A longtime columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer apologized Tuesday for a story that falsely claimed the Spokane Valley City Council was planning to vote on a resolution in support of state Rep. Matt Shea’s proposal to turn Eastern Washington into the 51st state.
Joel Connelly, who’s covered politics for the P-I since 1973, corrected the story and penned a mea culpa on Tuesday afternoon, more than a day after the story was published and at least two hours after he was notified of the error.
Connelly said his story was based on 2-year-old articles by The Spokesman-Review and the Associated Press that had been sent to him by an acquaintance in Eastern Washington. He said he failed to check the dates on those articles when writing his own story, which was published Monday afternoon and rose to the top of the P-I website’s “trending” list.
“This is a doozy. I deserve every dig coming my way,” Connelly wrote. “Whatever incentives to produce in online journalism, the professional duties of checking what goes out have not diminished. Even in the autumn of a career, the lesson needs to be hammered home.”
The Spokesman-Review did report, on Dec. 14, 2016, that City Councilman Ed Pace had convinced two other council members, Caleb Collier and Mike Munch, to formally support the 51st state idea. Since then, Pace, Collier and Munch have been voted out of office, and the council has not moved forward with a vote on the matter.
“I think a few of us talked about, if it came up to a vote in the state Legislature, then we would bring it up and consider it,” Pace recalled Tuesday.
Proposals to split up Washington have been floated for more than a century, but in recent years, some in the far right have embraced a proposal to create a new state called “Liberty.” Shea, R-Spokane Valley, has championed the idea, which also has support from his 4th District seatmate, Rep. Bob McCaslin.
Connelly’s story also discussed a document written by Shea titled “Biblical Basis for War,” which caused a storm of criticism shortly before the lawmaker was re-elected in November, as well as alleged campaign spending violations.
Before Connelly issued his retraction and apology Tuesday, Spokane Valley officials said unequivocally that his story was wrong. They also circulated a news release saying city staff had not been able to reach Connelly or anyone else in the P-I newsroom by phone or email.
“We don’t know where this information came from, but it’s certainly not grounded in any fact,” City Manager Mark Calhoun said in the news release. “This came as a complete surprise to us and to our council. It’s unfortunate that a publication would publish something of this nature without checking with us. It detracts from the real work the city is doing to improve transportation, business development and economic expansion of our region.”
In a phone call, Mayor Rod Higgins called the story “pure fiction.”
“It’s not so. We have not discussed the idea. We have not entertained the idea,” Higgins said. “I don’t know where the information came from.”
Connelly also took criticism from fellow journalists on Twitter. Not only did he misread the dates on The Spokesman-Review and Associated Press stories, he also did not credit the news outlets that did the original reporting, causing confusion about the source of his information. Nor did he contact any city officials to confirm the story himself.
“Even if stories had been from 2018, lifting others work with zero reporting is not OK,” Jim Brunner, a Seattle Times politics reporter, wrote in a tweet to Connelly. “You didn’t attribute.”
Connelly also blocked at least half a dozen Oregon and Washington journalists who discussed his story on Twitter.
The P-I’s senior editor, Daniel DeMay, did not respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday.
The P-I, founded as a weekly in the 1860s, was long one of Seattle’s two daily newspapers, along with the Seattle Times. Amid financial troubles in 2009, the P-I laid off most of its staff and became a web-only publication. It is owned by Hearst Corp.