McGinn vs. The Times: Westneat Misses the Picture

We like Danny Westneat. So much so that we named him the best columnist in Seattle in this year’s Best Of issue.

However, to call his column yesterday a swing and a miss would be too generous – it was more of a bunt with two strikes that rolled foul: The piece wasn’t aiming for the fences in the first place, and it still fell flat.

The column set out to dispel the notion that The Seattle Times has an anti-McGinn bias.

By way of establishing that this notion is out there, he points to our report from a few weeks ago documenting what reporter Ellis E. Conklin called the Times’ “steady drumbeat of searing criticism” against McGinn.

By way of dispelling it, Westneat points to a wacky editorial in the Ballard News-Tribune suggesting that the anti-McGinn bias grows out of explicit marching orders given by Publisher Frank Blethen.

Westneat easily picks apart the nearly indefensible argument put forth by the Ballard News-Tribune, rightfully noting that newsrooms are more “barely-managed chaos” than carefully organized propaganda machines. Anyone who’s ever worked in a newsroom knows he’s right.

“In my nearly 10 years writing a column here, neither the publisher, Frank Blethen, nor any other boss has ever requested that I write on anything specific (including this column). Nor has the publisher stopped me from writing anything, or complained to me about what I wrote (including when I opposed an estate-tax initiative the newspaper contributed money to).”

Well, OK. But what Westneat fails to note is that newsrooms, and thus newspapers, do have narratives. Reporters and editors talk to each other and debate each other and in that way come to a somewhat general consensus about what framework stories should be given: What should be taken for granted, what shouldn’t; what deserves scrutiny, what doesn’t; What’s a front-page story, what belongs back with the funnies.

When people suggest you read foreign press for a different “viewpoint,” the “viewpoint” they are talking about gets to this very natural and unavoidable phenomenon. Reporters and editors are social beings and are influenced by the conversations they have with their loved ones, co-workers, sources and bosses.

In the case of McGinn, the bias that many in Seattle have detected from the only daily in town is one of narrative: From the get-go, McGinn has been viewed as a failure (the complainants say), and his efforts from there on out have been viewed as those of a failure trying to salvage his mayor-ship, be it with gimmicks or “wedge issues.” Either way, he’s engaged in generally un-mayoral behavior.

Given this premise, it wouldn’t have surprised the Times’ city hall reporters if he didn’t make it through the primary. Now that he easily advanced past the first round of elections, we’re preemptively reminded that we shouldn’t take stock in the election of 1973, in which a mayor with a similar primary showing went on to win the general election. “It was a different kind of time and very different issues.”

Meanwhile, positive developments in Seattle such as an improving economy and an overall drop in crime are written off as the work of national trends, not the mayor’s office.

The thing is, all of this coverage is defensible: reporters are paid to be skeptical, and if the newsroom on Denny Way thinks it smells a rat in City Hall, then it should by all means sniff it out.

But if Westneat’s column is any indication, the newsroom on Denny, rats though it may smell, doesn’t have a good sense of where its critics are coming from, which can be boiled down to: Where’s the rat?

Headline after headline speak to what amount to embarrassing but generally benign gaffes by McGinn, while the city continues to march down a path of general growth and prosperity – so much so that mayoral challenger Ed Murray can barely muster a strong policy disagreement with the current man in charge. Rather, Murray makes squishy promises about improving “tone” (in pointing this trend out, the Times somehow made it look as much of a flaw with McGinn’s campaign as it is with Murray’s.)

Again, I’d rather have a daily newspaper that takes a militant tone against power than one that sucks up to it.

But I also want a columnist who understands the issue at hand. I suspect Westneat understands it better than he let on in yesterday’s paper, but for whatever reason he chose to bunt.

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