Some background is necessary for this one.
About two years ago, I was walking out of a local grocery store when I was approached by a volunteer from an organization called Restoration House Ministries. They were soliciting donations of food, clothing and money to provide shelter for homeless families.
I told the woman who had approached me that I did not give money to folks soliciting in public unless I recognized their organization, and that I would have to go home and check them out online. I then asked her if Restoration House might have need for an older computer or two, as I had lots of friends and relatives who probably had outdated but serviceable computers they would be willing to donate. She said she thought that would be appreciated.
A month or so later I found myself with an older Dell computer that a friend had donated to the cause, and called the number from the flier that the volunteer had given me. I received a call back from the director, Herman Akins, who delightedly agreed to come and pick up the machine that evening.
Herman was good as his word, and arrived later that evening to pick up the computer on the way to another fundraising event. When I saw the look in Herman’s eyes—the pleasure and the gratitude—as he looked at what I had offered to him, I felt a mixture of gratification and shame. Gratification that I had done something to make someone else so happy, shame to know that we lived in a society where the director of a homeless outreach program could be so overwhelmed by the gift of a cast-off POS computer that nobody else wanted.
Since then I have provided Herman, his wife Delores, and their two organizations—Restoration House Ministries and Project Reach—with 5 or 6 computers, donated by friends, family members and neighbors and refurbished by me. Most of these are being used by volunteers for clerical work, both at the Akins’ home and at the Freedom Church in White Center. Our long-term goal is to create a small community computer center at the church, where local folks can come and learn to use word processors, send and receive email, surf the Web, print job listings or résumés….opportunities that are often in short supply in that area. In a middle-to-upper-class neighborhood like ours, it seems as though every third house has an old Pentium 4 PC in the garage or in an unused spare bedroom, just gathering dust because the owner doesn’t know how or where to get rid of it. Folks are very happy to know that their outdated PCs are going to a worthy cause.
Fast-forward—or would that be backward?—to the Saturday before last. While installing another PC out at the church, Herman took me aside and told me that someone from KIRO 7 Eyewitness News had contacted him, inviting him to come in for an interview to give his side of the story on a report they were putting together. He was obviously a little shaken by the prospect. I told him that I would be happy to provide a character reference if he thought that would help, perhaps in the form of a letter. He gratefully accepted my offer.
Later that week, I was contacted by Amy Clancy, Consumer Investigative Reporter for KIRO TV. She asked me a few questions about the letter I wrote, and invited me to add anything I felt might be relevant to the report. Not being at all certain what the focus of the report would be, I didn’t have a lot to add. She also asked for permission to post my letter online, which I gave. She then invited me to watch the report on the Monday edition of Eyewitness News, after which we exchanged some pleasantries and hung up.
I watched the report online Tuesday morning, and was not at all pleased at what I saw. Here’s a link to the report, Victims May Never See Donations Gathered by Local ‘Charity’. If you have not yet seen the report, and plan on reading further, you should probably go take a look at it; I’ll wait.
After I watched the report, I watched it again. And again. then I sat down and composed the following email. I post it here in the hopes that at least some small portion of the people who saw the initial news report might come across this while Googling Herman Akins, Delores Akins or Project Reach for more information. I think a real injustice has been done to an organization that lives hand-to-mouth, and that probably cannot survive an extended period of unearned ill will in the community.
To: Amy Clancy
KIRO 7 Eyewitness News
Hello Ms. Clancy,
I wanted to offer some input on your piece about Project Reach, This is Andrew, by the way; I wrote the letter in support of Herman and Delores that mentioned computers.
I was rather disappointed with your report on KIRO 7 Eyewitness News about Project Reach. It struck me as pretty solidly biased against Herman and Delores Akins and their work. For a report two years in the making, there didn’t appear to be a lot of actual fact-based evidence against the Akinses or Project Reach. Instead, the report seemed mostly to use the medium of television to concatenate a scandal out of a vapor of innuendo and hearsay.
Some points, in order of their appearance:
- From the lead-in: “Many of the area’s best-known non-profits believe donations gathered by an organization called Project Reach don’t necessarily go towards domestic violence victims…” Actually, from what you put on the air, the total number of non-profits that believe this to be the case is two: CADA and DVS. Two organizations that might, in theory, have an axe to grind with Project Reach because of the perception that the latter is encroaching upon their “territory”. Unless you include New Beginnings, whom you did not report as having done anything other than deny a connection between themselves and Project Reach. When did two organizations officially become “many”? Furthermore, how did two organizations from relatively small, outlying communities become “Many of the area’s best-known”? If you have a substantial list of area non-profits that have called the work of Project Reach into question, why didn’t you mention them on the air?
- My unalloyed sympathy for her aside, there was simply no point whatsoever in showing the anonymous domestic violence victim at the beginning of your report. This woman had not been personally hurt by Project Reach in any way, so her feelings on the subject of their activity in the area were no more or less valid than those of any other Oak Harbor resident you could have interviewed, say, in front of the Wal-Mart where the confrontation between CADA’s Margie Porter and the Project Reach volunteers occurred. But had you done so, you might not have had the opportunity to show that unfortunate woman’s quavering-voiced silhouette. A powerful image—and one that pulls at the heart strings—but not actually relevant to the question of whether Project Reach is misusing the donations it collects, which is after all the presumed focus of the report.
