SEATTLE TIMES TAKES MAJOR HEAT FOR PROVIDING OVER $150,000 IN POLITICAL ADS SUPPORTING ROB McKENNA & GAY MARRIAGE BILL
October 18, 2012
Facsimile of Seattle Times Oct. 17 website news story announcing the Times company had contributed over $150,000 in advertising value to support Rob McKenna for governor and support the gay marriage bill in Washington. CLICK TO ENLARGE
(SEATTLE, WA) -- In a stunning and bold move that has raised more than few eyebrows in journalism and political circles - and may have seriously damaged the perceived credibility of the journalists who work at the Seattle Times newspaper – the Pulitzer Prize winning news outlet has directly involved itself in two of Washington State's most hotly contested political issues by launching over $150,000 in “independent-expenditure campaign” ads promoting Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and a similar ad campaign in support of Referendum 74 the gay marriage bill, according to a story published the evening of October 17 on the paper’s website.
The ads will run in the pages of the Seattle Times.
The report says the move, “Which company executives described as an experiment to show the power of newspaper political advertising — drew harsh criticism from Democrats and from opponents of gay marriage, as well as from journalism and political experts.”
Since the dawn of the era of “modern” journalism, virtually no newspaper or television station news department would dare risk the credibility of its reporters – or at least the public perception of the fairness of the news organization's reporting – by ever buying ads in any political campaign for any reason.
In the news business, staying out of partisan politics in terms of supporting any candidate or issue has long been considered a sacred "firewall" that should never be breached.
The fact that this move was undertaken by a heritage, well known Pulitzer prize winning newspaper makes it all the more stunning.
From many a reader's point of view a news outlet that plays favorites in politics – or that carries the perception of playing favorites – can no longer be trusted to deliver fair and equitable reporting, particularly when the newspaper “has a horse in the race” that it is betting on so to speak.
TIMES REPORTERS PUSH BACK
Predictably the move is drawing heat from the company’s own reporters. The story on the ad buy – some $75,750 in support of McKenna for governor to include ads every day through Election Day and another 75,000 in contributions to go toward the gay-marriage campaign – resulted in “Dozens of Seattle Times news staff members on Wednesday…drafting a letter to Times Publisher Frank Blethen protesting the ad campaign,” said the Times story about the expenditures.
The story about the ad buy carried quotes by Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar with the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida, as saying the paper’s “credibility is at stake…It's not the newspaper's problem; it's not the publisher's problem; it's not even the readers' problem; it's the problem of the reporters who are covering these issues and these candidates."
The report, which can be read here said the decision to run the ads was made by the corporate side of The Times, and was "completely separate from the journalism functions of the newspaper," Alan Fisco, Seattle Times executive vice president, revenue and new products, said in a news release.
He described the effort as “a pilot project to show the power of newspaper political advertising and to attract new revenue.”
Fisco said the company will analyze the effectiveness of the ad campaigns and “present the results to political consultants and campaigns to try to persuade them to advertise more in the newspaper.”
TIMES READERS RESPOND
Many of the reader comments about the announcement posted on the Times website were highly critical of the move by the paper’s advertising management.
One reader wrote:
“Even though I agree with one position and disagree with the other, this calls the whole of the Times' journalistic credibility into question. It is consistent, however, with what I have observed over the past 30 years of reading the Times; there is a clear slant and bias to nearly all aspects of this paper. I cancelled my subscription long ago. I read online now, but hold the Times at a new level of contempt.”
Another reader had this to say:
“Nothing but corporate welfare sucking tax breaks from the taxpayers. It's time we put an end to that in January. It would be great for another newspaper to begin publishing that would show a little professionalism. OK BLETHEN, TAKE YOUR CORPORATE GREED AND LEAVE TOWN, TAKING YOUR POOR EXCUSE OF A PAPER WITH YOU.”
Derek Thompson, a Senior Editor at The Atlantic wrote a piece about the Times decision which he called “pretty much the weirdest media business decision I have ever heard of.”
You’ll find his piece here
TIMES MOVE COMES AS AMERICANS HAVE ALL TIME LOW OPINION OF MEDIA FAIRNESS
The Times action arguably could not have come at a worse time for the public’s perception of fairness in the media.
The results of a Gallup poll that were released September 21 contain “a damning indictment of mainstream media” as one report phrased it.
The poll showed that 60% of Americans - an all-time high - do not trust mainstream, mass media outlets to accurately or fairly report the news.
The Gallup release on the poll said:
“The record distrust in the media, based on a survey conducted Sept. 6-9, 2012, also means that negativity toward the media is at an all-time high for a presidential election year.
This reflects the continuation of a pattern in which negativity increases every election year compared with the year prior. The current gap between negative and positive views -- 20 percentage points -- is by far the highest Gallup has recorded since it began regularly asking the question in the 1990s.
Trust in the media was much higher, and more positive than negative, in the years prior to 2004 -- as high as 72% when Gallup asked this question three times in the 1970s.
Last year, Gallup found that almost half of Americans (47%) believed the mainstream media had a liberal bias. Unsurprisingly, Republicans are the most distrustful of the media. Only 26% felt they could trust the media to accurately report the news. This is actually similar to levels registered in 2008.
The biggest shift is with Independents. Less than a third of Independents, 31%, felt they could trust the mass media. This represents a big drop from 2008.
As a result, only 39% of Americans say they very closely follow the mainstream media for news about national politics this election year. This, too, is a sharp drop from 2008.”
A 2004 story about the news media’s “crumbling credibility” can be found here