An open letter to John Carlson

Dear John

As old friends and longtime colleagues, we're really sorry that KVI radio didn't renew your contract. Your afternoon talk show was the best in the state—always timely, informative, and entertaining. Your departure leaves a gaping hole in the regional media scene. No one else has your unique combination of knowledge on a wide range of issues, unflinching courage to take on the tough ones, and easy knack for summing things up in a few choice words. You took clear stands and supported them with strong evidence. You were always willing to listen to callers who disagreed with you. You invited your fiercest critics into the studio to debate you on the air. Those conversations were "civil discourse" at its best.

Plus there's your unfailing sense of humor and engaging personality. Even people who disagree with you are charmed by you. The intensive local media coverage of your departure from KVI proves that. We were at your final press conference. Those mostly liberal, often cynical, journalists showed a genuine affection for you.

By now many readers are no doubt thinking: "Of course Watchdogs will defend Carlson. They're part of the 'vast right-wing conspiracy.'" Here's full disclosure: In 1985, John Hamer, then on The Seattle Times' editorial board, wrote a favorable column about your founding the Washington Institute for Policy Studies. In 1993, Mariana Parks helped you create CounterPoint, a media-critique newsletter. You're now "publisher emeritus," but have had no say for the past three years.

The CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion, our think tank, separated (amicably) from your Washington Institute last summer and became an independent nonprofit. You have no role in the center's operations, though your office is right next to ours. In fact, we borrowed your radio (again) to listen the day KVI announced it wasn't renewing your contract.

This decision is a blow, but those of us who are close to you know you'll land on your feet. Whether you stay in the media or move into politics, you've got a great future. You could be a player in the national media or on the public-policy scene. You could be elected congressman, senator, or governor someday—and we hope you will be.

We considered writing about all the possible reasons for your departure—what KVI said, what you said, how the media played it. Instead, we decided on this open letter, a format you've often used in your newspaper columns. We hope you'll take it in the spirit it's intended: constructive criticism from two people who admire and respect you.

We thought of telling you all this in private. But we weren't sure you'd hear us. As you ponder week's events, you need to ask yourself some tough questions:

IN THE MOST-NUANCED LOCAL story (2/6) about your departure, Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Rachel Zimmerman said some think you've "become a single-issue activist. And the one issue is John Carlson." Your adversaries might gleefully agree with that oversimplification. More importantly: Would your friends?

Privately, many do. You can be a tough guy to work with, John. Even those of us who are closest to you get exasperated with you when it's time to discuss our concerns instead of yours. You make time for those you consider superiors or peers, but what about those a rung or two lower? You relate well to "average folks" on the air, but what about people who work for you? Does your truly impressive drive and determination shut out others?

With a wife and two young children, you find your time and energies more fragmented than ever. But many talented and ambitious people learn to juggle priorities. Three of your personal and political heroes rose to the challenge, and you can too.

Last month we all attended the funeral of one such hero: Stan McNaughton of PEMCO. St. James Cathedral was packed and included many of his 1,000-plus employees—all of whom Stan knew by name. Everyone he's ever met has a story about his kindness, generosity, and caring. Would people you worked with say the same? Were most KVI employees saddened by your departure? Would they ask management to bring you back? We've heard the answers are all "No."

Take Steve Largent, another of your heroes. He was a star—but the team always came before his personal glory. Are you like Largent, or does your star come before the team? Many have said it's the latter.

Finally, consider Slade Gorton. He lost his Senate seat in 1986 but re-won it two years later. Few people know how accurate his 1988 campaign slogan, "Slade listens," really was. Before he decided to run, Slade asked his closest friends, "Why did I lose?" One by one, pulling no punches, they told him what he needed to hear: Brilliance isn't enough. No man is an island.

Slade listened. Without ever getting defensive, he heard why he lost—and why he deserved to lose. He listened, and he won. Like Slade, Steve, and Stan, you're blessed with extraordinary abilities, clear values, fierce determination—and people who want to help you, if only you'd let them. But the chasm between brilliance and greatness is wide. Many of us believe you can bridge the gap. Make the leap, John. Listen.—The Watchdogs

Related links:

The unofficial KVI homepage protesting the non-renewal of Carlson's contract

John Carlson's home page

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