angered me to no end.”
She called Harris beloved, kind, and an essential part of the fabric of the Leschi Elementary community. “He is a very strong African-American example to a lot of the male students at our school—and also to the female students, like my daughter, who went up to him and gave him a hug," McMahon said. “I thought the character assassination on KIRO TV was just unwarranted… This is a good man.”