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Sunday, August 26, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emmett Watson

Dorothy Bullitt Placed King-TV In A Class By Itself

The proposed sale of KING-TV and the rest of its Northwest empire caused such a ruckus in local gazettes as to make one think an important person had died. In a sense, that is what happened.

The guiding spirit, the conscience, of KING-TV actually died June 27, 1989, when the founding matriarch, Dorothy Bullitt, passed away. Her daughters and heiresses, for better or worse, are now seeking a buyer.

KING-TV may well flourish under new owners. But it will not be the same, and this city will not be the same, either. It will be poorer, less vibrant, less bold, less committed.

It was just a television station after all, you say. KING, KIRO, KOMO, they're all the same: blow-dried, talking heads chitty-chat-chatting the news; jackass game shows; sitcoms that would insult the intelligence of someone with an IQ equaling Seattle's temperature in January.

As a company, KING has its share of rivalries, rampant egos, airheads, personnel gaffes, power struggles . . . like any other business you can name.

But KING was always different, somehow, like Dorothy Bullitt herself. She was an iconoclast, she enjoyed the unusual, she respected people's rights to be different, and she honored her own word.

In the early 1960s, she put her son, Stimson Bullitt, in charge of the station. Which was always strange. Because Stimson Bullitt hated television. He really hated it. He hated the commercial side of it, he didn't like to manage people, and he hated television's incessant chatter.

Stimson Bullitt was a man of the written word - a gifted writer, a man of intellect who loved the outdoors and was compelled to physically challenge himself. He was no man to run a television station.

But Dorothy Bullitt had given her son authority. And once, when an executive wondered aloud where Stimson Bullitt was taking the station, Mrs. Bullitt replied in low, measured tones:

``I don't care if he runs the company broke, he's got the authority.''

Stimson Bullitt, the man of literature, founded Seattle magazine, a commercial loser. One KING executive said of it, ``If we had tried to sell copies of the telephone book, we'd have lost less money.''

Dorothy Bullitt permitted this venture, even though it drained King Broadcasting's resources by hundreds of thousands of dollars. It cost money, too, when Stimson Bullitt went on television (his only appearance) with a powerful editorial against expansion of the Vietnam War at a time of patriotic fervor when people still thought the war was winnable and morally right.

The editorial caused a firestorm of public denunciation, and advertisers quit KING in droves.

Dorothy Bullitt never said a word, and that, in part, was what made KING-TV different and very special.

Early on, Dorothy Bullitt told KING executives: ``New York has many newspapers. There are the Daily News and Hearst's Daily Mirror on the sensational side. Perhaps the more popular side. And there is The New York Times. I want us to be more like The New York Times.''

Under Dorothy Bullitt, KING-TV pioneered the best that is found in television today. She hired Bob Schulman, a crack Time magazine reporter, to do documentaries for her station.

There were no documentaries in those days. And when Schulman wrote, researched and gave voice to the city's first TV documentary, ``Lost Cargo,'' it was the first in the Northwest, even possibly in the nation.

``Lost Cargo,'' which spelled out the scandal of Seattle's run-down port affairs, caused great controversy. But it resulted in a total reform of waterfront doings and ushered in an era of prosperity in international cargo handling.

Dorothy Bullitt had an uncanny sense for drawing good people around her. Henry Owen was the station's first business head, and Otto Brandt, one of television's top managers, ran the broadcast side for many years.

KING-TV, responding to Dorothy Bullitt's commitment to public service, was the first not only to produce documentaries but also to air station editorials and commentaries.

So there were editorials, commentaries and documentaries on a wide spectrum of social issues - race relations, gay rights, unemployment, schools, taxes, civil rights. Now other stations are doing those things, but in the beginning only KING put its neck out. For a long time, no other station touched such issues.

Ancil Payne, retired president of King Broadcasting, would recall that Dorothy Bullitt inculcated a spirit of public service within the station.

``There was never a doubt about who ran that station. On any issue, she would listen carefully and accept counsel, but when the time came, she made the decisions.

``She was supportive, she would back us. We knew that. Because of her, I could tell our people, `Our greatest responsibility, our greatest reason for being, is to speak for the people who cannot speak for themselves.' ''

So ``Lost Cargo'' was followed by ``Bitter Harvest,'' a documentary on exploited migrant workers. And there was ``Suspect,'' a revealing documentary on red-hunting, the smearing of John Goldmark, in Okanogan County.

In one instance, KING produced a two-hour documentary on a complex regional power issue, which ran simultaneously on KING and Dorothy Bullitt's other stations in Spokane, Boise and Portland. It ran in prime time.

Her Portland station, KGWT, once ran some silly ``lucky bucks'' kind of promotional contest. One listener had figured out a gimmick that promised to drain the $50,000 pot before the contest really got started.

Executives and lawyers gathered in Portland and worked out a scheme to alter the rules and stop the payouts. Then they called Dorothy Bullitt in Seattle. ``What did we tell the public we would do?'' she asked.

Well, we told them this and that and something else, but we've solved it, we can save the money, they replied. Dorothy Bullitt's deep, measured tones came through on the conference call:

``We will do what we told the public we would do. And we will begin paying out the money before the sun sets tonight.''

Yes, KING-TV was different because Dorothy Bullitt was different, a woman who took the road less traveled and, in the words of the poet Robert Frost, ``That made all the difference.''

It was her imagination, her strength, her contempt for sophistry and slickness and her diamond-hard integrity. KING was different, because here is how Dorothy Bullitt was different when the going got tough:

Bob Schulman produced a stem-winder of a documentary called ``The Volcano Named White.'' It took a sympathetic look at a confessed, convicted murderer named Don White, and it was sure to cause another firestorm.

So the KING executives gathered for a screening. ``The issue was really whether we would run it at all,'' an executive once told me. The screening over, Dorothy Bullitt said, ``What do you think, gentlemen?''

Then she turned her back and gazed out the window. Behind her came the voices - well, gee whiz, maybe, a couple of changes, really . . .

Dorothy Bullitt turned around and addressed the gathering. ``I think it was wonderful,'' she said, ``and we will run it.''

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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