Bloggers and activists created a dramatic buzz about The Seattle Times editorial board's March 4 meeting with U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. Editorial page editor Ryan Blethen reports on what turned out to be a routine meeting in a common process that informs Times journalists.
An editorial board meeting with the U.S. drug czar was billed as a First Amendment showdown.
On one side of the table, the editorial staff of The Seattle Times, ready to rebuff the bureaucratic pressure brought to bear by the White House. On the other side of the table, Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, sent to Seattle to force The Times to change its pro-legal cannabis position.
As far as heavyweight matches go this one ranked up there with a Buster Douglas bout sans Mike Tyson. In other words, Kerlikowske came and did not say much of anything other than the Obama administration does not support the legalization of cannabis and that prescription drugs have become a huge problem.
Not a stop-the-presses moment.
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Kerlikowske’s evasive, canned answers and lack of force made this a regular editorial board meeting. No fireworks. No pressure. Just a talk about drug policy.
After word got out via The Stranger a couple weeks ago that Kerlikowske was coming to the newspaper for a meeting on March 4, I received a steady stream of e-mails urging me to stand up to him because he was being sent by the White House to change our minds about cannabis.
I can understand, to a point, how people assumed Kerlikowske was making a special trip to Seattle. On Feb. 20 we published an editorial supporting state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson’s bill to legalize marijuana. Two days later Kerlikowske’s office sent us an e-mail asking for an editorial board to talk about drug policy.
Not an unusual request given that he was going to be in town anyway for another event and that he is Seattle’s former chief of police. We get all sorts of D.C. types passing through when they are in town for some event or another. We also get our fair share of officials stopping by when they are visiting friends or family here.
A consistent theme in the e-mails was that the editorial board needed to stand up to the drug czar because his mission was to turn us into a federal mouthpiece. Stay a free press, not a federal press was the mantra. The e-mails came in from all across the nation because news of the meeting made it on various blogs and websites.
The editorial board even drew protesters. I would probably not be wrong claiming that The Times has never had a group of protesters show up to support the newspaper. That is what happened. A small band of pro-pot folks rallied in front of The Times with chants of support for us and denunciations of Kerlikowske.
I appreciated the concern and support. But I also knew the fear was misplaced. Editorial boards make a living listening to and questioning politicians. It is not wrong that government officials meet with newspapers, unless those officials are making threats, which I’ve never witnessed at The Times. You can bet if we were unduly pressured we would write about it.
Done right, editorial board meetings are a way for the public to know what government is doing or not doing. Our meetings are on the record and often prompt an editorial, blog post on Ed Cetera or a column. Sometimes all three.
We use the meetings as a way to question politicians, special interest groups, unions, non-profits and businesses about topics and issues we are writing about. Rarely do meetings turn into a lecture about why we are wrong. The hour is usually a calm, occasionally forceful, discussion.
Sometimes we learn something new. Other times our view is reinforced. For the most part the information is folded into a larger matrix and adds to our internal conversations.
That is where the drug czar’s visit fell on the spectrum. A civil discourse on a topic of disagreement. Kerlikowske said nothing to change our position. Really, even when pressed, he did not say much of anything.
Ryan Blethen’s column appears on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org