The Washington News Council essentially agreed with critics who accused Spokane's only daily of producing stories that put the newspaper owners' interests above the readers'.

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The Spokesman-Review newspaper didn’t just cover the River Park Square fiasco that consumed Spokane for years.

It was smack in the middle of the story.

The newspaper’s owner, Cowles Publishing, also owned River Park Square, a downtown mall that the family-owned company and the city formed a partnership to redevelop in 1997.

The project quickly devolved into a civic nightmare. Its complex financing collapsed. The city’s bond rating fell, costing taxpayers money. Nearly everyone involved sued everyone else. And, as the story played out, the Spokesman-Review’s coverage came under increasing fire. Spokane’s only daily was producing stories that served the Cowles family’s interests rather than the interests of its readers, critics charged.

So, last year, Steve Smith, the newspaper’s editor since 2002, asked the Washington News Council, a media-watchdog group, to critique the Spokesman-Review’s work. In a report released last weekend, the council essentially concluded the critics were right.

The newspaper suppressed financial information about River Park Square that was potentially unfavorable to the Cowleses, the report says. The family played an inappropriate role in shaping sensitive news stories. Smith’s predecessor, who supervised coverage, also wrote columns boosting the project, blurring lines between news and opinion.

The Spokesman-Review, which paid about half the cost of the report, published it in full in its Sunday editions, as it had promised earlier. In an accompanying note, Publisher Stacey Cowles said editors might have made some questionable decisions, but denied his family had influenced them.

Smith, in contrast, offered an apology. “Our failure to produce complete, accurate and balanced coverage … was a disservice to our readers who depend on the newspaper for the information they need to exercise their citizenship,” he wrote.

The River Park Square report is but the latest example of what has become a trend in journalism in recent years: an increasing willingness by mainstream news organizations to subject controversial work to outside review to both identify institutional problems and help restore battered credibility.

“I just think the public demands more accountability from us now than they ever have before,” said Joann Byrd, former editorial-page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and one-time ombudsman for the Washington Post.

• CBS News retained a former U.S. attorney general and a former president of The Associated Press to look into a 2004 “60 Minutes” report on President Bush’s National Guard service that the network later acknowledged was flawed.

• The Salt Lake Tribune hired two journalism professors in 2003 to review its coverage of the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping after two of its reporters were identified as sources for a National Enquirer story on the case that the tabloid later retracted.

• The New York Times asked three outsiders, including Byrd, to oversee a 2003 investigation of the fabricated and plagiarized stories of disgraced reporter Jayson Blair.

It’s no coincidence that traditional media’s move toward greater transparency comes as they face mounting economic challenges and questions about their future, said Cliff Rowe, the Pacific Lutheran University journalism professor who headed the Washington News Council’s River Park Square review.

“It a matter of survival,” he said. “If a new relationship with your readers is a key to that survival, the industry needs to recognize that.”

The Spokane report differs from the other reviews in at least one important respect: The Spokesman-Review asked the News Council to scrutinize the newspaper’s coverage of itself.

Covering your own company well is difficult for any news organization, “but it’s imperative that we do it,” said Bob Steele, who teaches media ethics and values at the Poynter Institute, a Florida journalism think tank.

“One of the imperatives of journalism is to hold the powerful accountable,” said Steele, who has advised The Seattle Times on coverage of itself. “If we don’t do that to ourselves, we are hypocrites.”

The nonprofit Washington News Council, founded in 1998, says it aims to promote fairness, accuracy and balance in journalism. Among other things, it fields formal complaints about news stories and holds unofficial, quasi-judicial hearings to decide whether they are justified.

News organizations, including The Seattle Times, have declined to participate in the council’s hearings. Michael Fancher, then Times executive editor, said in 2001 that the council was “a solution in search of a problem,” and that most complaints from news sources about accuracy or fairness are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction without third-party intervention.

The council’s Spokane report criticizes a Spokesman-Review “no surprises” policy, revoked in 2001, under which Cowles family members reviewed before publication stories involving the company.

It also says newspaper reporters and editors may have “self-censored” themselves in covering River Park Square.

Tim Connor, an online journalist who has won investigative reporting awards for coverage of River Park Square, said the report vindicates Spokesman-Review critics. “Steve Smith seems to understand just how thoroughly the newsroom was compromised by this project,” he said.

Among other things, the report recommends that the newspaper consider hiring an independent, outside editor to oversee coverage of Cowles enterprises.

John Hamer, the News Council’s executive director, said the group is considering offering to do similar critiques for other media companies.

“News organizations may have to subject themselves to this kind of review more often,” said Smith. “Our credibility is so inherently suspect that, when we step in it, the response really has to have some element of independence to get any kind of acceptance.”

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com