"JOURNALISTIC OBJECTIVITY" hadn't been adopted as a professional standard in 1913 when the anti-union and anti-leftist bluster appearing in The Seattle Times grew so intense


The media and the establishment: one and the same?

Despite pledges of objectivity, local news executives—even a popular TV anchor—mingle with Seattle's corporate and political elites

"JOURNALISTIC OBJECTIVITY" hadn't been adopted as a professional standard in 1913 when the anti-union and anti-leftist bluster appearing in The Seattle Times grew so intense that Mayor George Cotterill, accusing the paper of inciting what became known as the Potlatch Days Riots, ordered Colonel Alden J. Blethen to stop publishing until he toned things down. The gleeful way Blethen's reporters documented the attacks on Wobblies and Socialists that August 75 years ago made Cotterill's edict, unconstitutional as it may have been, nearly seem sensible: "Anarchy, the grizzly hydraheaded serpent which Seattle has been forced to nourish in its midst, was plucked from the city and wiped out in a blaze of patriotism last night. . . . It was almost more joy than the crowd could stand."

Colonel Blethen—Seattle's answer to William Randolph Hearst—couldn't get away with such bias today. Like the reporters and editors who work for them, publishers are supposed to avoid ideological favoritism and steer clear of organizations that would benefit from preferential coverage. "We willingly forgo some activities or associations," Times executive editor Mike Fancher wrote in 1996, "in order to preserve our credibility."

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Fancher may adhere to these principles, but his boss doesn't. Times publisher Frank Blethen, Alden's great-grandson, serves on the board of directors of the Washington Roundtable, an assemblage of 38 corporate executives that meets quarterly to decide how the state's economic and educational policies should be shaped to their liking. Boeing's Phil Condit, SAFECO's Roger Eigsti, Seafirst Bank's John Rindlaub, Weyerhaeuser's Steven Rogel, Nordstrom's John Whitacre . . . the Roundtable is a who's who of Washington's corporate establishment. Andrew Smith, former president of Pacific Northwest Bell, may have been right when he said of Blethen in 1987: "This guy's going to be a player."

Recent history suggests that the Times' pages have not gone uncolored by Blethen's Roundtable membership. In January 1995, Blethen invited Penwest Pharmaceuticals CEO Tod Hamachek to join the Times' board of directors after the paper published a harsh critique of the Endangered Species Act that Hamachek—a Roundtable member—had written on the organization's behalf. (Executives from Roundtable affiliates PACCAR and Simpson also serve on the Times' board.) About a year later, editorial-page editor Mindy Cameron praised the Roundtable's "useful, if largely invisible role" and gave readers a phone number to call to order the group's latest report, "Principles for Prosperity." Cameron's column was one of 36 Times articles that have mentioned the Roundtable since September 1993, nearly double the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's count of 22 references. Blethen, who says he occasionally "routes" Roundtable-generated material to Cameron, acknowledges being a "big fan" of the organization's president, Phil Bussey.

Like his cousin Frank, Times marketing manager Bob Blethen is comfortable running in circles widely considered off-limits to newspaper personnel. Last year he joined the board of the Economic Development Council of Seattle & King County, a highly influential organization chaired by Foster Pepper & Shefelman partner J. Tayloe Washburn and housed within the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce's top-floor headquarters at Rainier Tower. Blethen says he's no mere figurehead: "It's a very involved board." He also serves on the board of the Corporate Council for the Arts, which includes networking among its other, finer endeavors.

SEVERAL 'TIMES' EXECUTIVES—including Cameron, Frank Blethen, president Mason Sizemore, and senior vice president Carolyn Kelly—regularly attend gatherings of the Community Development Round Table (CDRT), a highly secretive Chamber of Commercesponsored organization that has held weekly luncheons at the Washington Athletic Club every Monday for the past 65 years. The CDRT was actually co-founded by Blethen's grandfather, Clarence Blethen, in 1933. Attendees—bank executives, developers, corporate investors, former elected officials, media executives, and other influential figures—must pledge not to allow anything said during the proceedings to slip into the news media, a tradition Blethen says should be dispensed with: "I wish they would drop that goofy off-the-record rule." Still, the Times is honoring the secrecy pledge; reporters have not written substantive stories about the Round Table agenda since the paper's electronic library was created in 1993.

The Blethens' one-man counterpart at the Seattle P-I, publisher/editor J.D. Alexander, makes perhaps more rounds than any other local media figure. Also a CDRT member, Alexander holds directorships with the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and its affiliated Alliance for Education, the Corporate Council for the Arts, and the Washington Council on International Trade (WCIT). Like the Washington Roundtable, the WCIT's roster is a corporate all-star team. Representatives from Boeing, Fluke, Frank Russell Co., Key Bank, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, PACCAR, and Seafirst all have a seat at the table, as do partners from several of Seattle's largest and most influential law firms, including Bogle & Gates, Perkins Coie, and Preston Gates & Ellis.

And while the Times looks to the Washington Roundtable, the P-I looks to the WCIT as a source. During the past five years, the paper has mentioned the trade council in 102 stories, half again as many as the Times' 68 references. Two months before Congress voted on the North American Free Trade Agreement in November 1993, the P-I ran a 2,000-word op-ed piece by WCIT president Robert Kapp, urging Washington's congressional delegation to "step quickly to NAFTA's side." Alexander's editorial writers followed up a few weeks later: "NAFTA is too important to sink." The trade council is planning to move into the new World Trade Center Seattle, a project strongly backed by both the P-I and Times.

Less surprising though no less noteworthy are the places where Puget Sound Business Journal publisher Mike Flynn shows up. In addition to the Chamber of Commerce and Community Development Round Table, Flynn also holds directorships with the World Affairs Council and the Association of Washington Business. The AWB is arguably the state's most powerful business lobby. Its 150-plus-member board spans all of Washington's nine congressional districts and is smattered with representatives from virtually every major corporation in the state. Flynn has even made it inside the walls of the Rainier Club, hosting an after-work "Hospitality Hour" at the highly exclusive, downtown Seattle meeting place last March.

Viewers of KIRO 7 news may be surprised to hear that evening anchor Susan Hutchison serves on the board of the Discovery Institute, a conservative/libertarian organization. Other board members include Mayor Paul Schell confidant Tom Alberg, losing Republican Senate candidate Chris Bayley, and former Nixon/Reagan cabinet member and GOP fund raiser William Ruckelshaus. (See "The Ruckelshaus Connection")

Hutchison, who said she joined Discovery's board in 1993 while on leave from KIRO, says she doesn't consider the institute a political organization. "It's recognized as a middle-ground think tank," she says. "Plus, almost everything is political. Even going to the grocery store is political." If only the Discovery Institute's positions were on the same level as picking out a laundry detergent: The organization espouses—among other things—teaching creationism, forming militias, lowering environmental standards when corporate profits are threatened, and increasing the role of religion in politics.

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