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Sins of Omission

By On

Sandy Robson guest writes this article. This is her third article on NWCitizen.

In February 2014, I was accused of libel. Craig Cole, the local consultant on the Gateway Pacific Terminal (GPT) project for SSA Marine/Pacific International Terminals (SSA/PIT), sent a letter on February 5, to Whatcom Watch (WW) accusing me, and the newspaper, of libel. He threatened to sue over my article, “What Would Corporations Do? Native American Rights and the Gateway Pacific Terminal“ (WWCD), in the January issue of WW. Cole alleged he had been libeled, even though neither his name nor his consulting position with SSA/PIT was ever mentioned. Also noticeably missing in Cole’s letter were any specific examples of falsehoods or defamation in my article.

Oddly, Cole did not send a letter charging libel or threatening a lawsuit to the publisher of Intercontinental Cry (IC), or Jay Taber, the author of the editorial, “Echoes of Racism,” published in that magazine on January 13. However, in his letter to WW, Cole cited Taber as having libeled him for giving readers his views of my article. To be clear: neither I, nor WW, had anything to do with Taber’s editorials.

On February 8, IC magazine published another editorial by Taber, “Gateway Pacific Terminal Consultant Threatens Journalists,” about Cole’s letter to WW. That editorial by Taber caused Cole to write again to WW saying, “I would prefer a solution to a lawsuit, but it appears that your coordination with Jay Tabor [sic] is ramping things up. I am sorry that he has continued to spread libelous falsities about connections with racist groups.” Adding, “This is a smear campaign that can not go unchallenged.”

Cole’s second letter to WW was primarily about Taber’s second editorial, and begs the question, if Cole felt libeled by Taber, why was he writing to WW instead of Taber or his publisher?

In his second letter, Cole alleged that WW collaborated with Taber on his editorials. Besides being false, this accusation, along with Cole’s first letter in which he initially tossed Taber into the mix, muddled things by attempting to merge Taber’s editorial views with my article. The confusion worked in Cole’s favor.

On March 5, Cascadia Weekly (CW) published an article by Tim Johnson, “Whatcom Watch Libel Is Claimed, An Editor Resigns.” Johnson quotes Cole’s February 5 letter to WW. The quote, as published in CW, was:

“‘PIT and its affiliates have not, in fact, hired anti-Indian racists,’ Cole stated in his protest. ‘Nor is there a public relations campaign against the Lummi Nation or the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians. There is not a speck of truth to the speculation that they have done either of these things.”

Unfortunately, Johnson omitted three important words from that quote, “…as Tabor [sic] claims.” Cole’s letter actually read:

“PIT and its affiliates have not, in fact, hired anti-Indian racists. Nor is there a public relations campaign against the Lummi Nation or the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, as Tabor [sic] claims. There is not a speck of truth to the speculation that they have done either of these things.”

Cole was referring to Jay Taber’s January 13 editorial, not to my WW article. Unfortunately, by failing to make that distinction to his readers, by manipulating the quote from Cole’s letter, whether intentional or not, Johnson’s readers associated that quote with my WW article even though it specifically referred to Jay Taber and his “Echoes of Racism” editorial. In Johnson’s CW article, he excluded the title of my WW article, did not provide a link to my article, didn’t identify me as the author and didn’t ask me to comment.

Those three words, “as Tabor [sic] claims,” were vital to the integrity of Johnson’s article and my reputation. Anyone reading my article would see that neither Craig Cole, nor his client SSA/PIT, were called racist. If people read Johnson’s CW article, but not mine, they would likely get the opposite impression.

Craig Cole has perpetuated the incorrect idea in his letters, which he disseminated to various individuals and media, that in my article he was called a racist. It appears Johnson perpetuated that idea by manipulating Cole’s quote.

A February 20 post Johnson made on his personal facebook page resulted in 184 comments. The post was about a February 19 article on NWCitizen breaking the story of Cole’s letters to WW. I became aware of Johnson’s facebook thread on February 22. Below are four comments Johnson posted:

“It irks him [Craig Cole] to be called a racist. Who can figure?”

“He [Craig Cole] wants the casual allegations of racist motives to stop, and I can’t say I blame him.”

“Does a vigorous defense of a perceived wrong (being called a racist and being annoyed by that) = bullying or media intimidation? That’s the litmus.”

