What's the bee in Frank Blethen's bonnet?

When the Seattle Times' publisher decided to run political ads, he poked the bear of the newsroom. Guess who has more power? And what else might have gotten under Blethen's skin?

Frank Blethen

Frank Blethen Seattle Times

One of the strong traditions in the newspaper industry, now playing out in Seattle, is the animosity between the newsroom and the editorial page. And so, when Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen threw caution to the winds (not for the first time) and took out ads endorsing Rob McKenna for governor and R-74 (gay marriage), he was risking pushback, and not just from Democrats and readers.

So far, it's not working out for Blethen's side. Democrats supporting Inslee had a field day in whipping up resentment at huffy publishers and, by implication, all those other papers that have endorsed McKenna. As I suspected, the newsroom, feeling its integrity and independence attacked, has not lacked for weapons, as well as a strong need to demonstrate its independence by bending against the publisher's wind.

First came a rather amazing attack on the facts in Blethen's ads for McKenna. The Truth Needle found the ad to be "half-true," and extracted confessions of sloppiness from management.

On Sunday, the newsroom scored another touchdown or two by running a tough article on McKenna's heavy use of free travel while attorney general, posting this fairly hackneyed line of criticism on the front page. On the front page of the second section, Jay Inslee was granted over-much credit for his claim to be the "outsider" in Olympia, a fine bit of political jiu-jitsu given that the Democrats have become entrenched after 28 years of holding the governor's mansion.

Predictable this may be, but I doubt it's being received with good grace by the publisher, known for his lengthy grudge-bearing. After all, publishers do have a certain upper hand when it comes to layoff decisions, promotions and contract negotiations.

So what would have induced Blethen and his advertising department to poke the bear in this fashion? My guess has to do with publisher pride, aggravated by a world where publisher power is eroding.

Publishers, and editors of editorial pages, used to count for a great deal in the civic debate, and this was one of the perks of ownership. When, for instance, the idea of a Seattle World's Fair was being hatched, the martini lunch at the Washington Athletic Club in January 1956 consisted of City Councilman Al Rochester, Don Follett, head of the Chamber of Commerce, and Ross Cunningham, editorial director of the Seattle Times. Cunningham, a master power broker for decades, went right down to Olympia and lobbied for the first appropriation.

Eddie Carlson, the business leader of the Fair, later observed, when asked if Seattle could pull off such an event again, that it could not, "because the media wouldn't let it." He missed the Cunningham era, which he had played like a Stradivarius. Likewise, Jim Ellis, the father of Forward Thrust, has said that once you took away the ability to line up the major newspaper for articles and editorials on big projects, Seattle paralysis had taken hold.

The Blethens have been far less visible in such a power-broker role, though lieutenants such as Cunningham and former president Jerry Pennington had tremendous civic sway. As for the Post-Intelligencer, it hasn't really played the influence game since Dan Starr and Virgil Fassio were publishers and would get deeply involved in civic crusades such as the zoo, and especially sports stadiums.

Ah, yes, stadiums. If ever there is a time when major papers (with all those sports-fans readers) like to throw their weight around it's sports. Yet here is the editorial board of the Times among the toughest skeptics of the SoDo Arena proposal. According to a source on the pro-Arena team, Blethen came to feel that he and the Times brass were brought into the inside discussions rather late. Could well have been: so was the City Council. Late notice may have stemmed from fears of leaks or early opposition. Newspapers may lack the sway they once had, but when it comes to such a big issue as a new basketball and hockey arena, you had better not risk publisher's ire by clueing them in late.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Oct 29, 8:05 a.m. Inappropriate

The Times and the Blethen family has always stuffed their noses into the political and labor arenas in western Washington, from the patriarch , the self-styled "colonel" Alden J. Blethen and on down the line and up the years. The historylink article on the "colonel" says of his early career in Kansas City, "His interest in newspapers apparently stemmed from a passion for politics and an ambition to influence public opinion." As the Seattle General Strike Project website says: "The Seattle Daily Times was the personal editorial organ of Col. Alden Blethen, famous for both his brash style and his total contempt for unionism and socialism in any form."

