I did a double take when I read that Olympian Publisher George Le Masurier serves as the board chair of the Washington Center for the Performing Arts. This was disclosed at the top of a Feb. 5 opinion piece by Le Masurier titled, “Investment in performing arts center is money wisely spent.”
In that essay Le Masurier provides some useful historical background, but he does so within the context of calling for continued governmental support for the center despite recent budget troubles and questions about its management.
What was most surprising was that no one on the comment thread mentioned the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the living room: Why is the publisher of the local monopoly daily news outlet using his journalistic power to further the agenda of a controversial outside organization?
This is a conflict of interest.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interests, real or perceived” by, for example, shunning “service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.” The code also calls on journalists to encourage “the public to voice grievances against the news media” and admit “mistakes and correct them promptly.”
We shouldn’t even have to argue about whether sitting on the Washington Center’s board compromises The Olympian’s journalistic integrity. As I’ve discussed previously, The Olympian maintains a remarkably complete monopoly on local news coverage. This heightens the need for newspaper staff to not mix journalism and politics. But that’s exactly what Le Masurier has done.
It’s not as though the center is some innocuous, feel-good community service akin to the Pet Parade. The City of Olympia owns the Washington Center’s main facility. As The Olympian has reported — and George Le Masurier has lauded — a multi-million dollar renovation is currently being considered by the city. These decisions are being made under the cloud of Washington Center budget deficits.
Last December Kevin Boyer, the center’s interim executive director, told the Olympia City Council that it would have to close in January without a new source of funds. The Olympian reported that the council voted to allow the center to tap into $200,000 from its endowment fund “to stabilize its operations.”
How bad are things at the Washington Center? It’s hard to tell from reading Olympian stories. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this is not the last time the center asks for a bailout. Just as significantly, I suspect that the center’s current troubles are at least partially the result of management missteps by the previous executive director, Tom Iovanne. The public has a right to know what happened. Can we expect The Olympian to really dig into that story given Le Masurier’s role as board chair?
Indeed, can we even expect robust reporting from The Olympian about the Washington Center’s programming priorities? Ken Balsley, one of the few alternative sources of journalism in Thurston County, has criticized the center “as an elitist organization that’s more concerned with bringing culture to this backwater community than it is to providing entertainment the unwashed masses want to see.” Balsley argues that this has exacerbated the center’s recession-induced financial troubles.
You don’t have to agree with Balsley to recognize that the Washington Center is an important news story that isn’t likely to go away any time soon. Alas, The Olympian’s readers can never be sure how coverage — or lack thereof — has been influenced by Le Masurier’s involvement with the Washington Center.
The Olympian’s own ethics code states, “We serve the public best by fiercely protecting our independence and reputation. We do not engage in outside activities that could conflict with our duty to the public or lessen the value of our services to The Olympian.”
If those aren’t just empty words then George Le Masurier needs to do the right thing. He should resign from the Washington Center’s board.
POSTSCRIPT: If we had more journalistic competition in this town a wayward pajama blogger need not have bothered writing this post. This is why I harp so much on the dangers of media monopolies. The great journalism critic A. J. Liebling said it best: “A city with one newspaper . . . is like a man with one eye, and often the eye is glass. . . . It is not right that a citizen’s access to news should be completely aleatory, depending on the character of the monopoly publisher in the city where he happens to live.”
Liebling, A. J. 1981. The Press. New York: Pantheon Books.