For the last several months we’ve been following developments in Pierce County, where District Attorney Mark Lindquist has faced a barrage of criticism, civil and federal lawsuits, reversed convictions, a whistleblower complaint from a veteran prosecutor, and now a court-approved voter recall effort.
The latest development to call into question Lindquist’s ethical conduct and proper use of public monies is an editorial from the Executive Editor of the News Tribune in Tacoma which offers an extraordinarily rare insight into one DA’s efforts to bully and cajole a newspaper into backing away from criticism of him and his office.
While editorial boards have historically shown an almost reflexive support for local district attorneys as heroic crime fighters, a number of national and local newspapers have recently begun to take seriously the question of prosecutorial accountability. Yet none to our knowledge have pulled back the curtain as completely as the News Tribune on a DA’s attempts to contest news stories, challenge reporters, and shape favorable coverage.
The background to Executive Editor Karen Petersen’s lengthy editorial is the whistleblower complaint that veteran Pierce County prosecutor Steven Merrival filed against his boss in May. In the complaint, Merrival states that Lindquist engages in excessive attempts to control the media.
[He] expends inordinate public resources to include DPA involvement in efforts to persuade favorable media coverage in a manner that best promotes Lindquist or his version of events, and disparages his adversaries.
Petersen’s editorial more than confirms Merrival’s assertion, and is worth quoting at length.
[Lindquist] has been relentless in his demands for changes [to news stories] in a way I’ve encountered from no other source in my 30 years in this business. Lindquist began calling TNT staff members shortly after that first story [on the Lynn Dalsing case] published, saying it contained factual errors. I called to get the details so we could quickly make necessary corrections, but was told that wasn’t necessary. Instead, Lindquist wanted to meet with us a week later. We agreed.
He came with four deputy prosecutors, including Ausserer, plus the sheriff and the sheriff’s spokesman. For two hours, we went over the story line by line, noting Lindquist’s concerns. He and his staff came armed with documentation. Clearly, they spent the previous week preparing. Out of fairness, we later met with defense attorneys, noting their concerns as well.
Our staff spent five hours going through the prosecutor’s 29 complaints and agreed with them on two points. First, that a sheriff’s deputy wasn’t a named party in the civil case we cited, legally speaking. Second, we told Lindquist we would publish in full a quote we had edited down…
The pattern with Lindquist continued as we followed the Dalsing proceedings, with hourlong phone calls to the reporter and editors, sometimes during work hours, sometimes late at night. This was no longer about correcting the record, but shaping it.
We had to establish internal rules for dealing with Lindquist because he was taking so much of our staff time…His continued pressing to influence our coverage might not violate the law, and anyone who is the subject of contentious coverage is welcome to be heard by editors before or after publication. But the degree and persistence of his time spent on his image may concern the citizens who pay his salary. Prosecutors are spending a lot of time doing this on the clock.
The editorial goes on in pointed terms to make clear that Lindquist’s problems do not originate with the News Tribune. They are grounded in court decisions that have given his office the highest reversal rate in the state, dismissed the case against Lynn Dalsing as a “vindictive prosecution” meant to intimidate her into withdrawing a civil suit against Lindquist’s office, and in the complaints about his ethical violations by a veteran prosecutor on his own staff.
Beyond the particulars of Lindquist’s behavior, the larger service the News Tribune and its Executive Editor have performed is to bring into the open an egregious example of a routine practice: elected officials spending public resources to shape favorable media coverage of themselves.
How many articles critical of prosecutors have never seen the light of day because of newspapers with less spine than the News Tribune? We’ll never know. But this editorial, at least, reminds citizens and readers to develop a critical stance toward both the behavior of their elected prosecutors, and how they are depicted in the press. This can only be a good thing.