News that Matters

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No, I am not planning to cancel my subscription to the Seattle Times. As a former Times employee who is now an elected official (on the other side of the notebook, if you will), I have been asked countless times what I think of the Times’ decision to fund political ads.

I confess; I did think about it. “Why not cancel?” was my initial knee-jerk reaction to the Times’ corporate decision to run free ads for Rob McKenna and Referendum 74.

The Times’ editorial board endorsement of candidates and initiatives are time-honored practices. So are the editorials that the Times publishes on behalf of its endorsements. (I cheered the one backing R-74; groaned when I saw the McKenna editorial.) Most readers understand that there is a firewall between the opinion side of the paper and the news columns.

But – going far beyond editorial recommendations – the decision to make independent expenditures (in the form of dozens of advertisements) on behalf of two of those campaigns was as bizarre as it was outrageous.

It helps to remember that when I worked as a Times columnist I was not allowed to be politically active. I could not contribute even five cents to a political campaign nor publicly support a candidate. Reporters are expected to remain neutral and to turn out balanced reports.

The purpose of the newspaper’s strict ethical rules is to enhance the credibility of its reporting. So important do reporters consider their impartiality that some refrain from voting. One reporter I know – a Pulitzer Prize winner – told me that the very act of mentally choosing which candidate to vote for would color his reporting.

The time-honored rule – couched in earthy newsroom terms – has been absurdly simple. And here I paraphrase for family consumption: If you cover the circus, you don’t lie down with the elephants.

So it is no surprise that what bothered me most about the Times’ thoughtless independent expenditures were that they were incredibly damaging to the paper’s reputation.

The Times has long prided itself – and rightfully so – on its value as an independent family-owned paper. And whereas its independence is prized, what matters most to readers, I suspect, is the solid dependability of its news coverage. The Times and its news staff are professionals, good at what they do; more than good, in fact. They win national awards, expose corruption and even save lives. This is print journalism at its finest.

Why then was it thought necessary for the Times to take a rogue step and contribute ads to two of its political causes? A lengthy letter sent to elected officials like me attempted to explain the actions, saying, “The Seattle Times is going to demonstrate the value of newspaper advertising to political campaigns.”

The excuse is that this is a “one-time-only-effort” to prove a point: That newspaper ads “can play an important role in campaigns given newspapers’ broad reach.” One wonders: How will this play out? If the gubernatorial candidate wins? What happens if he loses? Does that prove the opposite?

And what do we think of the initial full-page ad, created by the Times advertising staff, that shows a group of four all-white hands engaged in a tug of war while a fifth white hand tries to sever the rope, supposedly ending partisanship? The ad was as clumsy as its premise. And – as we later learned via the newsroom’s reporting – not even accurate.

But what I resent most is not the botched execution. My sorrow is for the Times smearing its own brand. A newspaper’s value lies in its credibility. And it’s that credibility that now has been damaged. I also mourn for the incredibly talented reporters, editors, photographers, copyeditors, researchers and librarians, the fantastic professionals who bring us news that matters. They now bear the burden of restoring trust.

When I resigned my job at the Times to run for City Council, I got a comradely hug from my editor, now Times’ executive editor Dave Boardman. He said, “You know we’ll have to cover you like any other politician?” He pointed out that I’d get no favors from former colleagues. And, in fact, I don’t believe that the staff has ever done less than a professional job covering my political career. Why else would they quote me, with great accuracy, on some of the stupidest things I’ve said?

And, let me be clear: I wouldn’t want it any other way.  But I do regret that the Times has taken an ill-considered step and given readers an excuse to doubt.