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The Weekly Mess

By Erica C. Barnett July 22, 2011

Editor's note: This post has been edited to reflect the fact that, according to Weekly editor Mike Seely, a photo showing convicted killer Liysa Northon with Weekly freelancer Rick Swart was added to Northon's web site after Swart's story about Northon ran. We stand by our statement that the Weekly should have vetted Swart more thoroughly before hiring the first-time freelancer to write a piece on Northon, who turned out to be his fianceé.

Whoooooooooops: Already mired in a local scandal over its refusal to pull its online escort ads despite the fact that they've been linked to child sex trafficking, the Seattle Weekly ran an editor's note today revealing a major conflict of interest by the author of its most recent cover story, titled, ironically, "Ann Rule's Sloppy Storytelling."

In her 2003 book Heart Full of Lies, Rule wrote that convicted Oregon killer Liysa Northon portrayed herself as an abused wife to justify murdering her husband for his money. The Weekly's cover story, by first-time Weekly freelancer Rick Swart, accused Rule of fabricating details to fit her slant on the story. "I've arrived at the conclusion that the title of Rule's book, Heart Full of Lies, better describes the author than her subject," the Weekly writer, Rick Swart, wrote.

Here's the conflict of interest Swart failed to disclose: He's engaged to Northon. Although managing editor Caleb Hannan, who wrote the editor's note, says he went through "hours of phone conversations" and "exchanged many emails" with Swart before running the story, somehow, he managed not to discover Swart's relationship with his subject.

Swart's dishonest failure to disclose his engagement to the subject of his story---a subject the story is devoted to exonerating by accusing another journalist of making up facts---calls every fact he cites in the story in to question.

Hannan lets Swart take the fall, saying Swart's "philosophy and ours differ," adding that Swart "swore to the veracity of" all the facts in his story. Even the headline on the editor's note---"What Rick Swart Failed to Tell Us About this Week's Cover Story"---exonerates the paper for the stunning omission.

Ultimately, though the responsibility for the Weekly's epic omission falls squarely on the paper and its editors. Particularly when you're running a story accusing another writer of fabrication, you'd better make sure your own facts are in order. Just as it's an editor's job to sniff out other journalistic crimes like plagiarism, it's the Weekly editor's job to make sure their writers (particularly a first-time Weekly freelancer like Swart) are on the level. "Double and triple checking the facts" in Swart's hit piece on Rule, as Hannan says he now plans to do, should have happened before the story ever ran. And had the Weekly asked the most obvious basic question---"How did you become interested in this story?"---it probably never would have run in the first place.
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