- Regarding the issue of other organizations’ names listed on Project Reach’s materials: as explained to me by Herman, that list of names was put out to show other organizations that folks could turn to for help. That’s why the paper read “RESOURCES / REFERRALS” across the top. Certainly, if the paper had read “PROUDLY ENODRSED BY THESE ORGANIZATIONS”, I would assume that you would have shown that on the air. To the contrary, at one point you show the piece of paper in its entirety, and at the bottom in large bold letters is a disclaimer plainly stating that the listed agencies and organizations are not affiliated with Project Reach. But one would only be likely to read that part if one paused the video, as I did. Even given what you chose to show on the air, the worst that list of names should have indicated to the viewer would be the crime of bad spelling, and even that could be blamed on rogue spell-check software.
- The claim made by Porter that, upon being asked if the funds collected by Project Reach at the Oak Harbor Wal-Mart would stay in Oak Harbor, Delores Akins said, “Well if you come back tonight I’ll give you some”. Assuming this actually happened, this statement is, in and of itself, completely neutral. Delores could have easily meant, “we appreciate and value what you do in this community and would be happy to make a donation”. But Porter’s—and by association, KIRO’s—interpretation is, “I’ll cut you in on the scam”. Presumably, had Delores actually said anything of the sort, Porter would have said so, and you would have reported it.
- Addie Schille’s claim that the person answering the phone at project Reach asked “Where did you get this number?”. I’ll stipulate that “where did you get this number” Might not be the absolute best, cutting-edge-crisis-intervention-theory way to begin a call of this sort, but it is hardly by definition the cynical scam-in-the-making opening line that Schille makes it out to be on camera. I can imagine a lot of good reasons to start such a conversation that way. And certainly, Schille’s report that she heard “the woman” in the background urging the person on the other end of the line to get her phone number would seem a totally reasonable and strategically practical start to a phone call with someone who could be in jeopardy and who might possibly be forced to hang up at any time. But compared to a warm and matronly, “Are you safe?”, stripped of context and without any other data upon which to draw, it paints Project Reach in a bad light with very little in the way of facts to back it up.
- As does the seemingly gratuitous use of that less-than-complimentary picture of Delores Akins looking up at the photographer outside of the Kennewick Wal-Mart. Perhaps it was necessary to use that photo because it was the only one taken that day that clearly showed Delores’ face. But you used it at least five separate times; I counted. It’s hard to tell the exact number because you dissolved from a medium shot to a closeup on a couple of occasions, but five seems like a decent estimate.
- The claims by Porter and Abken that members of Project Reach were seen “giving out receipts for tax purposes”. Surely you are aware that many charities that are not tax-exempt 501(c)(3)s give receipts to people furnishing them with donations? Receipts are a typical component of modern transactions in which things of value are exchanged, be they groceries, pedicures or charitable donations. Neither party is reported as saying that they heard anyone from Project Reach actually tell a contributor that the receipt was for a tax deduction. By all appearances, this “fact” was simply inferred. But following the video where Abken makes this inference, you jump to the Charities Program Manager Rebecca Sherrell, asking her what amounts to a hypothetical question about an unsubstantiated claim. Taken in toto, this leaves the viewer with the impression that you have actually caught members of Project Reach breaking state law.
- For all that this was an in-depth report on the activities of the “alleged ringleader” of a scam, and that said “ringleader” was willing to come down to your studio and speak to you in person, Herman was given, by my count, one minute and forty seconds of video in which to make his case. A great deal of which was given over to earnest and evocative but not particularly meaty prose. Herman may well have been a bit overwhelmed by the circumstances of the interview, and may have not explained himself perfectly, and I attribute some of what you showed in your report to that. Certainly, he did a much better job of elaborating when I spoke to him over the phone than what I saw of him on camera. But I also suspect that your interview was edited to make him appear more confused and evasive, because that better fit the narrative you had already constructed in the preceding eight minutes of video.
- Finally—and while hardly chief among my issues with the report, this really got my goat—whoever KIRO TV appointed to scan and post my and other community members’ letters in support of Project Reach online did a stupendously unprofessional job of it. The letters were scanned extremely crookedly; they were also scanned in bitmap (black-and-white) mode, with a very high threshold, so that many of the letterheads and logos were lost and, in the case of the hand-written letter, the text was all but unreadable. This made neither the letter writers nor the clerical staff of KIRO TV look very good. We all took the time out of our busy schedules to write letters of endorsement for a cause we believe in; it would seem only fair that KIRO TV take the miniscule amount of time necessary to present our letters in as good a condition as they were provided to you.
While it is obvious that I was not a big fan of your report, I do appreciate you taking the time to contact me the other day prior to its airing, and also your time in reading this letter.