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Times employees blast execs’ decision to finance McKenna ad

SEATTLE (Oct. 19, 2012) — More than 100 Seattle Times employees — reporters, photographers, editors, producers and artists — delivered a letter to Publisher Frank Blethen on Thursday in protest of Times executives’ decision to run free full-page ads, valued at $75,000, in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and a ballot measure. They said the ads threaten the Times’ “independence and credibility.”

“By sponsoring an ad for one gubernatorial candidate, The Seattle Times — the entire company — has become one of the top contributors in support of that candidate’s campaign,” the letter reads. “We are now part of that campaign’s machinery, creating a perception that we are not an independent watchdog.”

Times executives claimed the ads are meant to prove that political advertising in newspapers works, but the ads just happen to align with the newspaper’s editorial endorsements.

Meanwhile, PubliCola suggests that the Times’ ad, which calls McKenna “bipartisan,” could itself use the fact-checking “Truth Needle” treatment that the newspaper routinely gives to campaign ads:

Calling McKenna bipartisan is a questionable claim: He took up a Tea Party cause and sued the Obama administration to throw out Obamacare without consulting the Democratic leadership in Olympia, including Governor Chris Gregoire; his stump speech includes a call for more cuts in unemployment insurance even though the legislature already passed major bipartisan legislation that rejected demands from Republicans to push further; he wants to open up our state-run workers’ comp system to private insurers, a right-wing agenda item that went down in flames at the polls in 2010.

State Democratic Chairman Dwight Pelz said Thursday that he was “shocked” by the action, which he’d never seen before during his 35 years in Washington politics:

If CBS News announced on a national level that they were gonna donate hundreds of millions of dollars advertising for Mitt Romney to run an experiment to see whether it would elect him President of the United States, I think everybody would be horrified by that. The idea that they’re gonna run an experiment that says if we donate advertising to Rob McKenna, we want to find out if this elects him as governor, I think that’s a horrifying precedent and a real poorly designed marketing experiment. If they want to find out if their ads sell soap, you know, run ads for soap and see if it sells soap, but don’t do it for candidates.

Here is the entire letter that Times employees sent to their publisher:

Frank Blethen
The Seattle Times

Dear Frank,

We write to express our frustration that The Seattle Times Co. is publishing advertisements endorsing one of the state’s two candidates for governor, as well as a statewide referendum campaign.

We reporters, photographers, editors, columnists, producers and artists work every day to carry out this newspaper’s mission to communicate the news to the Northwest in as fair and objective a manner as possible. We are proud of our stewardship role and your continuous support over the years, despite significant financial burdens.

That is why the decision to publish these ads is so disappointing. It threatens the two things we value the most, the traits that make The Seattle Times a strong brand: Our independence and credibility.

We know you value those things, too. The Seattle Times Company has done an exemplary job providing value to advertisers while also practicing independent journalism.

The company has explained this decision as a creative attempt to grow revenue during the political ad season. In this economic environment initiatives for more revenue are welcomed.

But consider its effect on The Seattle Times’ core mission, journalism.

We strive to remain independent from the institutions we cover. We shine a light on the process from the outside. We are not part of the process.

This ad campaign threatens to compromise that integrity. By sponsoring an ad for one gubernatorial candidate, The Seattle Times — the entire company — has become one of the top contributors in support of that candidate’s campaign. We are now part of a campaign’s machinery, creating a perception that we are not an independent watchdog.

The publication of the first ad came one day after The Seattle Times showed its commitment to old-fashioned independent journalism by sponsoring a debate between the two candidates, moderated in part by one of our political reporters. During that debate, both candidates pointed to stories or editorials written by our staff to support their points. To the candidates and the viewing public, we weren’t part of one campaign or another. We were the arbiters, a trusted, third-party source of information. That is core to our identity.

The ads undermine the work we do and threaten to muddy that perception with the readers who rely on us.

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