An Introduction: Some things you won’t see in Whatcom Watch 

by Sandy Robson

I am aware of two individuals, who submitted Letters to the Editor (LTEs) to Whatcom Watch (WW) in response to Editor Bob Schober’s August 2014 brief editorial, “Legal Claim Withdrawn.” In both cases, there was resistance from Schober to publishing these LTEs in which the authors expressed their views about his editorial. The LTEs were eventually published by WW; Carol Follet’s LTE was published as written, and Ellen Murphy was required to revise her LTE before WW would publish it.

This writer also submitted a response letter to Schober’s editorial in early September which also met with resistance from him. Here’s how that went: 

Five days after my submission, I was informed via email by Schober, that my response letter would “not be published as written,” and that we needed to meet to talk. I replied to that email, reiterating as I’d said in my original submittal email to WW, that I requested the same opportunity that Ferndale City Clerk Sam Taylor, and Whatcom County Association of REALTORS® Government Affairs Director Perry Eskridge, were afforded in publishing their unedited response letters to articles I had written for WW. I explained in my email that I was “respectfully asking WW for an equal opportunity.”  I also asked Schober what his reasoning was for his unwillingness to publish my response piece “as written.”

Schober replied, saying again, that we needed to meet and he did not give me his reasoning why he would not publish my piece. He also said if I declined to meet with him, my letter would not be published. I responded saying that I was not looking to meet with him, and that I wanted to clarify that if my response piece would not be published “as written,” that I did not want WW to publish it in any altered form. 

Eight days later, I sent an email to Schober asking him to respond with specifics regarding his reasoning why he would not publish my response commentary piece “as written,” explaining that I would simply like to know. He replied with his reasoning, which in my estimation, was almost all his personal opinion which differed with mine in my response piece.  

What Schober and WW do not seem to understand, is that because the public has been kept in the dark by WW about all that has happened since it first received SSA Marine consultant Craig Cole’s letter threatening a libel suit, that Cole has been given an open door invitation to threaten free speech and free press in the future. That open door invitation also, in essence, has been extended to corporations and/or their consultants to follow suit, when they may dislike or disagree with an article, or when they want to stifle unwanted media attention about their future or current business. 

I wanted my response to Bob Schober’s editorial to be published in WW, as I believe it’s important to document the history of the chilling effects to our free speech and free press stemming from Craig Cole’s February 5, 2014 letter to WW. This summary pointing out that WW refused to print my response letter “as written,” offers further documentation of that continued chilling effect.

Readers should also note that I had submitted a commentary piece to WW on May 4, 2014 for the June issue entitled, “Let’s Not Be Distracted.” WW decision-makers categorically refused to publish that piece. This occurred prior to Bob Schober joining WW as editor.

My commentary piece “Let’s Not Be Distracted” is now posted on here on the Coal Stop blog in a separate post

A RESPONSE TO EDITOR BOB SCHOBER’S EDITORIAL PUBLISHED IN THE AUGUST ISSUE OF WHATCOM WATCH

Commentary by Sandy Robson

In its August 2014 issue, Whatcom Watch (WW) published an editorial by Managing Editor Bob Schober, reporting that SSA Marine’s consultant for the GPT project, Craig Cole, withdrew his legal threat. Cole had sent a February 5, 2014 letter to WW accusing the publication (and myself) of libel and threatening a lawsuit, claiming he was libeled in a January WW article I wrote entitled, “What Would Corporations Do? Native American Rights and the Gateway Pacific Terminal.” Cole was never mentioned in my article.

WW’s editorial by Schober followed a June 27, 2014 Bellingham Herald Politics Blog post by reporter Ralph Schwartz announcing Cole’s legal threat had been “resolved.” In his written statement he sent to the Herald and the Watch, Cole stated that he had a “civilized exchange of perspectives with Whatcom Watch leadership. . .”

The word “resolved” implies there was some sort of agreement reached or something was settled when, in fact, what actually occurred is that over a period of months, WW’s leaders requested multiple times, in writing, that Cole provide them with examples of where he felt there were falsities, or where he felt he was defamed in my January article. Cole never responded to those requests with any such information.

On the subject of being civilized, it is my understanding that when the Herald blog post was published, after almost five months of Cole letting his lawsuit threat hang over WW, he had never even given the Watch the basic courtesy of letting them know that he was withdrawing his threat of a lawsuit, and that he considered the matter closed, or as Cole chose to say, “resolved.” WW had to read that news in the Herald.

In Schober’s editorial, he stated, “. . .a reader [Cole] took umbrage at some phrases in the article ‘What Would Corporations Do? Native American Rights and the Gateway Pacific Terminal. . .’”

That statement by Schober is not correct. In Cole’s two letters to WW, he did not remark that he took umbrage with “some phrases” in my article, moreover, he did not remark that he took umbrage with even one single phrase or word in my article.

In his February 5 letter to WW, Cole did specifically point out a phrase that he felt was a “false assertion,” but that phrase was in a January 13, 2014 editorial piece authored by Jay Taber. Cole attached Taber’s editorial to his letter to WW and highlighted that phrase in yellow. Taber’s editorial was published in another publication, not WW, yet Cole included it in his letter. To my knowledge, neither Taber, nor his publisher, were ever contacted by Cole about that editorial. Readers can view Cole’s letter in a February 25, 2014 article, “Relevant Documents to Libel Threat,” on NWCitizen.com.

In Schober’s editorial, he wrote, “An attorney reviewed the allegation and determined it without legal merit.” Then, directly following that sentence, he wrote:

“We however, deleted certain phrases from the online version.” This sentence could give readers the impression that Whatcom Watch leadership disagreed with the attorney’s determination.

I believe it should have read:

Whatcom Watch, in a gesture in the spirit of community collegiality, made a change to the article by removing the last sentence, even though it had never been requested by Cole to do so.

It’s understandable that due to the stress WW leaders were under from Cole’s continued legal threat, that they made that gesture hoping to bring closure to the situation. But then, months went by after that gesture, with no communication from Cole giving any indication there was an end in sight to his threat.

In the “About” section of WW online, it states that the Watch “is an expression of the freedom of speech guaranteed by our constitution. . .”

An attack on free speech and free press should not be excused or tolerated. And, an attack on free press should be thoroughly reported by a newspaper, especially the newspaper that was the subject of that attack.

Free speech and freedom of the press should be vigorously defended. Unfortunately, as evidenced by Schober’s editorial, the Watch has not yet stood up to vigorously defend itself and the ideals of free press and free speech against this attack by Craig Cole. I’m hopeful that someday the Watch, an important publication in our community, will find the strength to do so.

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