Democratic candidate for governor Jay Inslee, left, and Republican candidate… (Ted S. Warren / Associated…)
SEATTLE — Just when it looked like the race for governor in Washington state couldn't get any more contentious — polls show Democrat Jay Inslee running dead-even with Rob McKenna, the Republican attorney general — the local newspaper decided to weigh in.
Not just with an editorial. The Seattle Times in June endorsed McKenna, much the way hometown newspapers across the country usually pick sides during election season.
But since last week, large advertisements touting McKenna's "new direction for Washington" have been appearing in the Times. They look like any other political ad, except these say they were "paid for by the Seattle Times Company."
Donated ads on behalf of a controversial ballot measure in support of same-sex marriage, Referendum 74, are also appearing in the Seattle paper.
The fact that the state's largest newspaper is buying space in its own pages to tout political campaigns has outraged members of the Times' news staff, who say the move compromises the paper's independence; and has prompted many readers to cancel their subscriptions.
"Disgusted. Cancelled my subscription today ... a strong protest message has to be sent," one reader wrote. "The poor operator on the phone practically begged me to simply put on a 'protest hold' for a week or two, but I'm afraid the only language the idiots running the paper will listen to is the loss of revenue, not protest holds."
Washington Conservation Voters, which is backing Inslee, a former congressman, launched an online petition calling on the paper to cancel the ads. "How can we trust their reporting on the governor's race, when they've clearly picked their horse in the race?" the group said.
The newspaper's management says the campaign is an effort to generate revenue by demonstrating the effectiveness of newspaper advertising to political advertisers. Millions of dollars spent so far on the governor's race have focused on television and direct-mail ads rather than newspapers.
"After a number of election cycles trying to convince candidates and consultants to give us a try in a meaningful way, we decided to take the initiative and demonstrate proof of concept for the effectiveness of a print newspaper campaign," the management said in a statement on its website.
State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz denounced the ads as soon as they appeared last week. The first one, calling McKenna "a choice that will make us all proud," ran a full page.
"It's an unprecedented move by a newspaper to become financially involved in an election," said Benton Strong, Democratic Party spokesman.
Inslee's communications director, Sterling Clifford, said it appeared the Times had followed "the letter of the law" by paying for its own ad space as an independent expenditure. But he said it was jarring to see the ad in the same paper that featured coverage of a gubernatorial debate that was cosponsored by the Times, along with KING-5 television.
"The most obvious way in which it impacts the race is the total destruction of the credibility of the Seattle Times, which is not something that makes anyone happy; I want to be clear about that," Clifford said. "We're confident it's not going to change the outcome of the election, but it's a close race, and everything matters."
McKenna's campaign spokesman, Charles McCray III, said he could say very little because of legal restrictions separating campaigns from those making expenditures on their behalf. But he said it was "somewhat telling" that Democratic Party officials were not expressing similar outrage at ads launched on behalf of the same-sex marriage initiative.
Perhaps most upset was the staff at the Times. More than 100 reporters, editors, columnists and photographers signed a statement urging management to consider the effects of the ads. "We strive to remain independent from the institutions we cover," they said. "We shine a light on the process from the outside. We are not part of the process."
The Times' executive editor, David Boardman, said the campaign took him by surprise. In a column over the weekend, he pledged that the paper's news coverage would remain impartial.