The Seattle Times Co. jumped into two of the state's hottest political contests Wednesday, launching a $75,000 independent-expenditure campaign promoting Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and announcing a similar effort in support of gay marriage.
The Seattle Times Co. jumped into two of the state’s hottest political contests Wednesday, launching a $75,000 independent-expenditure campaign promoting Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and announcing a similar effort in support of gay marriage.
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.
The Times Co. began the effort with a full-page ad on page B6 of Wednesday’s newspaper, touting McKenna as the “easy way” to end gridlock in Olympia. More pro-McKenna ads will follow — including one in Thursday’s paper — along with ads urging approval of Referendum 74, which would legalize gay marriage in Washington.
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.
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Fisco described the effort as a pilot project to show the power of newspaper political advertising and to attract new revenue. He 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.
The Seattle Times news department, which includes reporters covering the political campaigns, “was not part of the discussion or the decision to do this,” said Seattle Times Executive Editor David Boardman.
But the ad campaign was swiftly criticized by some journalism and political experts who said it threatens to damage the credibility of the newspaper’s reporting.
“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,” said Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar with the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Florida. “Their credibility is at stake.”
Dozens of Seattle Times news staff members on Wednesday were drafting a letter to Times Publisher Frank Blethen protesting the ad campaign.
The campaign in support of McKenna will total $75,750 and include ads every day through Election Day, according to a report filed Wednesday with the state Public Disclosure Commission. The ads were designed as an independent expenditure and were not coordinated with the McKenna campaign, The Times’ news release said.
Another $75,000 in contributions will go toward the gay-marriage campaign, said Jill Mackie, a Times spokeswoman.
The pro-gay-marriage ads are an in-kind contribution to the Washington United for Marriage campaign, which is receiving discounted rates for newspaper ads it is purchasing, said campaign manager Zach Silk.
The contributions reported for both campaigns are the market value of the advertising, not the actual cost to the newspaper.
The Seattle Times editorial board has strongly endorsed both McKenna and R-74, but the ad campaign takes that backing to another level, some experts said.
“Regular people have trouble believing there is a wall between the editorial side of news, and the reporting side. This would seem to make that even more difficult,” said Todd Donovan, political-science professor at Western Washington University. “My sense is the public perception of The Times’ credibility and objectivity takes a big hit here.”
Indeed, the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Jay Inslee said Wednesday the ad raised questions about the newspaper’s content.
“In this media environment most people read all news sources with a somewhat skeptical eye, but I think you have to look at The Seattle Times with a much more skeptical eye now,” said Inslee spokesman Sterling Clifford.
Frank Schubert, campaign director for Preserve Marriage Washington, called The Times decision “a stunning example of journalistic bias, greed and stupidity.” Schubert said the newspaper had “abandoned any pretense of objectivity” and said “the whole thing smacks of a pay-to-play scheme.”
Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington, said in addition to the credibility issues, he was not sure how the company could measure the effectiveness of its ad campaign.
That would require a controlled study, Barreto said, where some readers get the ads and others do not, followed by a comparison of their voting patterns.
This isn’t the first time The Seattle Times Co. has waded into political campaigns. For example, during the 1990s, the Blethen family, which owns a majority stake in the newspaper, sponsored political ads opposing Initiative 200, which ended affirmative-action programs in the state.
The newspaper also donated more than $6,000 worth of newspaper ads to an unsuccessful 2006 campaign to repeal Washington’s estate tax.
But Mackie confirmed the McKenna ad represented the first time the company has sponsored ads in support of a candidate in a partisan political race.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.