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May 7, 2007

Cozy local connections between journalists and the people they cover

Posted by David Postman at 3:53 PM

The associate publisher of Hearst's Seattle paper says those D.C. dinners that mix reporters and politicians for hilarity and hob nobbing show an unseemly "incestuous camaraderie."

The PI's Ken Bunting wrote in a column Friday that he was glad to hear that the New York Times would stop participating in the White House Correspondent's Banquet and things of that ilk. He said he wasn't sure how long the Times' self-imposed exile would last:

But more interesting will be whether any others among the nation's media elite follow suit. In what we in Seattle call "the other Washington," hobnobbing is a well-accepted way of life.

I also wrote last week along similar lines.

What I wonder, though, is whether Bunting will use his authority at the PI to end his paper's involvement with a local version of those D.C. soirees. The PI has been a sponsor of the Washington News Council's Gridiron West dinners. These are obviously based on the original dinners of the same name, only they're nicer. People are not roasted at Gridiron West, but "toasted." It is Seattle after all. The news council promotes it this way:

The WNC's annual Gridiron West Dinner has become one of the most popular events of the fall. Always held in the week after Election Day, it is a bipartisan gala with songs, comedy, video tributes and affectionate "toasts" by and of prominent political, business, civic and media figures.

The PI has helped underwrite some of the dinners. In 2002 the paper was a $1,000 sponsor of the dinner. Among other corporate donors at the same level were the Benaroya Company, Carney Badley Spellman, Premera Blue Cross and (the group formerly known as) Republican Radio. In 2004 the paper again donated $1,000 to co-sponsor the dinner, along with other donors including the Port of Seattle, Rockey Hill & Knowlton, the Washington Dairy Products Commission and Weyerhaeuser.

PI cartoonist David Horsey has been involved as well. He designed bobblehead dolls of Slade Gorton and Tom Foley, he presented a retrospective of his cartoons of Gary Locke and Jennifer Dunn, and one year drew the art for the invitations and the program, later presenting framed copies of the work to honorees Jim and John Ellis.

Joel Connelly was a "toaster" in 2002 when four former governors were honored. (The Times' Joni Balter also spoke that year.) The news council recounted the event this way:

Journalist/politician teams "toasting" the governors were: (Rosellini) Adele Ferguson, longtime statewide columnist and Sid Snyder, State Senate Majority Leader; (Evans) Joel Connelly, political writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Ralph Munro, former Secretary of State; (Spellman) Slade Gorton, former U.S. Senator, and John Carlson, KVI radio talk-show host; (Gardner) Joni Balter, Seattle Times editorial writer and Norm Rice, former Mayor of Seattle; and (Lowry) Shelby Scates, former Seattle Post-Intelligencer political reporter, and Sam Reed, current Secretary of State. The governors all had a chance to respond to their "toasters" -- and did so, with gusto! Some of the toasters even toasted each other -- such as Ralph Munro's reading of a hypothetical story by Joel Connelly.

I e-mailed Bunting Friday to ask him about this but haven't heard back. I won't be surprised if the paper does distance itself from the Washington News Council. They're not on such good terms these days.

Last October, the council said that a PI series about the King County sheriff's office was "inaccurate, misleading and inflammatory." And the PI said the news council wasn't fair because it's executive director, John Hamer, is married to Mariana Parks, who works for Congressman Dave Reichert, the former sheriff who also the subject of the PI series.

SIDEBAR: At the Slog, Josh Feit says the PI is being hypocritical because of a business group its executives are involved with, the Community Development Roundtable.

Bunting is a member, as is the Times' Mike Fancher.

Writes Feit:

It fosters a clubby atmosphere between the rich and powerful movers and shakers and the top editors and executives of Seattle's newspapers.

Aren't the power players on this list, the same people you're supposed to be covering?

One distinction seems to me is the roundtable is about doing business, and not about reporters having a barrel of fun alongside the politicians they cover. Reporters would always prefer that their bosses stay out any group that makes it look like the paper is too clubby with the powers that be.

But reporters don't get their way. We can, of course, choose not to participate in anything ourselves that even borders on "incestuous camaraderie."

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