Politics Blog

Craig Cole's legal threat against Whatcom Watch 'resolved'

Coal terminal spokesman Craig Cole said he no longer holds the threat of a libel suit against Whatcom Watch, the monthly, volunteer-run newspaper that focuses on political activism.

Whatcom Watch, meanwhile, cut a sentence from the online version of the story that caused the dispute, "in the interest of community collegiality." An email requesting comment from Bob Schober, Whatcom Watch's new managing editor, was not returned.

Whatcom Watch ran a story in January by Sandy Robson that Cole said libeled him by implying he was racist and anti-Indian.

Cole works for Seattle-based SSA Marine, which has proposed the Gateway Pacific Terminal for Cherry Point on Lummi Nation's historic fishing grounds. The terminal is proposed under the auspices of Pacific International Terminals, an offshoot of SSA Marine. BNSF Railway is also involved, with a proposed railroad expansion.

Robson's 4,000-word piece, "What Would Corporations Do? Native American Rights and the Gateway Pacific Terminal," asked readers to put themselves in the hypothetical position of a corporation "like SSA/PIT and BNSF," to think about how it would go about getting the coal terminal built.

One of the options Robson presented was to "fuel and even organize the already present resentment from some non-Native American community members about treaty rights of Indian tribes and Indian nations, trying to capitalize on that ignorance that is inherent in some people."

Robson went on to describe some anti-Indian elements that she said already exist in Whatcom County. She doesn't mention Cole. The closest she comes to GPT was her mention of the hiring of Mariana Parks as spokeswoman for Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a pro-coal terminal organization. Parks, as Robson described it, had worked for ex-AG and Republican WA gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, and ex-WA U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, both of whom, according to Robson, have at times acted against the treaty rights of Native Americans.

What bothered Cole more than Robson's piece was a follow up by blogger Jay Taber that contorted Robson's hypothetical scenario into flat-out reality.

"Whatcom Watch contributor Sandra Robson asks if the hiring of anti-Indian racists by Pacific International Terminals (PIT) to run its public relations campaign against Lummi Nation and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians constitutes a strategy by PIT to win approval for its proposal by mobilizing anti-tribal resentment," Taber wrote.

To close his short post, Taber quotes the last line of Robson's article, the very line that Whatcom Watch cut from the online version of the article:

"Let us all stand in opposition to the echoes of racism aimed at Native Americans, and let the groups, individuals and politicians who breathe life into that racism and resentment know that it will not be tolerated anymore in our community, or anywhere at all."

Cole, himself hired by Pacific International Terminals to do PR, was offended. He sent a strongly worded letter to the then-managing editor of Whatcom Watch that was dated Feb. 5:

"PIT and its affiliates have not, in fact, hired anti-Indian racists. Nor is there a public relations campaign against the Lummi Nation or the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, as Taber claims. ... The company feels that, in the end, tribal and project interests can be harmonized, and it continues to reach out to the affected tribes in this spirit.

"... I am outraged and feel that by implication, because I am a consultant to the project on public and community relations, I am being damaged by Robson's editorial. Her piece, and Taber's, constitute libel."

Cole offered a written statement on the record on Tuesday, June 24. Here it is, in full:

I have had a civilized exchange of perspectives with the Whatcom Watch leadership and consider the matter resolved with that publication. It has been made clear that there was, in fact,  no intention by the publication to accuse the GPT project or its advisors of racist or anti-tribal activities. Unfortunately, the manner in which the author couched things in her hypothetical and imaginary tale gave a contrary impression to some readers and started to go “viral”, thus necessitating a corrective response.I have a lifelong history as a civil rights advocate and have enjoyed a very cordial relationship with the Lummi and Nooksack people. You can call me a lot of things, but being racist shouldnt be one of them.

I expect the Whatcom Watch to continue to contribute to the community dialogue on various issues. Sometimes I may agree with its perspectives; sometimes not.

Robson also provided an on-the-record statement, on Friday, June 27. She requested that I use her quote "as I wrote it and in full context," so I provide it in its entirety as well:

In response to a query by Ralph Schwartz, who contacted me about a blog piece he said he would be writing, I am offering my perspective on issues relating to my January Whatcom Watch article, "What Would Corporations Do? Native American Rights and the Gateway Pacific Terminal” (WWCD). My article, WWCD, was the subject of a February 5, 2014 letter from Craig Cole sent to Whatcom Watch. In Mr. Cole's letter, he claimed he was libeled due to my article, and threatened Whatcom Watch with a libel lawsuit.

Ironically, Mr. Cole claimed he was libeled by my article even though it had nothing to do with him, at all. Not once does Mr. Cole's name appear in that article; no reference to his consulting position with SSA/PIT on the GPT project is ever made.

After doing research on the proposed GPT project and its effects on Native Americans and their rights, including treaty rights, information and activities became visible to me so I decided to write my WWCD article. I wanted people to be aware of that information and those activities, and just as these had prompted me to ask questions, it was my hope that readers would then ask their own questions, and do their own research. 

I believe that to some extent, Craig Cole's action of sending his letter to Whatcom Watch caused people to then focus on what he chose to write about in his letter, rather than focusing on the information contained in my article. 

For more background, there's local blog  N W Citizen's reporting on Cole's legal threat from Feb. 19, and the March 5 issue of Cascadia Weekly (I couldn't find a bona fide online version of the CW article, so I link to the PDF of the entire issue. The Whatcom Watch story is on Page 8.)