For the first time in 120 years, the Seattle Times pushed down all other news to dedicate Tuesday’s coveted above-the-fold frontpage to an editorial, and related article, pressuring the Governor to veto a bill it didn’t like, a modification of public disclosure rules.
Personally, I agreed with the call for a veto. The bill was flawed, and may have protected legislators on both sides of the aisle from sexual harassment complaints. But that’s not the point here. This week we saw a new, thrilling, and perhaps dangerous lobbying giant take its first thundering step in Washington State.
In what appears to be a well-coordinated campaign, newspapers across the state ran similar front page editorials. By the end of Tuesday, reporters and editorial boards echoed the same talking points—furthering amping up perceived public pressure on the state’s executive and legislative branches of government.
At least one paper didn’t stop there. The Times urged readers to call specific state legislators, complete with color headshots and contact information. The state’s largest paper also crowned a set of “hero” legislators and, if you weren’t yet convinced, printed a set of irate letters to the editor meant to increase social pressure on readers. Then reporters and editorial writers launched a full court press—pun intended—on Twitter, tweeting every few hours with breathless counts of calls and emails reported by the Governor’s office.
The cause felt righteous: the public’s right to know what legislators are doing. From a business perspective, this made good financial sense for a struggling industry: more behind the scenes information begets more interesting reporting, generating sales of more papers and online visitors, selling more advertising. It’s not hard to imagine a similar campaign for an estate tax rewrite benefiting Washington’s family publishers, ostensibly to keep the lights on and information flowing. It felt a little like Uber and Airbnb turning customers into lobbyists for corporate gain.
One legislator grumbled that this week’s reporting read more like a press release. Indeed, I’ve never been able to convince a paper to give front page coverage to “hundreds of emails” from constituents on conservation or social justice issues. Ultimately, the shock and awe blitz succeeded. Readers followed directions, thousands of emails and phone calls poured in to Olympia, and late last night the Governor vetoed the bill while legislators posted public apologies on their Facebook pages. By the time of the veto, the media coalition’s lawyers were already sitting down with legislators to hash out a compromise.
It’s the stuff that my clients—workers’ unions, LGBTQ groups, justice coalitions, environmentalists—can only dream of. Only the biggest corporate public relations and government affairs shops have the money needed to buy front page ads on every major newspaper, fan out dozens of spokespeople to major media outlets, urge action on high-follower social media accounts, and generate support from every major editorial board in the state as part of a lobbying campaign.
Whether it’s sponsored by publishers or Shell Oil, this kind of media juggernaut is more than an exercise of free press, it’s lobbying. Technically, it’s regulated as grassroots lobbying, defined as “a program addressed to the general public, a substantial portion of which is intended, designed or calculated primarily to influence state legislation,” by the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission. The clients I work with know they are supposed to report the value of their grassroots lobbying efforts of $700 or more per month via an electronic L-6 form in the interest of public disclosure and transparency.
What is the market value of a campaign like this one? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?
We will probably never know. One reporter argues this campaign is exempted by law from public disclosure requirements because it’s the free press using its own media. Washingtonians may not always agree, but we respect the right of publishers to run highly opinionated editorials. Readers are free to ignore them or act. The Stranger often uses its front page to encourage its readers to vote for its favored local candidate, and to my knowledge no one has filed a legal complaint about it. But there’s a big difference between a daily editorial on page A11, cover art on a biweekly, and this week’s ground shaking. It’s an untested grey zone and political consulting firms, including mine, know well the perils of PDC grey zones.
One can optimistically hope the media coalition will rally again around solving homelessness, funding our schools, overhauling our state’s tax structure, or strengthening gun laws. Impressed with its own power, it could push readers to demand publishing industry incentives. It could follow the lead of Sinclair Broadcast Group and whip up public fear and animosity against a minority group. Once it gets what it wants in Olympia, it will be interesting to see if the giant takes another step or sleeps for another 120 years.
Heather Weiner is a partner at Moxie Media, a majority woman-owned national political consulting firm.