“Craig didn’t like being called a racist or an associate with racism, even through oblique inference—and, weirdly, I understand that.”

Those comments seem to perpetuate the idea that Cole was called racist, or was associated with racism, but don’t clarify who supposedly was making the accusations, or where. It seems reasonable to expect that as an editor, Johnson would understand the importance of clarification. Unless otherwise specified, I was concerned that members of our community who were following Johnson’s facebook thread would associate his comments with my WW article.

I “Friend Requested” Johnson and sent him a message via facebook on February 22, letting him know I wanted to comment on that thread. Two days later, after two more facebook messages, I was allowed to comment. My comment was #182 out of 184, so the thread had mostly died off. Below is an excerpt from my comment to Johnson:

“Of course you are entitled to defend Craig Cole and his perceived claim that he is being associated with racism, but when you do, I ask that you then clarify who exactly you are referring to, because if you are referring to me, I believe you are sorely mistaken. If you are referring to Jay Taber’s writing, or anyone else’s, then please stop confusing people by not specifying that important distinction as to who.

“And lastly, I believe the letter that Craig Cole wrote contained much more than what you characterize above as ‘a vigorous defense of a perceived wrong.’ I believe that Mr. Cole, in writing some of what he did in his 4 page letter to WW, actually attacked my reputation, which is something I never did to his.”

In my comment I also requested that Johnson revise his comments by clarifying them. He never did. Below are the first two sentences of Tim Johnson’s response to me:

“I don’t believe that by NOT referencing something and by not specifying anything I am in fact referencing and specifying something. But perhaps this is wrong.”

I wonder if anyone would ever read my comment which was at the end of a very long comment thread, especially since now that entire 184 comment thread and post by Johnson have disappeared.

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About Sandy Robson

Contributor • Birch Bay • Member since Feb 27, 2014

Sandy Robson is a professional worker who lives in Whatcom County and is concerned about our environment. She has been a leader in opposing by writing articles about the proposed [...]

Comments by Readers

Tip Johnson

Jun 28, 2014

Definitely not a racist
http://pnwbands.com/rebelsbellingham01.jpg

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Bob Schober

Jun 29, 2014

As the new managing editor of the Whatcom Watch, I want to say that Sandy Robson, in her posting, is speaking only for herself, and her opinions are her own.
Bob Schober

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Dena Jensen

Jun 29, 2014

I am loving the compare and contrast jolts provided by reading Tip and and Bob’s comments here. It’s even more-funner to go over to Ralph Schwartz’s blog post on the Bellingham Herald, “Craig Cole’s Legal Threat Against Whatcom Watch ‘resolved’,” and imagine Tip’s comment from over there added onto his one here.  It feels to me like, after being freed from radio silence by Ellen Murphy’s article a few weeks ago, and now Craig’s - I mean Ralph’s - and almost simultaneously Sandy’s, at this stage Whatcom Watch is still suffering Stolkholm Syndrome where Craig is concerned. Meanwhile here, we’re being a little silly to keep from crying. 

We love you guys and gals in the press! If you can just be bold and say what you have to say without abuse, subterfuge, and malice, you can be an inspiration to each other instead of a blockade to achieving your goal of getting the important information out there.

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Bob Schober

Jun 29, 2014

Thank you, Dena, I now feel my ears have properly been pinned back. My posting was rather too heavy and blunt. I used a standard disclaimer when more nuance is required.
I want it understood that I support unreservedly Sandy’s efforts to clarify and, where needed, to correct the record regarding her January story and the aftermath. f I have met and talked with her and know she has suffered from all of this. My intention is not to stifle her comments or opinions at all, but if it appeared that I was, I apologize to her and everyone else.
That said, my responsibility is to the Watch, and my concern is that someone could presume Sandy was, even in the narrowest way, representing WW. Perhaps I as a retired hard news journalist am oversensitive and no one would infer that, but my aim is clarity. I will err on that side, no malice ever intended.
It is my goal as managing editor of the Whatcom Watch to do just as you urge, to focus on writing about those issues that are important to all of us.

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Dena Jensen

Jun 29, 2014

I just wanted to clarify that yes, that is an “and and” typo in my first line; there may be more, sorry;  AND that in the last paragraph I am not being accusatory, in case anyone assumes I am.  I am trying to emphasize that I believe our local press has the support of a free-press loving community. You all should feel confident in speaking your minds and you should feel encouraged not to censor yourselves when you are venturing out there with integrity and in the interest of getting the news out.

