What's the world coming to when Slade Gorton gets bigger laughs than John Keister? That was just one of the strange sights to be seen at the "Gridiron West" banquet the Washington News Council threw last month to commemorate its first year, honor four old lions of local political reporting—Adele Ferguson, Dick Larsen, Mike Layton, and Shelby Scates—and raise money for scholarships in Larsen's name. Keister did the opening stand-up (as usual), and a troupe of politicos—Gorton, Ron Sims, Jennifer Dunn, Jim McDermott, and (!) long lost "Gamscam" fall guy Gordon Walgren—roasted the illustrious hacks. Gary Locke wisely sent aide Keith Love, who was quite funny, as were the others. But Slade really slew 'em, mostly by recognizing what a rich target he is himself: "What's so funny about Skeletor?" he asked, and the high-powered audience roared. Gorton also noted that he and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt would resolve their epic dispute by blowing up the Elwha dams—and the P-I building.
If you didn't get that allusion, you probably wouldn't appreciate the event's end-of-an-era poignancy. It's hard to imagine another generation of political reporters ever having such stature and influence as these four—or schmoozing so intimately. Newspapers ain't the institutions they used to be; the media landscape is more much diffuse, as is readers'—or rather, viewers' and surfers'—attention. Food and money columns, sex advice and astrology, gadgets and fashions all crowd out politics. And in place of "the art of the possible" we get the impossible antipolitics of I-695.
If you can't trust the media . . .
But the Gridiron event turned stranger and more poignant yet: The whole News Council board (minus William H. Gates, who couldn't make it) took the stage to sing, "There's a case for us/A complaint for us, somewhere. . . ." The main role of news councils is to receive and, if other recourse fails, arbitrate complaints of media malpractice. And after one year (nine months since it actually opened for business), the Washington council has received exactly zero formal complaints. (It did receive at least one initial complaint, from the muckraking civil liberties activist John Hoffman, alleging pro-police bias at Seattle's dailies; it told him to seek resolution with the papers first. Hoffman calls that "stonewalling." But it's the usual drill, as established by the venerable Minnesota News Council, the Washington Council's model.)
Meanwhile, the News Council, with $250,000 from the Gates Foundation, keeps busy holding forums and mock hearings. You couldn't expect it to hit full speed in a year; the Minnesota council's Leslie MacKenzie says it also conducted no hearings its first year. But, she adds, "We typically hear three to eight hearings a year, and get 80 to 100 complaints." Does the dearth of complaints to the Washington council mean local media are so superb, or so wimpy, that they draw no ire? Or that readers and viewers are too jaded to bother?
The background of the News Council's founder and director, John Hamer, may make some would-be complainants wary. Hamer was the Times' token conservative editorialist and left on unfriendly terms. He cofounded the Counter Center for ReMEDIAtion, which produced the Watchdogs column in Eastsideweek and this paper. The Center and the News Council both used to sublet space from the conservative Washington Institute for Policy Studies in a building owned by Republican sugar daddy Tom Stewart.
Times editor Fancher says he's still "personally skeptical about John being the right person to do this . . . coming out of an ideological critique function." Likewise the Gridiron format: "I'm skeptical that the way to establish press credibility is to have the press and politicians socialize like that." And so the Times was notably absent from the sponsors list, even though its own Dick Larsen was the guest of honor.
Still, Hamer's News Council now rents commercial digs above the Pyramid brewery. "Anyone who believes there's a bias needs to look more clearly at who's on our board," he argues. Not only is that board balanced across the liberal-conservative (though not radical) spectrum—its vice president is a retired Times editor and its secretary a Times reporter. "If I could control this group," jokes Hamer, "I wouldn't be in this business."
To put the News Council to the test and on a case, call 262-9793, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today the Loomis, tomorrow . . .
A few days after the Gridiron, another historic do packed the Seattle Aquarium. A thousand-odd friends of the Loomis Forest celebrated the cliffhanger campaign that raised enough donations to save it in a conservation trust. And raised them twice, since antsy officials demanded a new appraisal and higher price after the campaign met their first price. Most donors had likely never seen the remote forest, but it resonated as no other local conservation appeal has for several reasons. This is the sort of wild place you just like to know is there—rare lynx and grizzly habitat, and the State's largest roadless holding. Preserving it is a concrete achievement, in contrast to the usual wearying environmental issues—the wilderness equivalent of bequeathing a building, or a brick at the Market. And it's free-market conservation: Supporters pony up instead of demanding government do so.
But it's also a risky precedent, especially post-695. Will officials now defer policy-making to the fundraisers, in effect privatizing other public initiatives? (The Loomis' last-ditch angel, Paul Allen, also paid for the election that got his Seahawks a new stadium.) Northwest Ecosystem Alliance director Mitch Friedman, who launched the Loomis campaign, says he hopes not and takes "a different spin": "When you have this much popular support for something, the Legislature should be doing something about it."
But Friedman's not waiting for Olympia; he's already cooking up another, bigger campaign. This would raise money (with a big match from Congress) to preserve valuable old growth near I-90 and Mount St. Helens that was pulled out of the Checkerboard exchange with Plum Creek Timber after critics howled it was too precious to log. Preserving the I-90 corridor could cost $100 million: "It's going to be a major campaign, on the scale of those to save the redwoods and the Everglades," says Charlie Raines, coordinator of the Sierra Club's Checkerboard Project. Friedman himself warns it's "real important not to get too ambitious after the Loomis." But that corridor's a lot closer to the techno-buck philanthropists than the Loomis.