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When the publisher becomes a political activist.

What if your publisher took out an ad in the newspaper to support a position already enunciated many times on your editorial page?

A. No big deal. B. Certainly better than using ad space to take an opposite position.

C. It would seem at least a little odd.

D. Outrage! Storm the publisher's office and demand an end to the ads.

It happened here. I chose B and C.

Last fall voters in Washington state passed Initiative 200, a measure that ends affirmative action programs for women and minorities in state and local government hiring and contracting and in college and university admissions.

Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen has few passions in life. Maintaining family ownership of the newspaper is one. Advocacy of equality for all Americans and the necessary steps to achieve that goal is another.

That passion has long been a guiding principle of The Times' editorial page. No surprise then that our opposition to 1-200 was expressed early and often throughout 1998. We also invited readers to write essays about personal experiences with racial, ethnic, and gender diversity and published many of them during the year, including some that disagreed with our editorial position.

At The Seattle Times, the publisher is not a daily presence in the hammering out of editorials and blending of viewpoints on the editorial and op-ed page. It's my job as editor to always hear his voice in the back of my head as I make daily decisions.

Don't surprise the boss

I've learned the importance of the don't-surprise-the-boss rule. In 10 years, the few miserable occasions we've had serious disagreements over an editorial had to do with some element of surprise or misunderstanding based on too little communication.

There was no surprise and certainly no misunderstanding about our position on I-200.

But, as the I-200 campaign heated up, Blethen made the unusual decision to step outside modern newspaper protocol, in which the publisher's view is represented on the editorial page. He used ad space in his newspaper to deliver his message.

For a publisher with a deeply held passion, perhaps our editorials were too cool, too rational. Here was a time the publisher wanted his voice to go directly to readers, to voters. And he wanted that voice enhanced by ad copy writers, rather than filtered through editorial writers.

Blethen deliberately avoided seeking advice about the ad campaign from me or from the executive editor who oversees the newsroom. He had a pretty strong suspicion what we would say and he didn't want to put us in the position of advising against an action he was determined to take.

The publisher's ad campaign was a more difficult issue for news reporters and editors. They had done a fine job all year of getting beyond who said what about 1-200. Enterprising reporters plumbed the depths of affirmative action programs. Careful analysis of statistics and doggedly balanced reporting was a hallmark of The Seattle Times' news coverage of the I-200 debate.

To have the publisher front and center with an ad campaign raised all sorts of worries about perceptions and assumptions of readers as well as sources. Wouldn't they wonder: Are these guys really balanced about this after all?

I understood that concern, but an editorial page is expected to take sides, so neutrality was not my issue. It just seemed awkward and a little puzzling. What did running ads to reiterate an editorial position (though with fewer words and lots more white space) say about the relative merits of the editorial page vs. paid advertising? I'm not sure I really want to know the answer to that.

We agreed to disagree

I did not storm the publisher's office. We agreed to disagree. The executive editor wrote a column explaining why he and most reporters and editors were concerned about the ad campaign.

In the end, voters were not persuaded by either editorials or the publisher's ads. I-200 was approved by 58% at the polls.

Blethen says virtually all of the non-newsroom feedback he got about the ads was positive. He believes it enhanced the newspaper's reputation in the community.

Will he do it again?

I hope not. But he's the boss.

NCEW member Mindy Cameron is editorial page editor of The Seattle Times. Her e-mail address is mcameron@seattletimes.com
COPYRIGHT 1999 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Cameron, Mindy
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1999
Words:717
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