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Walter Haugen

Jun 29, 2014

Is there a possibility that Craig Cole cannot keep it straight as to who (whom?) is actually libeling him?

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Dena Jensen

Jun 29, 2014

Thanks for your comment Bob.  I saw it after I posted my second post.  I appreciate your elaboration on your post. I may not agree that it is necessary to define Whatcom Watch as a separate entity from Sandy Robson as she writes an article here on NW Citizen or anywhere else in the future. However, I do want to say the degree of acknowledgement that you expressed as a new Editor for Whatcom Watch (even if it was slightly belated, as you mentioned) of Sandy’s position in this threatened-libel-suit nightmare is helpful, appreciated by me, and has been for the most part invisible up to now.  Really, Sandy, members of Whatcom Watch, and other members of the press have suffered a good deal of trauma due to Craig Cole’s unfounded claims of libel. And you, Bob, have a harder road as a new Editor because of it. But by speaking out freely and supporting one another with respect and compassion, people’s spirits can heal and battle the substantial impending threats to our environment and community.

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Dena Jensen

Jun 29, 2014

Walter, I think that has been a good part of the problem all along!!! Or at least he has wanted us to think so.

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Tip Johnson

Jun 29, 2014

Cole Gate
http://publicgood.org/2014/06/cole-gate/

Good cause for a good scrubbing

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Sandy Robson

Jun 30, 2014

Let me make this crystal clear for anyone reading this, including WW Managing Editor Bob Schober who posted his disclaimer comment above, and the person at WW who, according to Bob, suggested that he read my NWCitizen “Sins of Omission” article to see if there was any way a reader might infer I was speaking for the Watch.

I am not speaking for WW when I say anything, write anything, draw anything, think anything, or even should I feel the need to pray to Jesus—I am speaking for myself. It should also be just as clear that those currently at WW, have most definitely not been speaking for me.

Hopefully this will eliminate the need to stamp a label on any of my future articles with a disclaimer like the one he stamped on this article, thereby also eliminating the need for future ineffective apologies for doing something he should not have done, period. Whether Bob’s disclaimer was “rather too heavy” or “blunt” or “required nuance” as he tried to say in his second post, are all immaterial. He was wrong to post what he did.

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John Servais

Jul 01, 2014

If Bob Schober is the experienced “hard news” journalist he claims to be, he would know it is inappropriate, as the editor of one publication, to post a disclaimer in another publication.  His professional choices are to either post or publish a disclaimer on his own publication, the Whatcom Watch, or to contact the publisher or editor of the other publication - at NWCitizen that would be me - and express his concern.  Mr. Schober did neither.

Earlier this year, a board member of Whatcom Watch posted a warning disclaimer on NWCitizen and I pointed out the inappropriateness.  She was not an experienced professional journalist, but rather a passionate participant in the Watch.  Her comments, while inadvertently chilling to freedom of the press, were understandable.

Disclaimers put a damper on a writer’s credibility.  A writer may insert a self-disclaimer so readers know where the article may be skewed.  For example, the writer of an article about an energy issue may note they own stock in an oil company.  This allows the reader to adjust how they accept the article.  But for one person to put a disclaimer on another’s work without specifics suggests there are untruths, or skewed facts or unwritten information inherent in the article.  That is the nature of Schober’s disclaimer.  That was the nature of the earlier disclaimer.

I have requested Mr. Schober note in the Watch specifically who is empowered to speak for the Watch.  Currently, there is confusion, with several people supposedly representing the Watch.  I get phone calls from different officers and “close advisors” of the Watch telling me in strong terms what I should and should not post.  So far, I have listened to and then ignored their demands, or as they would characterize it, their “advice.”

The Watch was successfully intimidated by Craig Cole’s attack on the freedom of the press, and now the Watch is trying to intimidate NWCitizen writers by suggesting they are being duplicitous in their writings.  This can be acceptable in normal messy political discussions by citizens.   But if Bob Schober wants to be acknowledged as a professional, “hard news” newspaper editor, he needs to demonstrate he understands the basics of the profession. He should post his concerns in his own newspaper.  He might also post or print the names of the publisher, officers and board of his organization.  That would help all of us make sense of who the Watch is, and who it is not.

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