The Seattle Times crosses a lineOctober 17th, 2012 by Steven Gardner
The Seattle Times gave Rob McKenna and “Yes on 74″ supporters free advertising, a full page’s worth. Some of you will argue that we reporters do that all the time based on who we write about, and in some sense you’re correct.
But this is literal. It’s free advertising. In Public Disclosure Commission terms, it’s Rob McKenna’s governor campaign getting an $80,000 boost in the form of an independent expenditure. In other words, the campaign doesn’t get the money, but it gets the benefit.
The technicalities of all that are a side point. The real question is whether the Seattle Times crossed a line. My thought is whether you agree with what the Times did or not, it most certainly crossed a line seldom, if ever, passed by traditional newspapers.
That seems to be a real problem for some of the paper’s readers, or former readers if their comments are to be believed. I read those comments and there are many who are fine with the paper expressing an opinion or offering an endorsement on an editorial page, but to give any campaign a free ad appears to be downright distasteful.
People think it baloney anyway the idea that we in the newsroom don’t consort with the editorial page writers and the advertisers. I can say it over and over that our coverage is not influenced by who advertises with us or who we endorse, and some of you won’t believe it. I understand why. Money and power influences anything it can, which means almost everything. To think that it wouldn’t at a newspaper seems challenging. But I’ll tell you again that I don’t get instructions from the ad reps and that I don’t know any sooner than you do who our paper will endorse. Some ad reps in the past tried, but when they made demands I or my bosses told them to back off. You don’t have to believe me. You should, but you don’t have to.
Apparently Jay Inslee doesn’t believe that. His campaign issued a press release blasting the Times.
“Copy for the ad had to be written, artwork had to be prepared by someone,” said Jay Inslee Communications Director, Sterling Clifford. “It is difficult to believe that none of the Times’ supposedly neutral newsroom resources were used for this partisan ad.“
I’ll tell you what’s difficult to believe, that anyone on Jay Inslee’s staff has ever worked at a newspaper. Advertising staffs have people who know how to write and create art. It’s what they do. Prove me wrong, but as justifiably wounded as Inslee’s campaign might feel, I have no problem believing the Times newsroom had no knowledge of the ad.
That doesn’t make what the Times did acceptable. In the Times own story on the decision, Jim Brunner gets comments from two people who spend a lot of time considering things like newspaper ethics. They both said the Times’ reporters’ credibility is at stake.
“Regular people have trouble believing there is a wall between the editorial side of news, and the reporting side. This would seem to make that even more difficult. However the Times rationalizes this, they are using the resources of the paper to promote a candidate and cause preferred by the editorial side (and, it would seem, ownership). Fair or not to you folks on the reporting side, my sense is the public perception of the Times’ credibility and objectivity takes a big hit here,” said Todd Donovan, political science professor at Western Washington University.
And for me that’s the bigger problem. A corporation is under no obligation to be fair to a political candidate. Corporations chose sides. But also affecting a corporation’s bottom line is the perceived credibility of its employees, and in this case that’s the reporting staff in Seattle. We reporters are not perfect at being fair, but almost everyone I’ve ever met from a traditional newspaper tries to be. That’s worth something.
David Postman, a former Seattle Times political reporter whose exit from the business for the PR world I’ve mourned for years, (Though secretly sometimes I wish I could follow him out of here.) offered a great discussion on how journalists shoot their own credibility sometimes. It came in 2007 when people in the Times newsroom cheered when Karl Rove announced his departure from the Bush White House.
We’re not perfect. We don’t need our employers messing up our reputations anymore. While I continue to believe in the general integrity of the Times’ newsroom, and while I can see how the corporation that runs the paper could justify advertising how it will and claim its newsroom is unaffected, this move isn’t doing reporters there any favors. And on that point that Inslee’s campaign may be right when its press release concludes, “The Times asks readers to trust its reporters and trust its objectivity,” Clifford said.”The Times’ management has made a decision that raises serious questions for the people of Washington.”
UPDATE: Preserve Marriage Washington has issued its own statement.
“This decision of the Seattle Times is a stunning example of journalistic bias, greed and stupidity,” exclaimed Frank Schubert, Campaign Director for Preserve Marriage Washington. “It is such a poor decision on so many levels that it’s hard to react. First, they have abandoned any pretense of objectivity and have seriously damaged their brand as a result. People do not subscribe to newspapers in order to be fed the political opinion of editors, they subscribe to get the unvarnished news. The Times has put themselves in the position of being seen as paid political advocates, seriously undermining their journalistic credibility. Worse, they are apparently so desperate for future revenue that they are willing to openly sell themselves in order to show political consultants how advertising with them will be good for their clients. The whole thing smacks of a pay-to-play scheme. It certainly begs the question if in exchange for a consultant agreeing to advertise with the Times, the paper will run a paid editorial supporting their client. I have been a political consultant for 30 years — have twice been named the nation’s top political consultant — and if the Times approached me with this kind of idea, I’d want to go take a shower.”