Nethercutt vs. A Barrel Full of Ink

Congressman’s Decision to Bash Seattle Newspaper Cuts Both Ways

Posted October 29, 2003 at 6:36pm

Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) this week spectacularly violated the old rule in politics that says you never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.

By placing ads in a handful of newspapers accusing the Seattle Post-Intelligencer of, in the Congressman’s words, “deliberately” distorting statements he made at a town hall meeting about Iraq, Nethercutt has shown a willingness to stand up to the state’s biggest and most powerful newspaper.

But as a candidate for Senate in 2004 who is still not well-known in the voter-rich Seattle area, Nethercutt’s move carries tremendous risks, even a full year before the election.

“The danger is, unless he wants to buy ads every day, the newspaper has majority say over how the election gets reported,” said Rich Noyes, research director at the Media Research Center, a conservative organization that monitors media coverage of current events.

Already, the P-I has been all too willing to fight back, with an editorial Wednesday, a withering political cartoon Tuesday, and statements by the top editors that the newspaper doesn’t see what Nethercutt is so upset about.

The fracas started in mid-October when the Post-Intelligencer reported on remarks Nethercutt made on Iraq at a town hall meeting he hosted after returning from the war-torn country. Nethercutt complained that the media coverage of American casualties in Iraq overlooked all the progress the United States has made in restoring order since the war ended.

“It is a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day,” the newspaper quoted Nethercutt as saying.

The fallout was quick and harsh, with an array of pundits — and, predictably, Democrats — criticizing the Congressman.

The commentaries suggested that Nethercutt was insensitive at best, a stooge of the Bush administration’s oft-criticized Iraq policy at worst. The Democrats intensified the drumbeat they have kept up since Nethercutt announced his intention to challenge two-term Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), that the Congressman is not ready for prime time.

But the controversy was starting to fade from public memory two weeks after the fact when Nethercutt on Tuesday bought three-quarter page ads in Roll Call, the Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, and The Spokesman-Review in his hometown of Spokane, blasting the P-I’s initial account of the town hall meeting.

“The P-I constructed a story to make me appear to be callous to the death of American troops,” Nethercutt wrote in his ad, adding that the newspaper “massacred” his quote and took it out of context.

“I expect this kind of treatment from a political opponent,” he concluded.

George Howland Jr., political editor of the Seattle Weekly newspaper, said Nethercutt was following in the footsteps of other Washington state Republicans who have bashed the Seattle media — a tactic that generally pleases rural and suburban voters. Former Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), he said, refused to speak to anyone from the P-I during his final campaign in 2000.

“This is something right out of the standard Republican playbook in Washington state,” Howland said.

Noyes said it is unusual for a candidate to take such a defiant stand against a media outlet so far from the election. But, he said, Nethercutt’s decision to clarify his position by including his full quote on American casualties in the newspaper ad “puts him on firmer ground.”

Dan Allen, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said national Republicans are pleased that Nethercutt chose to bypass a newspaper that “clearly has a vendetta against him” to “speak directly to the people of Seattle and the state of Washington.”

“This clearly shows why we think George Nethercutt is somebody who’s going to make this race very competitive,” Allen said. “He isn’t going to take things lying down.”

But Democrats continued to revel in Nethercutt’s discomfort.

In a news release Wednesday that borrowed from a TV credit card commercial, the Washington state Democratic Party asked, “What does it cost to try and remove your foot from your mouth? Plenty, if you’re George Nethercutt.

“3/4 Page Ad in the Spokesman Review: $3,500.

“3/4 Page Ad in Roll Call: $7,700.

“3/4 Page Ad in the Seattle Times and the Seattle P-I: $9,200.

“Not demeaning the sacrifice of America’s soldiers? Priceless.”

Michael Siegel, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Nethercutt overreacted to the newspaper coverage about his town hall remarks.

“This is a desperate attempt of a candidate unfit for higher office trying to paper over what may or may not be the most insensitive comment about protecting our troops overseas of this election cycle,” Siegel said.

Beyond the partisan sniping, it is not clear what kind of political fallout, if any, there will be from Nethercutt’s decision to go after the Post-Intelligencer. Howland predicted that attacking the newspaper will help Nethercutt raise his profile among conservative voters who need to get excited about his campaign early.

“It’s not going to play well with Democrats,” Howland said. “But let’s face it: George Nethercutt is a conservative candidate. He’s not going to pick up a lot of Democratic votes anyway.”

In an interview, Nethercutt said political considerations were not a part of his decision to pay for the ads. But he said the newspaper may have had a political agenda of its own. The P-I has editorialized against the war in Iraq and frequently criticizes President Bush.

“It’s not unreasonable to think that there was a political motivation,” Nethercutt said.

Reed Davis, the political science professor at Seattle Pacific University who is running against Nethercutt in the 2004 Republican Senate primary, said he has no intention of using the flap against his opponent.

“I’m not the one who’s going to pass judgment on the propriety of his response” to the P-I’s coverage, Davis said.

But a veteran Republican observer of Washington state politics questioned the wisdom of spending almost $20,000 of precious campaign funds to attack the newspaper — two weeks after the offending article appeared in print.

“It’s mind-boggling,” the political observer said. “It makes me wonder whether he’s tough enough” to run statewide.

The Republican said Nethercutt has been oversensitive to media criticism before, like when he decided to break the term-limit pledge he made when he first ran for the House in 1994.

“He can’t understand why the press is hammering him,” the political observer said.

Ironically, Murray, the woman Nethercutt is trying to defeat next year, has also been the object of unwanted media attention over remarks she made about the Middle East. During a speech at a school last December, Murray said she understood why the al Qaeda terrorist network was welcomed into certain poor regions of the world.

Republicans immediately jumped on the remarks, implying that the Senator was sympathetic to terrorists. Murray rode out that storm — not altogether happily — without lashing out at the media.