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Originally published October 20, 2012 at 8:13 PM | Page modified October 23, 2012 at 10:50 AM

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A vow to continue impartial reporting

Column by Executive Editor David Boardman

Seattle Times executive editor, senior vice president

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The best way to find out if you can trust a man, Ernest Hemingway advised, is to trust him.

I ask that you extend that privilege to the men and women of The Seattle Times News Department. We know that for some of you, your confidence in us has been shaken over the past week, with the news that our employer, The Seattle Times Co., is paying for political advertisements in our newspaper on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and in favor of Referendum 74, the ballot measure to legalize same-sex marriage.

Dr. Hanna Egstrom's email was reflective of dozens we've received: "As a longtime Seattle Times reader, I find myself sadly dismayed ... This is not an issue of whom is being supported, it is that they are being supported. I would be equally upset if you were running ads for the opposing candidate. As a citizen, I rely on newspapers for information regarding the world we live in. How am I supposed to believe that the Times is unbiased... ?"

Executives on the business side of our company conceived the ad plan, describing it as a pilot project to demonstrate the power of newspaper political advertising and to attract new revenue at a time when all newspapers are financially challenged. They said they chose these two campaigns to be consistent with endorsements already made by the editorial-page staff, which, like the news staff, is entirely separate from the business side.

I've been in the trenches with these business-side colleagues over the past few difficult years, as we've worked together to cut costs while sustaining quality journalism and service. I admire their passion and creativity in trying to capture some of the tens of millions of dollars that are spent locally on political advertising each campaign season, mostly on television. They are driven by a desire to fund Seattle Times journalism.

But no one in the newsroom, including me, had any involvement in this project. I was given a heads-up after the plan was set, an opportunity to express concerns but not to change the course. And I can assure you that when our reporters, editors, photographers, artists and producers opened their papers Wednesday morning and read at the bottom of a full-page pro-McKenna ad, "Paid for by The Seattle Times Company," they were as surprised as any of you.

Normally, a fast-growing buzz in our newsroom is a beacon of a breaking story, the aural manifestation of adrenaline rush. Wednesday morning's buzz was different.

Within minutes of seeing the ad, a group of reporters began to draft a letter to our publisher, Frank Blethen, whose family has owned The Times for 116 years. It said, in part: "The decision to publish these ads ... threatens the two things we value the most, the traits that make The Seattle Times a strong brand: Our independence and credibility." The ad program, the letter said, is "creating a perception that we are not an independent watchdog."

Independence is a core value of The Seattle Times, a concept driven home to me since I began here as a cub journalist 29 years ago. Although we know that business excellence is an essential symbiotic partner of journalistic excellence — it costs money to operate a large newsroom of trained professionals, and it takes quality journalism to have a successful news-media company — the line between our advertising and journalism functions is bright and inviolate.

So is the line between the editorial-page staff who issue candidate endorsements and the news reporters and editors who cover campaigns.

No one has been more of a champion of independent journalism than the man whose motives have come most under fire by critics of the project last week, Frank Blethen. The publisher not only gives the journalists at The Times the freedom to do our jobs without interference, he consistently supports us — even in cases where our journalism might seem to be against the financial interests of his family or his company.

Over the years, our aggressive reporting has poked, prodded and provoked many powerful people and institutions in the Northwest, including some advertisers. But neither Blethen nor the executives in our Advertising or Circulation departments ever try to head us off. They don't tell us what to write, or what not to.

Similarly, our editorial-page positions — positions forged by the publisher and the editorial-page staff — have no bearing on our news decisions. Although the editorial group endorsed McKenna for governor early in the campaign, our political reporters have scrutinized the ads from both his campaign and opponent Jay Inslee's, highlighting four from each that were largely false. Never is there even a whispered suggestion of favoring one candidate over the other in our news coverage.

This sort of church-state separation is far from the norm in today's media environment, where many news sources — Fox News and MSNBC most prominently — serve as ideologically pure echo chambers for like-minded audiences.

In our newsroom, we begin with questions, not conclusions. Balance is not a value we stress, as it is a largely artificial construct that can amplify foolishness. But impartiality is a fundamental goal, and we make every effort to check and challenge our own beliefs and biases as we seek out facts and truth.

I'm confident we do a pretty darn good job of achieving that impartiality, though certainly not a perfect one. My best measure of success is the uncannily even breakdown in the complaints I receive about our reporting being politically biased.

For every caller labeling us "a liberal rag," there is one for whom we are "right-wing fascists."

The concerns expressed by some of you over the past few days are of a far different character, and I take them far more seriously. Consider this note from Craig Mayhle, another longtime subscriber: "I have nothing against either the candidate or cause the Times has decided to commercially promote. It is the act of the commercial promotion itself, by one of my primary local news sources, that I take issue with. It undermines my ability to fully trust the paper as an objective and evenhanded dispenser of the broader news."

To Mr. Mayhle, Dr. Egstrom and others with similar concerns, I offer this solemn promise: In these two races, as in everything else we do, we will strive to be fair, accurate and thorough. We will continue to ask probing questions of both sides. We will continue to fulfill our mission to serve this community through strong, independent journalism that makes a difference.

Examples of that are myriad: Revealing safety problems in the Boeing 737. Exposing recruiting violations and criminal misconduct in the University of Washington football program. Uncovering how school districts were complicit in the sexual abuse of young girls by dozens of middle- and high-school coaches. Exposing fraud in the federal tribal-housing program. Revealing how a state program that promoted methadone as a painkiller had killed hundreds of our most vulnerable citizens.

They say past performance is the best indicator of future performance. As Hemingway advised, let us show you.

On behalf of the people who proudly call themselves Seattle Times journalists, we look forward to reinforcing the thing we hold most precious: our relationship with you.

You may reach David Boardman at 206-464-2205 or dboardman@seattletimes.com

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