OLYMPIA – The biggest news in the state’s political campaigns last week probably was not made by a politician or group working for or against a ballot measure.
It was made by the Seattle Times Co., with a decision to run a full-page ad in support of Republican Rob McKenna’s gubernatorial bid, at no cost to the McKenna campaign.
The newspaper said it is paying out of its own coffers for McKenna ads and for others supporting the same-sex marriage measure, Referendum 74. It’s an effort, the great minds in the Times’ business offices say, to prove how effective newspaper advertising can be for a campaign.
To be clear, this is not merely a reprint, in giant type in case anyone might have missed them, of editorials the Times has already published endorsing McKenna and Referendum 74. These are ads with art and graphics and color that someone, or several someones, in the newspaper’s ad department conceived and labored over.
They go down in the Public Disclosure Commission’s books as independent expenditures: between now and Nov. 6, the company plans to spend $75,750 for McKenna and $75,000 to help get a yes vote on the ballot measure. Although the newspaper endorsed both on its editorial pages, the decision to run the ads was made without consultation or even advance notice to the news side of operation.
Not surprisingly, the Inslee campaign, the state Democratic Party to which he belongs and the group opposing same-sex marriage reacted negatively. So did some journalism organizations. More than 100 Times staff members signed a letter protesting the decision, saying it threatened to compromise the paper’s integrity by making it “part of the campaign machinery.”
Publisher Frank Blethen said the letter just proved that there was a separation between the business and editorial sides.
Maybe for Blethen, but probably not for much of the rest of the political world or the news-consuming public. The fact that newspapers endorse a candidate or an issue on their editorial pages, while common, nonetheless creates a problem for some voters. Even some candidates or campaign workers ask: How can a reporter be fair to us when his or her editors are supporting the opposition?
The quick answer: We don’t care about endorsements, and most of us don’t even read the editorial page during campaign season. I usually know who The Spokesman-Review has endorsed in a race I cover, because for 24 hours afterwards they’re treating me like their new best friend, and the other side isn’t returning my phone calls. After a while, both sides get over it.
If anyone asks about endorsements, I tell them two things: I don’t have input, let alone a vote, in the process, and an endorsement carries as much negative juju as positive juju. Depending on where you’re running in the Spokane area, it can be the kiss of death.
But the Times’ campaign takes this friction to a whole new level and seems bad on a couple levels. First, newspapers are struggling through declining staffs and shrinking news holes, so tossing around more than $150,000 is not chump change.
The other is, McKenna currently is behind in the polls. If he doesn’t win, what, if anything, does that say about the effectiveness of campaign ads in the Times?
Referendum 74 is an even bigger gamble. It’s slightly ahead in the polls, and if it wins there’s no way to measure the impact of the ads. If it goes down, the supporters of same-sex marriage are going to look for someone to blame. They might draw a bull’s-eye on the Times.