Is it the lack of a second daily newspaper in Seattle or our modern-day reliance on Internet blogs that has made Seattleites largely ignorant of local political issues? Or is it the dismal quality of our single, surviving newspaper and local TV stations?
Let’s take, for example, the impact of liquor privatization in Washington State.
People who voted to privatize liquor in Washington truly believed that prices would fall and the variety of hard alcohol available for purchase would increase. They believed the advertising paid for by Costco, the main backer of the privatization initiative, and they ignored the common sense arguments made by opponents. They even refused to think logically about the issue: could a local supermarket devote as much shelf space to hard alcohol as an entire state-owned store devoted only to the sale of alcohol? Of course not. (Hence, selection would be more limited under privatization.) Could adding another layer of middle-men who need to make their own profit lead to lower prices? Absolutely not. (Hence prices have risen.) Wow, that was not particularly hard to reason out. Yet people believed the advertising, right-wing bloggers, and the conservative editorial board of The Seattle Times—largely because alternative views were unavailable or hard to find.
Let’s look at an even more disturbing example, one with higher stakes. The current negotiations between the Department of Justice and the city over reforms at the Seattle Police Department have fallen into a media black hole. The general impression is that the Department of Justice has issued a report slamming the SPD over charges of using excessive force. But few people know about the status of negotiations between the DOJ and the city. Yes, those negotiations have been “confidential,” but in reporters could have asked a few very important questions: are we near a deal yet, is the DOJ taking a hard line, is the city winning any concessions, what role is the SPD chief or the police union taking in the negations, etc.
Instead, we get nothing, and a sense of frustration has settled over the city. The SPD has been confronted by hostile and uncooperative crowds at crime scenes and a recent gay pride celebration on Capitol Hill devolved into a pepper-spraying fracas between police and street-partiers. The very bland articles published by The Seattle Times website on these incidents are followed by hundreds of police-bashing comments from online readers.
So, in an effort to shed light on the negotiations, the DOJ and the city agreed to release several confidential documents this week. Unfortunately, those documents were accompanied by an absolute lack of analysis or decent reportage by the local news outlets that made them available to the public. The Seattle Times website ran an article entitled “Records show deep split between federal, city officials on SPD fixes” that once again refused to ask any substantive questions about the actual status of the negotiations or provide any analysis of the released documents.
Just providing a link to those documents is not enough. The average Seattleite would have to spend several hours reading through the documents to get an understanding of how the negotiations are proceeding. In the meantime, The Seattle Times, our local paper of record, will be damned before they’ll assign one reporter on their staff to read and accurately summarize the contents of the DOJ’s proposed changes and the city’s response.
Even a quick read of the letters and memos exchanged between the city attorney’s office and the lead DOJ negotiator, Jonathan Smith, reveals some disturbing problems not just with the negotiations themselves but also with the lack of journalistic oversight of local politics. For example, it appears that Mayor McGinn has not been sitting down at the negotiating table with the DOJ. The DOJ’s letter of May 23, 2012, complains that the city has not been sending representatives who are empowered to negotiate on the city’s behalf. The response to this letter is a May 31, 2012, letter from Mayor McGinn’s personal attorney, Carl Marquardt, that basically says Mayor McGinn is not willing to meet with the DOJ attorneys; instead, he will only meet with US Attorney General Eric Holder (who runs the entire federal department in DC) or his second-in-command, Thomas Perez—an act of childish petulance that reveals Mayor McGinn’s unwillingness to take on the responsibility of his job as mayor of a major US city.
The same letter suggests that representatives of the police department be present at the negotiations: “We do believe it would be helpful if both sides, including DOJ, had access to policing experts during negotiations…” and it concludes with the following sentence: “Finally, if we reach the point where negotiations are truly stalled, we would be willing to engage a mediator to facilitate a resolution.”
The Seattle Times reported in passing that the city and the DOJ brought in a mediator last week; it was a non-event for most of the local media. But, in truth, it was a last-gasp attempt to salvage a bargaining process that has failed largely because the mayor has refused to do his job. And, yes, the city council should also be part of the negotiations, but the mayor and his counsel have refused to cooperate with them. And Seattleites don’t know any of this, because our local media has refused to do its job.
It’s very easy to blame Mayor McGinn, but the true responsibility for the breakdown of negotiations lies with The Seattle Times and the local TV news outlets. If the citizens of Seattle realized that their mayor wasn’t doing his job, they would put pressure on the city to take the negotiations seriously. Instead, Seattleites are left in the dark, unsure of what’s going on and unwilling to trust the SPD in the meantime.
Real police reform can’t happen only within the SPD. Communities, citizens, and businesses have to take responsibility for oversight, feedback, and managing their expectations. But without a functioning information system, the citizen reform side can’t even begin.
Local media should be ashamed of itself. Local activists should be egalitarian when assigning blame for the lack of SPD reform: it’s not just the police department that’s at fault. And it’s not just the mayor. We should be flooding the media with our letters, emails, and comments. If our news outlets aren’t asking enough questions, then we should be asking them why not.