The Seventh Sign

One more sign of sanity, and a goodbye.

I had breakfast Saturday with Seattle’s biggest grumps: the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, which meets the second Saturday of every month over coffee and hash browns at the Greenhouse Cafe & Bar adjoining the Days Inn at Seventh Avenue and Blanchard Street—perhaps the least picturesque part of downtown. Here, parking lots and auto dealers still reign—at least until the skinny condo towers are finished.

When I call the coalition members grumps, it’s meant as a compliment. These civic activists are old-school mossbacks—neighborhood folks who are often dismissed as gadflies, NIMBYs, cranks, or worse. I think they should wear those epithets as badges of honor: You can dismiss someone as a not-in-my-backyard type because they stand against so-called progress, but often they are also the people on your block who actually give a damn. Think of them as civic P-Patch tenders who do the hard, dirty work of keeping Seattle livable.

They also happen to be grassroots diggers who dive into civic process the way Upton Sinclair dug into the meat-packing industry. They’ve seen how the sausage is made and are outraged by it. They pester public officials to make public information public; they look for the little budget line items nobody notices; they spot conflicts of interest in the ethics process; they pass around petitions; they attend the public meetings you never do. These are the squeaky wheels that make the city a better place. They demand the oil of responsible government.

One great thing about the group is you can’t hang an ideological hat on them: This is a herd of self-motivated cats. Some are liberal, some are conservative. Party labels don’t mean much. The one thing they have in common is a well-developed skepticism about local government and the financial forces that push the levers of power. And when you spend time with the members of the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, you can expect to have a lively, bare-knuckles conversation—to hell with Seattle nice.

Saturday’s meeting was standing room only—it takes about 40 people to fill the back room at the Greenhouse. “Occasionally, a drunk wanders in, and you can’t tell them from some of the regulars,” says Kent Kammerer, a former schoolteacher who uses his classroom skills and wise Yoda-like presence to preside. There were a few familiar faces, too: Al Runte, the former UW professor who ran for mayor against Greg Nickels and is contemplating a City Council run; Port Commissioner Lloyd Hara; anti-monorailers Geof Logan and Henry Aronson; former Seattle Weekly reporter James Bush, now on King County Council member Dow Constantine’s staff. The topic is the media’s role in shaping public policy, and reporter Kathy Mulady of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and I are there to field questions. What follows is a two-hour media bitch session in which activists air their complaints about the Seattle Times editorial page, the P-I‘s”over” coverage of the sheriff’s office, and speculation that the Weekly has gone soft. One questioner wondered why we did a cover on rats in Seattle when there are real rats in city politics we should be writing about. I carefully explained that every time we put Greg Nickels’ face on the cover, cir- culation drops.

In the minutes pursuant to the meeting, in which a two-hour bull session is distilled to its essentials, Kammerer notes that, “Questions to Mulady and [Knute] Berger seemed to suggest, by innuendo, that journalists were lazy and that newspapers only reported what the city or developers were promoting without searching for those with opposing viewpoints.” Well, yes, there are some lazy reporters and editors. And, yes, the powerful do tend to drive the news agenda. But much of the criticism reminded me of folks complaining about cops who give out speeding tickets instead of catching bank robbers. Whatever the media do, it’ll never be enough; someone doing something worse will always be getting away with it; and your personal gripe isn’t always top priority. Hey, welcome to reality.

Our real sin is not that we follow orders from our largest advertisers—indeed, the media often defy them—but that we often commit a worse sin, which is to chase demographic groups those advertisers find appealing. The alt papers target twentysomethings; the revamped P-I self- consciously caters to “Seattle women.” I think demo chasing corrupts because it instills the commercial mission in the news gathering, writing, and editing process; it asks editors to concentrate on what people will read or watch instead of on what people ought to know. The pressure to pander increases—especially in financially rough times—and pandering rarely leads to good journalism.

One thing I know is that editing a newspaper also causes a kind of arteriosclerosis when it comes to the capillaries that feed fresh thinking. At least for me. Which is one reason this issue of the Weekly is my last as editor. I’m taking some time off to recharge my batteries, but plan to stay local and keep writing, here or elsewhere. Big changes are under way: My right hand for the last four years, the amazing managing editor Chuck Taylor, is also leaving; so is our knowledgeable political editor, George Howland Jr. It’s their last issue, too. I don’t know what they’re planning, but I know that life as a civilian will help me refine the frustration and alienation I feel as Seattle, in my humble opinion, slides downhill. The good news is that I know where to find fellowship and coffee once a month at the Greenhouse, where civic curmudgeons congregate in an attempt to keep Seattle—and the media—honest.