DON’T CHANGE THAT DIAL, because tonight we’re going to take you to the mayor’s front porch! At 10pm! What does Seattle’s mayor look like as he prepares for bed? Viewers want to know!
Okay, so the flap that every TV newsroom wanted to talk about—then suddenly didn’t want to talk about—played a little differently than that. But it did start with a late-night rap on the door of Mayor Mike McGinn’s yellow Greenwood bungalow. He isn’t home, his wife told the KOMO 4 TV camera crew for the second time in an hour.
Undeterred, the crew, now joined by the competition—KING 5, KIRO—rushed the mayor as he walked his bike up to an event on Fifth Avenue at 8am the next morning, Friday, May 13. He’d just pedaled in from Greenwood. Sweat dripped off his gray pate, his blue oxford button-up a road map of wrinkles.
Before reporters could launch their inquisition—why had His Beardedness appointed a bicycle lobbyist to a $95,000-a-year transportation advisor position?—the mayor volleyed a question of his own.
“So who showed up at my house last night?” He threw up a hand to wave off a cameraman. A KOMO reporter said her station had sent a crew to ask about the advisor hire. “I thought when you showed up at my house there’d been an emergency or something,” the mayor shot back.
The castigation didn’t stop there. Less than three hours later, Aaron Pickus, the mayor’s assistant communications director, fired off an email to the four major TV newsrooms—KOMO, KING, KIRO, Q13 FOX—schooling them on the acceptable way to interview hizzoner.
“Sending a camera and reporter to knock on the door of the mayor’s home at 10pm to talk about a personnel decision that is filling a vacant position within our existing budget is not necessary,” Pickus wrote. “Nor is crowding around him at an event as he arrives.”
He included graphics: a photo of paparazzi smothering an indistinguishable starlet (bad); and a photo of what looks like a student journalist holding a microphone in front of a TV cameraman standing five feet away (good).
The newsrooms didn’t take it well. The email became the story. A komonews.com post the next day referenced a statement the mayor made shortly after taking office about being open to the public. “Seventeen months later, some are wondering if that pledge to be open has closed,” KOMO wrote. The post also reproduced the email verbatim—as did the other stations.
The mayor’s new communications director—and Aaron Pickus’s new boss—Beth Hester, inherited the imbroglio when she joined the staff a few days later. And she really, really doesn’t want to talk about it.
The former Seattle Channel content manager knows the futility of sustaining a spat with broadcast media. What she will say is that Pickus—on whose behalf she spoke since he was out of the office for the week—meant the email as a lighthearted joke.
KIRO news director Todd Mokhtari wasn’t amused. “I didn’t think it was funny or appropriate,” Mokhtari says. “Media should be aggressive in getting answers from public officials. It is a critical part of our role in the community.”
At KING, executive news director Mark Ginther has grown increasingly concerned over the mayor’s unavailability. “In other cities I’ve worked”—Minneapolis–St. Paul, Dallas, and Des Moines, Iowa—“we often showed up and asked politicians questions unrelated to the event.” Mayor McGinn resists that, Ginther says. “He’s really open when it comes to issues he cares about, like the viaduct, but not so much when it’s something like a controversial hire.”
McGinn has particularly disappointed the KING news director because when he was running for office, “He let us into his home and we did kind of a day-in-the-life spot. I told him then, ‘This is really refreshing.’ ”
Beth Hester admits the email was a bad idea: “Aaron knows now he shouldn’t have sent it.” Still, she says, “I was surprised that the staff-hire story warranted a 10pm comment.”
Will the missive change the way TV newsrooms cover the mayor? Speaking for KING 5, Ginther laughs. “No.”