After scheduling in-studio interviews with both candidates, and actually interviewing one of them, management for Tacoma public television station KBTC scotched plans to broadcast a special Q&A program with City of Tacoma mayoral candidates Jim Merritt and Marilyn Strickland.
The reason? The potential for the appearance of journalistic bias, station officials say.
“We finally came to the decision that airing this program just didn’t feel right or wouldn’t look right,” said Dave Hinman, the station’s new general manager, in a conference call with me yesterday. “We want to be completely above reproach.”
More specifically, apparent conflicts of interest involving the program’s interviewer/moderator, Stan Rumbaugh, with the Strickland campaign became too dicey from an appearance standpoint for KBTC management. Although station managers said they made the judgment call to veto the broadcast on their own, the decision came shortly after Merritt’s camp raised concerns that, as his campaign manager put it, the interview program was “a set up worse than Little Big Horn.”
It all happened last week — after Merritt and his campaign manager, Ronnie Bush, showed up at KBTC studios to find Rumbaugh sitting in the interviewer’s chair.
“When we walked into the studio and saw Mr. Rumbaugh sitting there, Jim and I were both very surprised,” Bush said in a phone call Monday.
Rumbaugh, a Tacoma-based trial attorney, is the longtime host of the KBTC’s South Sound View – a local public affairs program that had planned a special elections program during which separate interviews with each mayoral candidate were to air.
But Rumbaugh is also directly tied to Marilyn Strickland and her mayoral campaign. Since 2002, Rumbaugh has been a member of Board of Trustees for the Bates Technical College, where Strickland recently served as an interim marketing and communications director (Bates is also the licensee of KBTC TV, for which Strickland served on the directors’ board).
The ties only get stronger: Rumbaugh is listed among business leaders supporting Strickland on her campaign website’s endorsement page. He and his law firm also have contributed at least $500 to Strickland’s mayoral campaign, state campaign contribution records show. And his wife, Sarah Rumbaugh, works as a Strickland campaign fundraiser. In late June, Strickland’s campaign paid “Rumbaugh H. Fundraising” $2,000 as a “partial retainer payment,” records also show.
“I fully believed (KBTC) would see that there was a humongous conflict of interest here, so I naturally assumed that they would not have (Rumbaugh) there that day for the interview,” Bush said.
Instead, Stan Rumbaugh was on hand – and in fact, conducted an interview of Merritt for about an hour, with Strickland scheduled to follow. After the interview with Merritt, Bush raised concerns with the show’s producers about the program’s fairness.
“I felt this was nowhere close to neutral and that this was a misuse of public funds,” Bush said.
Rumbaugh told me in a phone call Monday that he doesn’t see that there was an issue. Over the years, he said, he’s interviewed dozens of candidates for the program he described as “an open-ended journalistic inquiry… designed to inform and educate the public.”
“No one has ever complained that they didn’t get a fair shake,” Rumbaugh added.
“He even came back a second time,” Rumbaugh said of Rossi.
Still, Hinman viewed Bush’s concerns as “a legitimate question that we went to check on,” although he added that by no means were those concerns isolated. For weeks, Rumbaugh’s support of Strickland had been well known – and a subject of conversation — among the program’s production crew, Hinman said.
“Stan was completely above-board. I knew of his support of Marilyn Strickland from the beginning,” Hinman said. “He did not hide anything from us at all.”
Hinman said he and Rumbaugh “had a chat” weeks ago about whether Rumbaugh should be involved in the station’s mayoral interviews.
“I came away from our first meeting thinking that we could get past that (issue of perceived bias),” Hinman said. “My thoughts were that Stan is a professional and an educated individual, and he could be fair and unbiased. But as the weeks unfolded, I became much more uneasy about it.”
“With the additional information about his wife’s connection to the campaign” and some other information combined “with our initial concerns,” Hinman said, “from a journalistic standpoint, we decided it just seemed too much.”
“Even though I think Stan was being very careful to be a good moderator and be fair, sometimes the appearance (of bias) is greater than the reality.”
Rumbaugh said he didn’t lose any sleep over the decision, even though he didn’t think it was necessary.
“I get paid the same either way, which, by the way, is nothing,” he quipped of the volunteer job.
Rumbaugh added he doesn’t believe just because someone has donated or endorsed a candidate, that person should be journalistically barred from conducting political interviews, “as long as it doesn’t appear to be biased.”
Both mayoral candidates were to be asked the same set of questions, Rumbaugh noted, adding the decision to cancel the broadcast was made “for reasons that are associated with the appearance more than anything else.”
But Bush said she saw strong bias in the interview, claiming Rumbaugh devoted more than half of the time asking Merritt questions about education — one of Strickland’s primary campaign issues. Bush also claims Rumbaugh interrupted Merritt’s one-minute “closing” statement, was “very rude” and made Merritt “very uncomfortable.”
Hinman said he didn’t see anything wrong with the interview and believes the station easily could have aired it. He and KBTC program production manager Daniel Kopec also told me that the station’s decision to scrap the broadcast was entirely independent and not prompted by concerns raised by Merritt’s campaign.
“This was not in response to anything that the (Merritt) campaign brought up,” Kopec said. “This is a conversation we brought up internally. It was an internal decision, not a response.”
Asked why the station did not simply decide to keep Rumbaugh out of the interviews in the first place, Hinman said he probably should have.
“I’ll take the blame for that,” he said. “I should’ve made this decision at the very beginning… I thought we could follow some tradition and history and let Stan do the reporting. But the connections were just too strong.”
Strickland, meanwhile, told me today that she has no problems with Merritt’s campaign raising concerns. But she added Rumbaugh is “a consummate professional” and said she had “no doubts that (KBTC) would do what was fair or right.”
“I don’t see why any candidate would pass up the opportunity to get free time on television,” Strickland added.