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

Frank Blethen Credit: 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.

So, with Blethen on the war path against the Arena, will the newsroom and the sports columnists seek another way to demonstrate their independence? Game's on!

Finally, the ancient tensions between newsrooms and editorial pages seem to me a healthy balance of powers. In effect, daily papers put out two papers. One puts more value in unbiased reporting; the other more emphasis on analysis and armchair sermons. The editorial page is typically written by older writers and with a more conservative, business-friendly slant that often reflects the publisher and his friends.

Blethen is unusual in how distant he is, socially and politically, from the Seattle business community, and also by how much freedom he gives his news executives. The result is a paper that is much less predictable than most, and more loosely managed from the top. For readers, we get the benefit of the occasional family feud, played out in public.

I doubt that this leads to a revival of the publisher as strong civic powerbroker. But, in a curious way, it might lead to renewed respect by the public for the scrappiness of Times employees and reporters. For myself, I admire the independence of Blethen on the Arena issue, and his willingness to let the newsroom undress him in public; and the newsroom for doing so. And of course I defend to the death the right for publishers to do really dumb things. 

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