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The P-I: Saying goodbye to a liberal voice

Original Article

The editorial ‘Too many posers’ in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer assails the majority Democrats in the Washington State Legislature for not following through on their promise to adopt green “cap and trade” legislation. It would have been much better for them to respond to the recession by committing political suicide, apparently.

It was a perfectly pitched swan song for the unfailingly liberal voice of Seattle’s rainy, gritty (sometimes faux gritty) Left Coast culture. Today the 146-year old news organization ceases paper publication and goes solely online. I will miss the paper.

I don’t want to belabor the failure of the paper to include more right-wing commentary over the years, not to mention the failure to cover news that conservatives regard as important. But it is fair criticism. There may not be more than about a quarter of Seattle area readers who are right of center, but writing them off would seem to have been a publishing mistake. As is, I suspect that conservatives are giving up big city newspapers faster than anyone.

Likewise, as the downward trend of revenues reduced formerly standard features, business coverage was an especially unfortunate loss. Once the high end business reader decamps to, say, the Puget Sound Business Journal, the relevance of a metro daily declines in the minds of the very people an advertising salesman needs to reach. Or so it seems to me.

Regardless, let’s be fair: a lack of balance didn’t kill the P-I, and the decline of business coverage was more a symptom than a cause of collapse. Surely the Internet turned out to more deadly a foe than imagined. The cost of newsprint, meanwhile, rose high enough to absorb the entire expense that the subscriber pays, and more. And maybe, just maybe, our post-modern schools are producing readers with very short attention spans and relatively small understanding of how society actually works. You can’t interest someone in the failure of the Legislature to pass cap and trade (to use today’s editorial as an example) if they barely know what a legislature does.

Resolute newspaper reader that I remain, and one-time editorial writer (New York Herald-Tribune in 1965-66, during my tender youth and the paper’s final agonies) it is sad to witness this loss. As has been said before, while its product is almost always forgotten in a few hours, a great city newspaper is somehow a living creature.

In a proper history of our era you would have a newspaper’s account of what people at a certain time thought was important, but you also would have the paper’s own role in those events, and behind that the people doing the writing, making the policy decisions (what’s newsworthy, what’s not, what’s adequately sourced, what is hearsay). Someone realistic might even find some time to recall the poor souls in advertising and circulation who tried to make the money that allowed the paper to continue. Someone truly magnanimous might find some sympathy for the “suits” of management.

For myself, considering the P-I, I recollect the roles the paper played in such seminal events as the Century 21 World’s Fair that restored Seattle’s Progressive Era ambitions, and the Forward Thrust bond issues whose enactment saw the city through the “Boeing Recession” of 1970-’72. The paper was criticized as a “booster” in those days, which criticism it usually ignored and which it always should have ignored. A newspaper that wants community support needs to support the community.

The P-I was politically daring, in any case, often the chip-on-the-shoulder guy, the underdog. I think back, usually in rueful fondness, to a parade of political campaigns. The paper helped create Governor Dixy Lee Ray and then helped bring her down. Earlier its exposé of scandal in the Seattle Police Department contributed to the electoral defeat of County Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll and his replacement by the young, reform-minded Christopher Bayley. The comparable changeover in the City Council during the 1970s, led by C.H.E.C.C. (“Choose an Effective City Council”), also bore secondhand finger prints from enthusiastic P-I editors. That being true, the P-I (and the Seattle Times) also can be said to have helped forge the changes that made Seattle one of the nation’s “most livable cities.”

I am recalling the bright young reporter of the 1960s, Bobbi McCallum, who (it occurs to me now) was one of the trailblazers for female journalists. (May I also recall that she was lovely and fun?) When McCallum died, her friends commissioned a statue and fountain by the renowned sculptor, George Tsutakawa. It has welcomed visitors to the entrance of The P.I. at the old headquarters as well as the new. I wonder where it is going now.

Memory summons, too, the idealistic suburban mom, Ruth Howell, who worked her way into a great career as the P.I.’s devoted and provocative editorial page editor in the early ’70s. Both these fine women were writing almost to the time they died, which adds a sharp poignance to their personal stories.

The roster of writers and editors is a bit painful to recall generally, because a number became friends. There was a time when, along with everyone else, my breakfast always included the droll gossip and wry opinions of the late Emmett Watson. Maybe in my time I even sent him a few items?

Other P-I writers of note are still around. Shelby Scates, the Tennessee-born, corruption-scenting hound dog of the Legislature – who retired to write about some of the remarkable figures with whom his career intersected, such as Warren Magnuson and (an example of Scates’ national reach), Maurice Rosenblatt. The latter, Scates explained, not only pioneered what became the modern political action committee (the Committee for a More Effective Congress), but also was an under-appreciated force in the anti-McCarthy movement. Committed reporter/columnists sniff out such unusual characters and stories and make journalism into history.

I could mention the conscientious, thoroughly professional Charles Dunsire, whom I met when he was covering the City Council and then again when he was editorial page editor in the early 1990s. Chuck gave me a weekly column and defended it, even though it often surely grated on some of his colleagues. (His successor told me I would have to stop attacking scientific materialism, so I quit.)

Now, of course, you have Joel Connelly, columnist and former political reporter, who has been a scourge of Republicans for so long that some have developed a secret affection for him. Mere nodding notice from this redoubtable liberal is like a bouquet of roses from John Carlson (of KVI talk radio). For his part, Connelly can count on a number of Legislative initiatives that were inched along their way over the decades by his advocacy at the P-I – the North Cascades National Park comes to mind as one monument.

The sports reporter/philosopher Art Thiel; ace business and technology writer Bill Virgin; the brilliant, and, of course, unfair, David Horsey, nationally admired editorial cartoonist – the roster goes on. It is going to be hard for them and others to turn the page. I know what closing a paper is like; saying goodbye to people like that. It’s awful. For what seems like decades I have sent op-ed drafts to Kimberly Mills, but truth is, it’s been years since we actually have seen one another. I hope all good things happen to her, Mark Trahant, and to all the other serious and talented people at the P-I

A person’s death often ends with an obit in the papers. In the case of a newspaper, it seems almost an afterthought that someone should have been celebrating the 146 years of the P-I before the end came. Love it, hate it, it’s a real story.