Seattle Times staffers protest newspaper's endorsement of candidate, gay marriage

More than 100 Seattle Times news staffers have signed a protest letter over the newspaper company's decision to sponsor political ads promoting a Republican gubernatorial candidate and a referendum to legalize gay marriage.

The Times launched the campaign with a full-page ad touting GOP candidate Rob McKenna in Wednesday's editions. Company officials described the campaign as an effort to demonstrate the effectiveness of newspaper advertising and to attract new political-ad revenue.

The move -- which company executives described as an experiment -- drew harsh criticism from Democrats and from opponents of gay marriage, as well as from journalism and political experts.

The letter from Times newsroom staffers, delivered Thursday to Publisher Frank Blethen, warned the campaign threatened the newspaper's credibility with readers.

"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 threatens to compromise that integrity," the letter said, noting The Times had become "part of the campaign's machinery, creating a perception that we are not an independent watchdog."

Times spokeswoman Jill Mackie responded via email, saying there was "not a newspaper publisher in the United States who is more respectful or supportive of journalists."

Blethen "appreciates the journalists sharing their views and notes their doing so reinforces the reality of the independence/separation between journalism and this effort we are all talking about," Mackie wrote.

The Times Co.'s $75,750 independent-expenditure campaign in support of McKenna will include newspaper ads through Election Day, according to state Public Disclosure Commission filings.

The company also will provide about $75,000 in discounts for ads from Washington United for Marriage, the pro-gay marriage campaign, according to Times officials.

McKenna and Referendum 74 on gay marriage have also been endorsed by The Seattle Times editorial board, but the editorial board is not involved in the ad campaign.

The company's decision to jump into the races as a political donor has drawn harsh criticism from some journalism and political experts.

State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz blasted The Times ad campaigns at a Thursday news conference, criticizing the company's statements that the effort was an experiment to promote ad sales.

"If CBS News announced on a national level that they were going to donate hundreds of millions of dollars in 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," Pelz said.

Journalism experts were equally critical.

"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."

Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University, shared those concerns.

"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," Donovan said. "My sense is the public perception of The Times' credibility and objectivity takes a big hit here."

-- Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times

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