Posted Mon, Oct 29, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting and insightful take, David, and well-written as usual. If I were doing a "Truth Needle," I'd call it "Half True" at least! When I joined The Times' editorial board in 1977, editorial endorsements had a LOT of influence: Many people would read them and vote the other way! Ross Cunningham was semi-retired, but wrote a weekly column. Since we were neighbors in North Seattle, I sometimes carpooled with him, and as a young journalist was in awe of his vast connections and inside knowledge of how Seattle worked in those days. Eddie Carlson and Jim Ellis, who I also got to know, rightly described the waning influence of the media -- which was probably a good thing although it often led to "process paralysis," as noted. You're right about the internal tensions between the newsroom and the editorial board, but sometimes those existed within the ed board as well. When Frank Blethen became publisher after Jerry Pennington's tragic death, he encouraged us to debate issues openly on our page. He said we could write personal columns opposing Times editorial stands. So I did one objecting to The Times' endorsements of Michael Dukakis and Cynthia Sullivan! (Might have been the beginning of the end for me there.) When Mindy Cameron took over from Herb Robinson as Editorial-Page Editor, she moved the page more to the left from the centrist stance Herb had sought. But remember when she wrote a column opposing a Times editorial position? Awkward! Strong contrarian voices such as John Carlson and Michelle Malkin were featured for awhile, but didn't last long. Jim Vesely moved the page back toward the center, with a fine hand. Kate Riley has been fairly unpredictable -- which is good! Editorial pages should be provocative, not predictable. Today it's a conversation, not a lecture. Freedom of the press is no longer guaranteed only to those who own one. We're all journalists now, in the new digital news and information ecosystem. As for The Times' in-house ad experiment, I think it's more about price than pride. Why should all the big campaign-spending bucks go to the TV stations? There have been quite a few more full-page ads by candidates and causes in The Times in recent days, so maybe the new business strategy is working. Either way, publishers still have a good share of power and influence, as you and Frank daily demonstrate. One of these years the Washington News Council might "toast and roast" you both at our annual Gridiron West Dinner. THAT would be fun. Game on!

Posted Mon, Oct 29, 9:39 a.m. Inappropriate

It's interesting to note that some of the most persuasive arguments in favor of putting a third stadium in SoDo came not from the mainstream press but from The Stranger.

Posted Mon, Oct 29, 12:35 p.m. Inappropriate

The problem with third generation ownership is that the qualities that built the empire are usually no longer much in evidence. But the inherited power is still a force to be reckoned with. Frank Blethen has always seemed like a guy with a short attention span and lots of excess anger boiling through his system looking for an outlet. Maybe in the interests of therapy (and to spare the editorial board) we should take up a collection to buy Frank's neighbors another dog for him to use as target practice.

woofer

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 1:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for confirming that the newsroom hacks 'sleep with' and do the bidding of Inslee and the dems and that they are not objective reporters.

animalal

Posted Tue, Oct 30, 7:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Blethen detached? Hardly. He's courted conservatives for as long as I've read the paper which is decades. He's a big ego and he all business. This article isn't altogether honest. Good try, Brewster.

Posted Wed, Oct 31, 2:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I think it's ungenerous to suggest that some variety of pique moved the Times publisher to oppose the Stadium (" you had better not risk publisher's ire by clueing them in late."). Allah knows there are plenty of good, substantial and thoroughly admirable reasons to oppose the stadium deal. Then, David, you have to consider that Mr. Blethen has a staff of writers whose political views probably diverge substantially from his own. I will guess you, as publisher of the Weekly, found more common cause with the folks who wrote for you. Think of trying to salvage a money losing enterprise with your own personal funds when the flagship of this business argues against many of your own political beliefs. That must be agonizing. Might make you a little bit testy. Excuse my speculation but it is an interesting subject you bring up. Thank you.

kieth

Posted Fri, Nov 2, 11:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Hopefully Blethen will find that it's easier to shoot dogs than to buy elections.

Kafkaeske

Posted Sat, Nov 3, 6:57 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm going to agree with Kieth. There are many good reasons to at least question the arena proposal, and it's notable that the Times has raised a few of those reasons. The suggesation that Blethen's concerns were based on pique at having been brought to the conversation late is as close to a catty aside as I can imagine.

Especially since the source is someone on the "pro-arena" team. And I'll bet I could guess the source.

/deb eddy/

Deb Eddy

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