The February issue of Washington Law & Politics, the snappy new magazine that made its debut here last fall, offers a special section on the media. Well, not that special....
Once you get past the package's splashy photographs and lively layout, its dozen stories and sidebars are a dog's breakfast of sharp and dull, fresh and stale, readable and yawnable stuff. "60 Minutes in Your Face" blares the cover headline, with a catchy photo (WL&P's trademark) of a male model with a shoot-eating grin on his face, beset by a probing array of microphones and cameras. "How to Handle the Press-ure," the lead story by journalist-cum-PR-guy Michael Shepherd, offers attorneys a guide to dealing with the press. It has some good lines, such as: "One of the basic rules of media relations is to talk like a human being, not like a lawyer. The media use a language which may seem woefully unfamiliar to many lawyers—basic English." Two sidebar boxes—"How to (and How Not to) Talk to the News Media" and "Why Talk to the Media?" contain lots of helpful tips. But they are all credited to Bruce Benidt and Dennis McGrath of Shandwick, USA—who are not identified anywhere in the magazine. Why not? Who are they? Readers should know.
"Making Seattle a Little Bit Stranger" by Erik Lundegaard is a fawning puff piece on Tim Keck, publisher of The Stranger, justifying Keck's reputation for adroit self-promotion. Lundegaard lets Keck dump liberally on other alternative newspapers (including this one) as "dry, staid, and vulnerable." The story's best quote is from Charles Cross, editor of The Rocket, on Stranger sex-advice columnist Dan Savage: "There's only so many holes in the human body, and I think most of them have been exhausted in his columns."
SPEAKING OF PUFF:A short piece by Joe Newman (nowhere identified) on "Al Gore, Cub Reporter" chronicles the vice president's early years as a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean. Fine. But what does it have to do with law, politics, or media in Washington state? Did this story run because WL&P chair Vance Opperman is a big fan of Gore's? The story lauds a Gore "investigative piece" that "exposed a bribery ring" involving a Nashville City Council member. But it omits a key fact: The council member was acquitted of the bribery charge, young Gore's crusade notwithstanding. Still, a photo of the sideburned Gore in the '70s is a treat: He looked exactly like Tim Keck in the '90s.
"What Marcia Clark Should Have Known" by O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro is an interesting read—for a five-year-old piece. Seriously. It was excerpted from a trade-publication story that ran in January 1993. But Shapiro's advice holds up: "[Newspaper] reporters have tremendous power, and their stories can easily affect the outcome of the case."
The best piece in the WL&P package is a review of eight community newspapers in the Seattle market. Dennis Pauley, former news editor of the Capitol Hill Times, ranks the small neighborhood weeklies, rating the Queen Anne/Magnolia News best and The Beacon Hill News/South District Journal on the bottom. The West Seattle Herald/White Center News and The Seattle Press tie for second place. Pauley's review is savvy and accurate, especially in noting that community newspapers "can facilitate a much more open political process."
Two pieces were recycled from earlier issues of Minnesota Law & Politics, WL&P's parent publication. One is a Q&A with James Carville, "Doctor of Spin," that reads OK despite being several months old. Even better is a sidebar by former Sen. Eugene McCarthy on "The History of Spin," recalling one of history's first spinmeisters: Cassiodorus, who flacked for the Roman emperor Theodoric around AD 500. Cassiodorus' duties were to praise his boss, give political advice, write speeches and press releases, and handle damage control. His job, McCarthy notes wryly, was "comparable to that formerly held by George Stephanopoulus in the Clinton administration." No word on whether Cassiodorus handled bimbo eruptions.
"Island Journalism" by Sue Frause, a columnist for The South Whidbey Record, is an engagingly affectionate look at writing for small newspapers in little towns. "If my name were Susan Dangerfield, I'd say island journalism gets no respect," Frause opines. "Anybody can write for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The New York Times, or USA Today. It takes a special breed to sign on as a community scribe." Her account of reviewing plays at the local community theater makes her case: "I know most of the people in the cast and crew. The director is a friend of a friend. How will Bill the grocery-store checker react when I write that his play stinks?"
Frause terms this "journalism at its riskiest." Her account is fun reading—but it doesn't have much to do with Washington law and politics, which is what this magazine purports to be about.
John Hamer and Mariana Parks are president and executive director, respectively, of the CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion, an independent nonprofit media think tank, and co-editors of CounterPoint, a media-critique newsletter. Call them at 1-888-306-DOGS or e-mail email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.