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Tuesday, February 9, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Michelle Malkin

What's Really Wrong With Seattle TV Media

Times Editorial Columnist

A NEW public-affairs program recently debuted on KONG-TV, the sister station of Seattle's NBC affiliate, KING-TV. The show is called "City Desk." The format is standard Sunday talk-show fare, with politicians facing the Seattle media's best and brightest.

"City Desk's" host is Michael Tuckman, general manager of KONG (which is better known for its Hogan's Heroes marathons and Oprah Winfrey reruns).

Tuckman prides himself on producing a lively, informative show. One segment of the program involves the host and journalists in a roundtable discussion of the week's top stories; another segment features a question-and-answer session between the host/journalists and local newsmakers.

I was recently invited to appear on "City Desk" - but the invitation came with strings. During a phone conversation about the show two weeks ago, Tuckman explained that he gives some special guests "an option to approve" the journalists. He then told me I could not appear in the Q&A portion if either Seattle Mayor Paul Schell or Gov. Gary Locke appeared. Tuckman mentioned at least one other journalist (my Times colleague, Casey Corr) who is apparently on the mayor's media enemies list.

(For its part, the mayor's office claims that Tuckman initiated the preapproval process - not to give Schell a "level of control" over the show, but as a "courtesy.")

Tuckman justified the preapproval policy by noting that to be successful, the show needs to attract big names - and keep them

coming back. He told me last night that the arrangement was "not a question of journalistic integrity" and that it was "pathetic" to write about something so "trivial."

I asked Howard Kurtz, veteran media critic for The Washington Post, what he thought.

"Journalists ought to be awfully wary of appearing on a show that won't let them question public officials unless that official gives them a previous stamp of approval," Kurtz advised me. "On the network Sunday shows, top officials and lawmakers sometimes insist on appearing by themselves, or following an appearance by critics. But I've never heard of a guest saying I won't show unless you dump Sam Donaldson or George Will for my segment."

Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan media foundation in Washington, D.C., concurs: "Every show has its own rules, of course, but I am not aware of any instances where a standing guest has `veto' power over another guest."

Would he allow reporters to appear on "City Desk" if he were local metro editor? "I think it would be irresponsible of an editor to allow or encourage (which is often the case) a reporter to appear on shows where other journalists are not allowed because they might ask tough questions or because a political official wants to `punish' certain journalists for their reporting or views," McMasters observed.

Sometimes, cozy kowtowing between elected officials and the local TV media belies more egregious conflicts of interest. Gov. Locke's wife, Mona Lee, is a former KING-TV reporter. Without a trace of irony or the proper disclosure about its ties to Locke's wife, KING-TV boasted on election night in 1996 that "We're happy to be the first television station to have an interview with our governor-elect."

As then-Times television columnist Chuck Taylor noted wryly: "And what a scoop!"

Flip the channel. On Seattle's local ABC affiliate, KOMO-TV, and the local PBS affiliate, KCTS-TV, Vivian Phillips co-hosts a public-affairs show called "True Colors." Partial funding for "True Colors" comes from the King County Council.

Phillips is an attractive and competent on-air personality who told me she's "always in favor of disclosing" potential conflicts of interest. But one fact not disclosed on a "True Colors" program about Initiative 200: Phillips happens to be communications director and press secretary for Mayor Schell, who actively opposed I-200.

Barry Mitzman, another local television personality, served as a communications consultant for Mayor Schell last year - but he was unpaid and volunteered for only eight weeks. Before that brief stint, he moderated the public-affairs program "Friday"; he continues to host "Ask the Governor," a viewer call-in show on KCTS-TV. Mitzman believes strongly that "neither guests nor reporters should control a program or shape decisions of who appears."

If guests or their political handlers expressed displeasure with an invited media panelist on "Friday," Mitzman told me, "that was their problem." Catering to their wishes "is a disservice to viewers," he said.

Is it any wonder that a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, affiliated with the Columbia Journalism School, ranked Seattle TV news coverage near the bottom in a nationwide survey? The researchers cited single-sourcing, low-conflict pieces, and lack of diverse viewpoints as major shortcomings. They rated Seattle stations below average in reflecting larger trends and issues, being locally relevant, and showing enterprise.

So viewers, beware: If you want the real scoop on local government, skip "City Desk" and ask the tough questions yourselves. Some talking heads in this town don't just play softball. They play blackball.

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: malkin1@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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