On May 17, after hearing Seattle mayor Mike McGinn "chuckling" on talk radio about the cancellation of his home subscription to the Seattle Times, David Boardman, the paper's executive editor, took to Twitter and wrote:
"What kind of mayor cancels his subscription to his city's daily newspaper? Our mayor. Thin skin, @mayormcginn?"
In fact, it was McGinn's wife, Peg Lynch, who had called to cancel the subscription—in early 2011, after the Seattle Times ran a piece about McGinn borrowing her bicycle, forgetting to lock it at City Hall, and then discovering the bike had been stolen. According to Lynch, that article was full of "bullying, cruel remarks" culled from e-mails from anonymous readers of the paper.
"It was kind of like a mean-spirited attack on Michael," Lynch said when reached by phone last week. "They just went from talking about a thief, which was kind of the point of the article, to kind of trashing Michael again in a personal way."
The Seattle Times editorial page has been harsh on McGinn since he was elected, and Lynch said she'd grown tired of purportedly neutral news articles that also read like editorials against her husband. She saw the bike theft story as yet another example.
"Generally, I think the Times just kind of doesn't like Mike," Lynch said. "I don't think that's a secret."
McGinn spokesman Aaron Pickus pointed out that his boss still has multiple subscriptions to the Seattle Times at his City Hall office and reads the paper every day. But he also arranged for The Stranger to talk to Lynch for her perspective on the paper.
Boardman, for his part, declined to respond to Lynch's statements, but Kelly McBride, an expert on media ethics at the Poynter Institute, said she saw no evidence of bullying in the article Lynch cited.
"If you are the mayor of a city, I can pretty much guarantee that you are going to be closely scrutinized by your local newspaper," McBride said. "Sure, there's a fair amount of snarkiness [in the February 2011 Seattle Times article]. I don't think that that's unusual in politics. And even from the news side, I think that there is a trend in this country to make news writing more edgy, and I think that [the article is] an attempt at being edgy. Bullying? No."
(It should be noted that Boardman is on Poynter's board of advisers. However, he has no authority over Poynter's budget or its hiring and firing decisions.)
The question an ethics expert cannot answer: Is either of these parties even in a good position to bully the other?
Because what we're really talking about here is the latest in an ongoing snarling match between two staggering civic giants: McGinn, with his anemic poll numbers, and the Seattle Times, struggling through a precarious financial period while facing a very uncertain future (like newspapers all over the country).
Yet they keep swinging at each other, almost gleefully, the mayor "chuckling" about his family's canceled subscription, Boardman tweet-slapping back, McGinn's wife calling Boardman a bully, and—presumably—on and on, until one day, one of them staggers off into civic oblivion. (Or the rest of us run out of interest, set down our popcorn, and stop paying attention.)