In a year-end column, Watchdogs gave the Seattle Post-Intelligencer an award for "Most Unexpected Improvement on an Editorial Page in a Single Year."
A few days later, Sen. Slade Gorton set up a meeting with the P-I's editorial board. Editorial-page editor Joann Byrd reportedly was floored. So was publisher J.D. Alexander, who told us Gorton said our column had prompted his visit.
Why were they surprised that he called?
During his 1994 campaign, Gorton made an extraordinary decision: He refused to meet with the P-I for the standard pre-election editorial-board interview. He considered it "pointless" because he knew the paper would never endorse him.
Charles Dunsire, then P-I editorial-page editor, was nonplussed. "It was the first time in my experience," Dunsire told Watchdog Hamer in an interview for Forbes MediaCritic (winter 1995), "that a candidate has turned down an invitation because he felt he didn't stand a chance of getting the endorsement."
But it went beyond that, said Gorton in a separate interview. "There's every possibility that they would have tried to pull something out of the interview to use against me"—either editorially or in the P-I's news pages.
GORTON WON THE ELECTION without the P-I's blessing. But the intervening three years have seen a frosty standoff: no formal contact between the state's largest morning paper and its senior senator. It was a lose-lose situation that kept Gorton from reaching many constituents and underscored the P-I's escalating irrelevance on the public-policy scene. When our media-critique newsletter sent out questionnaires for a "Rating the Watchdogs" issue last year (CounterPoint, August 1997), one Olympia lobbyist said: "The P-I is almost a joke." A legislative staffer described a P-I reporter as "pretty good, in spite of working for the P-I."
That's unfortunate. Seattle has two statewide daily newspapers. Despite the fact that they have a joint-operating agreement that essentially exempts them from federal antitrust and monopoly laws, their editorial pages could provide a platform for healthy dogfights on important issues. Readers need aggressive, competitive barking—but have too often gotten redundant whimpering.
Still, since Joann Byrd took over the P-I's editorial page in early 1997, it hasn't been the same. Among the hopeful signs:
The P-I's creative editorial handling of that most politically incorrect issue, Initiative 200, which would end race- and gender-based preferences in the public sector. Although the paper editorialized against the measure (2/22), on the same day it ran opposing columns by two of its own staff members: Bruce Ramsey (pro) and Sam Sperry (con). Pro-cons aren't unusual on editorial pages. The Seattle Times ran pieces (2/1) by guest columnists—I-200 chair John Carlson and (con) University of Washington history professor James Gregory. But the P-I's approach actually gave readers insight into its own internal debate.
IN ANOTHER innovationthe P-I last fall invited TVW, the state-sponsored public affairs television network, to film its editorial board's political candidate endorsement meetings, which were broadcast state-wide.
Libertarian-leaning Bruce Ramsey joined the editorial board last year to fill a temporary vacancy. (He had been a P-I business reporter/columnist, and—in a highly unusual arrangement—continues to write a weekly business column in addition to editorials and opinion columns.) Ramsey's influence has been evident, and welcome.
Editorial writer and columnist Thomas Shapley published something remarkable on February 27: a prominent apology for an egregious error he'd made in a signed column. "Columnist Regrets" was the headline over a three-paragraph correction box, complete with Shapley's mug shot. The day before, in "Transportation Commission's Agenda Floats on a Sea of Irony," Shapley's column began with a "gotcha" lead about creation of a blue-ribbon panel on ferry "passenger and crew safety" at a State Transportation Commission meeting in Olympia. "Just the night before," Shapley archly noted, "a ferry crew member reportedly had fallen overboard from the M/V Tacoma," but Washington State Ferries chief Paul Green "did not... mention" the incident. Oops! In his apology, Shapley conceded that the commission meeting was held before the crewman's disappearance. "Green could not possibly have told the Transportation Commission about something that had not yet happened," he wrote. "The mix-up was unintentional but inexcusable."
It is indeed inexcusable when a journalist's reach for a great lead overlooks the facts. But it's encouraging that Shapley and the P-I apologized so visibly and immediately. (We're still waiting for The Seattle Times' editorial page to apologize for a flagrantly inaccurate column Michelle Malkin wrote last November 4 about GOP donor Tom Stewart. See our Eastsideweek column, 12/3/97.)
FINALLY, THERE'S THE P-I'sstrong commitment to good local political cartoons. Dave Horsey and Steve Greenberg provide consistently sharp satire on events that affect Washington's citizens (witness Horsey's 2/22 "Beltway Apocalypse" masterpiece). Meanwhile, their kennelmates up the hill at The Seattle Times haven't been able to find and keep a local cartoonist for several years. The P-I is vying for Best of Breed—and thestate's largest newspaperdoesn't even have a mutt in the show.
We'll keep watching. Woof!
John Hamer and Mariana Parks are president and executive director, respectively, of the CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion, an independent nonprofit media think tank, and co-editors of CounterPoint, a media-critique newsletter. Call them at 1-888-306-DOGS or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.