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KBTC public TV cancels broadcast of mayoral interviews due to perceptions of bias

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on Oct. 27, 2009 at 9:59 am with 10 Comments »
October 27, 2009 8:48 pm

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. kbtcexploreblk

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. Rumbaugh

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.

That includes, he said, Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, who Rumbaugh interviewed after having donated to the campaigns of Chris Gregoire, Rossi’s opponent, in both 2004 and 2008.

“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.

Leave a comment Comments → 10
  1. jimkingjr says:

    “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.'”

    Ask any real journalist what they think of that statement.

  2. slarssen says:

    If, and I say if because the “fact” came from Ronnie Bush, Stan Rumbaugh interrupted Jim’s final statement, it is likely because Jim went over his allotted time. He has done this at the three forums I have attended and brusquely dismisses the moderator when they tell him his time is up.

  3. I dont see the issue being whether Mr. Merritt got interupted or not during his closing statement. The issue is that the interview should have never taken place with Mr. Rumbaugh contucding the interview. I applaud KBTC for correcting this mistake and not airing the interviews. I am sure if the shoe was on the other foot, Ms. Strickland would’nt have viewed it as “free time on television” and would have appreciated the same courtesy.

  4. slarssen says:

    I have seen her speak at the three forums. I don’t think she would have had any problems.

    I think the reservations would be better stated had they not interviewed in the first place. To cry foul when you don’t like how you look is less convincing than to stand aside at the start.

    On another journalistic protocol note, I will ask the Lewis Kamb and the TNT the following: why does the campaign manager continually speak for the candidate? When I want to hear both sides of a story, I want the candidates speaking. Ronnie Bush has been the star of the show in the TNT and Merritt’s words are hard to find, Is this the norm? I always thought the first rule of running a campaign is to be invisible and let the candidate shine…

  5. Couldn’t KBTC have someone else conduct the interviews?? Ask the same questions, give them same amount of time to answer, or is that too simple of a solution? Also when all is said and done, what difference does it make anyway, Tacoma’s mayor is only a figurehead? They have NO real power.

  6. What don’t the Merritt people want us to see?

  7. nwcolorist says:

    Look at those words: “The potential for the appearance of journalistic bias…”. What do they mean?

    If there is a reasonable perception of bias, then it’s not right. According to Lewis Kanb’s story, there are huge conflict of interest in multiple areas. Mr. Rumbaugh’s intentions and professionalism have little to do with it. He should have known better. KBTC did the right thing, albeit a little late.

  8. LewisKamb says:

    @ slarssen

    You asked/stated the following:

    “On another journalistic protocol note, I will ask the Lewis Kamb and the TNT the following: why does the campaign manager continually speak for the candidate? When I want to hear both sides of a story, I want the candidates speaking. Ronnie Bush has been the star of the show in the TNT and Merritt’s words are hard to find, Is this the norm? I always thought the first rule of running a campaign is to be invisible and let the candidate shine… ”

    Actually, while I’ve quoted Bush extensively in some stories and posts on this blog, if you go back and look at some of our recent coverage (print as well as online), Merritt is quoted quite extensively, as well. Here are some examples…

    http://blog.thenewstribune.com/politics/2009/09/21/merritt-moving-ahead-with-post-beam/
    http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/story/920380.html
    http://www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/tacoma/story/849510.html

    Every campaign I’ve covered is different, but it’s not unusual for a campaign manager to speak on the record with the press. Bush has been an easy and quick contact for me to get a hold of by phone, which is a plus when reporting under time constraints. Merritt hasn’t been inaccessible to me. On the contrary, he has made himself available for interviews (even coming to The News Tribune on occasion to talk or leave information). At times, Merritt can be tougher to get in touch with immediately by phone, which is why it’s sometimes easier to call Bush. Strickland typically gets back to me quickly, from immediately to within a few hours after leaving her messages.

  9. Hoodsportwriter says:

    What is it this lawyer doesn’t understand about why he should not be in the position of interviewing the person he is campaigning against?

    How many trials has been both the attorney and the judge? Maybe if he thinks about it that way he can understand the position he put himself in….what a jerk!

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