As Initiative 200, the Washington State Civil Rights Initiative, moves toward the fall ballot, citizens should watch closely how the media portray the measure. Do


Biased Barkers

As Initiative 200, the Washington State Civil Rights Initiative, moves toward the fall ballot, citizens should watch closely how the media portray the measure. Do they describe I-200 as "anti-affirmative action" or "anti-preferential treatment"? How reporters, editors, and headline writers choose to characterize I-200 is an important political and ideological decision. Media buzzwords stick in people's minds—and can profoundly affect voters' decisions.

Members of the media know this. A Houston city initiative that asked voters if they wanted to end "affirmative action" programs failed—while California's Proposition 209 (nearly identical to I-200), asking voters if they wished to end "preferential treatment" passed.

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In a thoughtful recent column (1/25), Peter Callaghan, political editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma, expressed the media's dilemma: "If we use racial preferences, we're biased in favor of the initiative; if we use affirmative action, we're biased against it. Oh my." Callaghan noted, "All [terms] will be used by those on either side of the issue to describe I-200." True, but which is most accurate?

According to a pamphlet published by the Coalition Against Bigotry and Bias (available from the state Human Rights Commission), there are four types of affirmative action. The "least common" are programs "establishing goals and timetables for hiring underrepresented groups." But that's the only type of affirmative action that I-200 would eliminate. And the initiative applies just to government hiring, contracts, and admissions—not to private-sector efforts. To describe it as a blanket anti-affirmative action measure is just flat wrong. So what do our local media do?

The Seattle Times, in a lengthy and informative recent series "Equality on the Job: Are We There Yet?" (2/8-11), described I-200 this way: "Supporters say it would ensure equal treatment for everyone. Opponents contend it effectively would end most forms of affirmative action by state and local governments."

But in subsequent Times news stories, the mantra that I-200 would "effectively end [or ban] affirmative action" has been repeated incessantly—almost as if a style edict has been handed down to Times copy editors. Even the crucial qualifier "in government employment, contracting, and education" is often dropped. In other words, the Times is admitting that it's using the language of opponents to describe the measure. Bad dogs!

Interestingly, when it comes to the politically incorrect practice of helping military veterans find jobs, the Times prefers the term "hiring preferences." A story by David Postman, "Hiring-preference bill for veterans dies" (2/28), used the words "hiring preferences" or "preferential hiring" five times. But in the penultimate paragraph, it was back to the party line: "Initiative 200 would effectively ban affirmative action for minorities and women in state and local public employment, public education, state college admissions, and public contracting."

Meanwhile, on the Times' editorial pages, a new campaign to elicit opinions on I-200 was announced by editor Mindy Cameron (4/5). "Race & Real Life" pleads to those "whose views don't routinely appear on these pages" to send in 800-word-or-less pieces. Not a bad idea. A kickoff essay by Walter Backstrom, an African American who favors I-200, was a good start. But the Times made its opposition clear in a full-column Sunday editorial, "Initiative 200: wrong direction for this state." Watchdogs knows that at least two members of the Times' editorial board support I-200. Why not reflect the internal staff debate with a "pro"/"con" or discussion transcript?

Watchdogs (3/12) praised the P-I's editorial page for running signed "pro" and "con" columns by two of its own staff members on the same day it editorialized against the measure. The Spokesman-Review in Spokane (3/6) went even farther. It actually ran two competing editorials, one against I-200 by "Carol MacPherson/For the editorial board," the other in favor by "D.F. Oliveria/For the editorial board's dissenters." Good dogs! (For more details on statewide media coverage of I-200, see CounterPoint's March/April issue.)

BIRD DOG. Media nicknames for public figures can be telling. How do Seattle P-I insiders refer to Sen. Patty Murray? In a recent memo from a top P-I reporter to his editor (leaked anonymously to Watchdogs), Murray was dubbed "Tweetie Bird." Discussing how to cover Murray's re-election campaign kickoff, the memo said: "Tweetie Bird will be chirping in Shoreline, Tacoma, and Vancouver.... Suggest any story be keyed to the paper on the first day of Tweetie Bird's announcement swing." Think it'll fly?

OOPSY DOGGIE. Watchdogs (3/26) critiqued the Times' "Fear in the Fields" series on alleged hazards in agricultural fertilizers as being overblown to win journalism prizes. The Times published a big front-page story "Toxic Waste: 270 Million Pounds on Farm Fields" (3/26) by Duff Wilson on a new report by the "Environmental Working Group." Next day, the Times ran a "Clarification," conceding that the headline "gave a potentially misleading account of the findings." The report "did not specify whether or not that amount of material had actually made its way to the fields." The hype goes on.

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 e-mail or

Related Links:

Tacoma's News Tribune

The Seattle Times

The Spokesman-Review

The Seattle P-I

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