In recently ranking Washington's gubernatorial race as the third hottest in the nation, Politico led off with the following question to Democrat Jay Inslee's campaign: "Can it possibly be successful with such an unwelcoming reception from the local media?"
Goldy | The Stranger
Jay Inslee greets the Olympia press corps.
The commentary caused some local wags to wag their fingers at the Inslee campaign for its perceived shortcomings, as if Inslee's "unwelcoming reception" was entirely his own fault. But I think this very legitimate query begs an even larger question: Can Inslee possibly get a fair shake from a local media that has all but marked Rob McKenna's inauguration on their calendars?
Probably not, an assessment I base on the following four factors that have little to do with anything the Inslee campaign has or has not done:
1.) The editorial boards are totally and irrevocably in McKenna's pocket. I've got a pretty good track record at predicting editorial endorsements, and I'm prepared to wager that Republican McKenna will receive every single daily newspaper endorsement in the state. It's a done deal. It's not even worth Inslee trying. The editorial boards all want McKenna to win, and there's no shaking them from that conviction.
2.) Beat reporters are all but convinced that McKenna will win. At McKenna's campaign kickoff last June (the part I wasn't kicked out of) the chatter among the presumably non-partisan hacks covering the event was that Inslee had slightly better than a snowball's chance in hell of beating McKenna in November, a sentiment I continue to hear despite a spate of polls that suggest otherwise. To be clear, I am not implying that most reporters want Inslee to lose—but they don't particularly like being proven wrong either. About anything. And so the meme that Inslee is running a lackluster, ineffectual campaign tends to reinforce itself by coloring the coverage, if unconsciously.
Inslee has never quite gotten the coverage he deserves (like the July, 2009 press conference on a crucial Medicare reimbursement provision he brokered, at which I was one of only two journalists to show up). But even more of a hurdle for Inslee than the lack of regard many journalists seem to have for him, is the over-inflated opinion they have of his opponent, an impression that McKenna and his excellent communications staff have meticulously cultivated through years of media flattery and pander, even to partisan hack journalists like me:
Hi David, I just received this message from a fellow media type and wanted to express my condolences on the show. I know AG McKenna enjoyed being your guest and we were hoping to join you again.
Good luck and have a nice weekend. Sincerely, Janelle Guthrie, APR
That was the kind email McKenna's communications director sent me on February 1, 2008, shortly after 710-KIRO cancelled my radio show. I had tons of elected officials on my show, but McKenna's was the only office to send me a condolence note. Janelle is good. She may also just be nice person, I dunno, but that wouldn't take away from the effort she puts into cultivating relationships with the press.
From the reporter shield law he championed (which by the way, explicitly excludes independent bloggers) to his frequent media and public appearances, McKenna has run an eight-year, 24/7 PR campaign. And it's paid off. I don't know whether most reporters particularly like or respect McKenna, but they certainly seem impressed by his political skills.
3.) Cynical journalists see Democratic hegemony as part of the problem. To be fair, there's a certain logic to the argument that an extended period of one-party rule can stifle innovation while institutionalizing inefficiencies, and the Democrats inability to forge a long term solution to our budget problems only reinforces this perception. And it's particularly easy to get behind this meme when 95 percent of your job is covering the things that government does wrong, while ignoring the 95 percent of things that government does right.
I'm not implying that reporters are consciously giving Inslee a tough time because they think Republican control would be good for a change. But if they're honest with themselves, most reporters would admit that they buy into this conventional wisdom. And that can't help but color their perception.
4.) A McKenna victory would be the best thing that could happen to the WA's political press corps. What the header says. Think about it: If McKenna wins he would become the first Republican to capture the governor's mansion in this reliably blue state since 1980, an accomplishment that would instantly propel him onto the shortlist of Republican presidential candidates for 2016. Really. And if McKenna gains an instant national audience, so too might many of the reporters covering him.
Honestly, McKenna could be my meal ticket. My own personal Sarah Palin. And don't think other journalists haven't had the same thought, if only in passing.
Again, I'm not suggesting that any reporter in the state has consciously skewed his or her coverage in the service of some future personal advantage, but there's little doubt that a Governor McKenna would be a lot more interesting and rewarding to cover than a Governor Inslee. So, you know, the incentive is there.
I don't expect any of my colleagues to appreciate this analysis, in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some of them found it offensive. But it's hard to argue with my core theses: The editorial boards are in McKenna's pocket, the press does believe that McKenna will likely win, they do think a change of regimes might shake things up for the good, and a McKenna ascendency would be great for our careers.
Whether any of this is enough to shape the media's putatively objective coverage of this race, well, that is certainly subjective. But in my opinion, it already has.