'Times' change

Gutsy Seattle Times editor Mindy Cameron retires. Will her quirky, opinionated editorial page survive?

WHEN MINDY CAMERON took the reins of The Seattle Times editorial staff a decade ago, one of her goals was to get "more personality on that page."

It seems to have worked. When Cameron retires at the end of this year, she will leave behind a staff of well-known columnists, an editorial page with a reputation for quirkier work than its rival the P-I, and the lingering suspicion that she played a major role in getting Mayor Paul Schell his job.

Well, two out of three, perhaps, says political consultant Cathy Allen. Schell and his advisers were already plotting his run for office when Cameron's laudatory column touting the developer and Port commissioner was published a month before 1997 candidate sign-ups. But Cameron's column does provide an effective indicator of the current thinking of Seattle's political establishment, says Allen.

Indeed, in between acting as a sort of editorial page ombudsman and spinning personal perspectives on current issues, Cameron's regular column has functioned as the launching point for many trial balloons since she began work in January 1990. Of course, in between electing mayors, she's also taken her lumps. One of her first columns lampooned the effort to grant landmark status to the Blue Moon Tavern, a University District watering hole patronized over the years by great thinkers and dedicated drinkers. Letter writers promptly labeled her a wine-sipping yuppie. "You have to do some things to get noticed," she says jokingly.

Even her more successful columns have drawn a little backlash. Schell, for instance, spent his first month on the stump patiently explaining that he had never promised to be a one-term mayor; that was just Cameron's suggestion.

Cameron and her husband now live in their in-city condominium and vacation at a home in Idaho. After her retirement, they plan to keep both dwellings and reverse the process. "Eventually Seattle will be our getaway from Idaho," she says. Cameron is expected to write occasional pieces for the Times editorial pages, but says she hasn't worked out the details with her employer.

Praised as independent and gutsy by colleagues, Cameron isn't above a little crusading on issues she feels strongly about. "I credit some of the enthusiasm that the Times had for being against [anti-affirmative action] Initiative 200 to Mindy," says Allen. "I also like the fact that in a time when editorial people are almost heard and never seen, she was on the podiums and the TV sets, crossing media lines to actually express her point of view and to represent the paper."

Cameron was actually a surprise pick to some when she moved from her former job as Times city editor to the editorial helm. Only a decade had passed since the departure of longtime editorial page editor Ross Cunningham, under whose leadership Times' editorials had maintained a staunch Republican conservative viewpoint. Under his successor, Herb Robinson, the paper's stands began to reflect Seattle's growing shift toward liberalism. Cameron completed the process to the point that people shake their heads in confusion when old-timers refer to the Times as "The Republican Paper."

As new editorial page editor, Cameron was faced with a quite different political problem. Unlike many journalists, she was not a political junkie, says former colleague Dick Larsen. "She was very forthright in telling me she didn't know much about the political scene here." Cameron stuck to a collaborative approach in making the paper's election picks and focused on being an effective manager—"steering the good ship Seattle Times editorial page," jokes Larsen.

He sees part of Cameron's collaborative personality and openness to diverse opinions reflected in the Times' practice of encouraging editorial board members to take strong stands in their columns, even if they contradict the paper's official stances.

She also developed more confidence expressing controversial opinions in political races, such as the paper's early endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley, a call that doesn't rank among Larsen's favorites. "If I liken her to the captain of the ship," he says, "that's got to be one of the big collisions she's made with an iceberg."

Historically, newspaper editorial pages were largely a platform for the publisher's views. In their book Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers, Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy tell the story of original Times publisher Alden Blethen, who had written many editorials that claimed raising license fees would shrink the number of saloons within city limits. When a reporter unwisely wrote a story proving the publisher's assumptions incorrect, Blethen was enraged, later apologizing to his readers for the paper's "inconsistent" coverage of the issue.

The publisher, although obviously playing a major role in the hiring of the editorial page editor, isn't really a constant presence in Seattle Times editorial discussions. "The publisher's voice is always welcome," says Cameron, before adding sagely, "Well, he owns the place."

Sam Sperry, who recently left his job as an editorial board member at the Seattle P-I, gives a similar report, despite the activist reputations of former publishers Virgil Fassio and J.D. Alexander. However, says Sperry, "in the end, the publisher is responsible, and if he doesn't like something that's being said, it's the publisher's prerogative to direct where to go."

Curiously, when asked to cite a recent issue that inspired spirited and complex debate, Cameron and Sperry both chose the decision of whether to call for President Bill Clinton's resignation during the Monica Lewinsky scandal (the Times did so; the P-I preferred censure). Cameron says it's rare that the editorial board will be divided enough to necessitate a show of hands on an issue. "There have been maybe a handful of occasions," she says. "Day in and day out, we really don't vote."

Can a positive daily newspaper editorial deliver an election for a candidate? "Not anymore," says former editorial page editor Robinson. "There was a time when that was so. All that has been so diffused by a multiplicity of voices, it's kind of hard to say somebody is influential."

"I think we can participate in an influential way, but I don't think we can drive things anymore," agrees Sperry. "I think those days are past."

And, speaking of days past, it's interesting to note that Cameron's appointment originally raised eyebrows around town because she was the first female to lead the Times editorial pages (Joann Byrd is now the P-I's editorial page editor). "That's one of those sad-but-true things," says Cameron. "Here we were in 1990 and to some people it was still worth a mention."

 
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