Weird KOMO Story Signals Potential Media War Between Station’s Ownership and The Times

Is there bad blood brewing between The Seattle Times and the company that recently purchased KOMO 4 TV, the Sinclair Broadcast Group?

Judging by a recent piece that aired on KOMO, it would certainly seem that way. Attributed to co-anchor Russ Bowen and "news services," the Jan. 23 segment comes under the header "Is the newspaper industry dying?" You can watch it here.

There's a back story to the piece, of course. In late October the Seattle Times ran an editorial railing against media consolidation and the FCC's failure to enforce rules against it. "Corporations such as Sinclair Broadcast Group and Gannett are amassing news stations at an alarming rate, including multiple broadcast licenses in the same market "a violation of FCC rules designed to preserve competition, localism and diverse viewpoints," the Times editorial board opined. "The effect on Seattle viewers is eerie." Earlier in 2013 Sinclair announced plans to purchase KOMO and Fisher Broadcasting's 19 other West Coast TV stations, along with three Seattle radio stations, for a cool $373 million. (If Sinclair sounds familiar, it's probably because the company - which owns over 145 stations across the country - was at the center of the 2004 John Kerry "swift boat" documentary controversy, forcing its stations to air the politically motivated anti-Kerry piece in the days preceding that year's presidential election.)

Was KOMO's Jan. 23 segment on the death of newspapers like the Seattle Times a rebuttal? The Times seems to think so.

"The piece on KOMO seemed more of an opinion piece and less of a news piece. Sinclair/KOMO has every right to cover subjects as they see fit, but it is a good practice to advise audiences of the difference between news and opinion," Seattle Times Vice President of Public Affairs Jill Mackie tells Seattle Weekly via email. She says the Times "did hear a clear message from Sinclair and KOMO that they were unhappy with the Opinion piece."

After taking the time to view the Jan. 23 KOMO segment, a few things jump out: First of all, the fact that fewer and fewer people are getting their daily news from print on paper is well known, and not exactly breaking stuff. Circulation for daily print newspapers is down across the board, not just at the Times, which is clearly in the crosshairs of KOMO's piece. More importantly, the Times is also readily available on "every conceivable digital platform," just like KOMO, KING, KIRO and everyone else - an obvious fact the piece fails to note. If these digital platforms are the future of news, as the KOMO piece argues - and arguing the contrary at this point would be stupid - it seems the fact that the Times' website has the most unique visitors and page views of any news site in the area would at least be worth mentioning. But that fact is strangely absent.

"I thought it was odd that the KOMO piece didn't mention anything about that," Mackie says. "The Seattle Times has the largest newsroom in the region and is the number one news site in the region. And we have been investing in digital for a very, very long time. And our Pulitzer prize-winning reporting resonates with readers in both print and digital. In fact, it is not uncommon for those reporting on KOMO and other broadcast news outlets to base their reporting on news that originated in The Seattle Times. So, obviously, the facts contradict the conclusion [KOMO seems] to have drawn."

Lee Spieckerman is the "media expert" the KOMO piece relies heavily on. He's CEO of SpieckermanMedia LLC, a Dallas-based strategic communications consultancy and cable television network company, and according to his Twitter account, a media entrepreneur, strategic communications consultant, frequent Fox News commentator and political strategist, who formerly served as the president of the Texas Rangers TV Network and was an executive at LIN Media. Spieckerman has a long history of defending media consolidation, and the Times' editorial against it back in October pissed him off. He says he has no relationship, past or present, with Sinclair or its affiliates.

Not surprisingly, Spieckerman defends the KOMO piece. He tells Seattle Weekly that after an opinion article he wrote criticizing the Times for its stance on media consolidation for the trade industry website TV NewsCheck appeared online in December, he was contacted by Sinclair and offered to write a fresh op-ed to the Times - because it's an issue he's passionate about. He calls the Times' decision not to publish the op-ed "hypocritical."

Mackie tells Seattle Weekly that the Times' Opinions editors decided not to publish Spieckerman's op-ed for a number of reasons, including "factual errors," because he'd sent it to other media outlets and a similar version had already appeared at TV NewsCheck, and because the Times receives "more than 100 op-ed submissions per week and we only have space for seven - meaning we routinely have to turn down more than 90 percent of the pieces we receive."

Spieckerman's not buying it.

"Frankly, because I called-out the blatant hypocrisy of publisher Frank Blethen," Spieckerman says via email when asked why he believes the Times failed to run his op-ed. "I challenge the Seattle Times to produce any 'factual errors' in my piece (if there were any, they were de minimis). ... The op-ed I submitted to the Seattle Times - while consistent in position - was significantly different in wording from my TV NewsCheck piece. By the 'published elsewhere' standard the Seattle Times has conveniently invented for this op-ed, many op-eds it and other major newspapers have carried regarding other issues would never have been published. ... It's quite common for a person or organization to advance a consistent viewpoint in multiple opinion pieces for different local and national publications."

When it comes to the tone of KOMO's piece, and its omission of information about the reach of the paper's website, Spieckerman says the treatment was fair, and far nicer than he would have been.

"Not to be flip, but I doubt that anyone viewing the news story needed to be informed that The Seattle Times is on the Web," Spieckerman says. "Perhaps some did need to be reminded that the printed daily newspaper Blethen & Co. crushed, the PI, was still available in digital form."

"My immediate reaction upon viewing the KOMO story was that it was much kinder to The Seattle Times than I would have been had I crafted the package," he continues. "Props to KOMO for showing its viewers the full picture while not being nearly as justifiably tough on the paper as it could have been. Sinclair's TV station displayed a lot more objectivity and class in its handling of this situation than did Blethen's Bugle."

KOMO did not respond for comment on this story. If the station chooses to do so I will update this blog post accordingly.

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