Can Zen Ben Be Both Activist and Journalist?
by Al Diamon
One hat too many? Ben Meiklejohn is a reporter for the weekly Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach Courier. Meiklejohn, who used to work as a street musician under the name “Zen Ben,” is also a former member of the Portland School Committee and an active member of the Maine Green Independent Party. Meiklejohn makes no secret of his political activity. It’s the main focus of his Wikipedia entry and his Facebook page.
But it’s one thing to be a journalist with a political past and quite another to be one who’s currently using his spare time to work on a campaign. According to an article in the August 8 Times Record, Meiklejohn is the spokesman for the state Senate campaign of Daniel Stromgren, the Green candidate in the August 27 special election in Sagadahoc County.
Meiklejohn doesn’t see any problem. “I only cover Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach as a staff writer for The Courier, which covers almost exclusively local, community and municipal news, not partisan, state or national level issues,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The campaign is far away from any region or topic I would ever cover in my capacity as a reporter … hence no conflict.”
He said his employer, Mainely Media LLC, is aware of his political involvement. (Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Courier and another Mainely Media newspaper.)
To date, Meiklejohn’s dual life may not have been a problem for him, but 2014 is an election year, and it’s hard to imagine the paper he works for won’t be covering candidates for various offices who are running in partisan races. It’s also tough to believe anyone facing a challenge from a Green would perceive Meiklejohn as unbiased. And even if there are no Greens in the contests he covers, Republicans and Democrats would hardly be comfortable with coverage from someone who publicly espouses views contrary to their own. As for readers, without a disclaimer on every political story Meiklejohn writes, they aren’t getting the information they need to assess his credibility.
In a subsequent e-mail, Meiklejohn tried to address that problem. “If a possibility for conflict in our coverage came up, clearly I would need to refrain from covering that news, or have my editor involved to make sure there is no favoritism towards one view or side,” he wrote. “In terms of how to measure the ‘appearance of’ a conflict with ‘actual’ conflicts, I have kept my political involvement away from the paper. If their concern with ‘appearance of conflict’ were so great that it were thought to hinder my ability to effectively report, I could never have been hired to begin with: my name is indelibly associated with a level of political involvement. Nonetheless, I can still be effective and ethical in covering news topics in Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach, by staying away from actual conflicts of interest if they arise.”
Unless the Greens forswear all political activity in northern York County, it’s difficult to see how that can work.
Bottom line: He’s a lot better at this stuff than at politics.
And on a completely different hand: If you read the Times Record story mentioned in the first item, you might be curious as to why the state Senate candidates for the Republican and Green parties seem so reluctant to take part in the forum being organized by the newspaper. The Times Record didn’t bother to mention it in its story, but the Democratic candidate, Eloise Vitelli, is married to a former longtime reporter for the newspaper, Bob Kalish. That, plus the TR’s announced intention to endorse a candidate, something it hasn’t routinely done in the past, have raised questions about its impartiality and the possibility of a hidden agenda.
The article should have dealt with that baggage. By failing to do so, the paper lends credibility to the rumor mill.
LePage’s latest outrage: On August 9, the Bangor Daily News reported that Gov. Paul LePage, preparing to use a jet simulator at the Pratt & Whitney plant in North Berwick, joked, “I want to find the Press Herald building and blow it up.” Asked by a television reporter after his demonstration flight if he had any targets, the governor said, “The Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News.”
This prompted a lot of criticism from the likes of Portland Press Herald publisher Lisa DeSisto: “That kind of joke is irresponsible in this day and age, especially when it come from the leader of our state.”
A footnote on this minor matter: The Press Herald didn’t actually cover LePage’s visit to the plant. It based its story on his remarks in the Bangor Daily and WMTW-TV stories. Which raises the question: If this offhand remark was so newsworthy, why didn’t the state’s largest daily have a reporter on the scene when it was uttered?
Gagnon gag order: I’m a big fan of Bangor Daily News columnist Matthew Gagnon, but he was way off base on August 9 in his criticism of the news media. Gagnon complained that reporters should never had written stories about Republican state Senate candidate Eric Brakey, who appeared in an online video dancing wildly in a Speedo. He wrote that journalists who pursued the matter “should be ashamed of themselves. Not only is this one of the stupidest, most vapid and pointless stories I have ever seen, but there was no reason to even cover it.”
Gagnon is an avowed (and salaried) member of the GOP, so perhaps his political leanings blinded him to the standard rules of what constitutes news. The video was widely available on the Web and had garnered considerable notice and comment on several sites. It raised obvious questions about why a political candidate was acting so strangely. Reporting the reasons behind it – Brakey is an actor, and it was an outtake from a commercial he did for Vita Coco coconut water – was the logical thing to do.
Gagnon also seems to be under the impression that because Mike Hein, a conservative activist with a weird agenda, brought the dance video to the press’ attention, it should have been disregarded. Hein’s credibility may be questionable, but the video was real. Failing to check it out would have been irresponsible.
Sun-setted: Bob Higgins, the quirky columnist for the Portland Daily Sun, got the ax last week. The Sun published his farewell column on August 9 — a piece that hinted he’d been canned. An e-mail from him confirmed it: “Got an email Monday from the editor saying the publisher had been up, and my column was done. Stung a bit, but that is the game.”
Politics before profits: Both the Bangor Daily News’ Kathleen Pierce and the Portland Press Herald’s Randy Billings bought the spin on the announcement that Mike’s Restaurant in Portland was closing because of anti-abortion protesters outside the business picketing a nearby Planned Parenthood office. Deep in both pieces, there are indications the shop wasn’t making much money and never had — which seems a more likely cause of its demise than the weekly protests that are getting the blame.
Fired-up journalism: Lewiston Sun Journal managing editor Judith Meyer did an outstanding job in her August 11 profile of the young boy alleged to have set one of the fires that destroyed several Lewiston apartment buildings earlier this summer. Meyer manages to tell not only the kid’s sad story, but also that of his mother and stepfather – who appear to bear much of the responsibility for his actions – and the shortcomings of a system that allows such outrages to happen to children. Meyer isn’t the least bit dainty in calling the step-dad a liar and placing blame where it’s deserved.
We don’t often see such hard-hitting journalism in Maine, particularly in the Sun Journal. More, please.
Fizzled-out journalism: The only self-produced content on the front page of the August 12 Sun Journal was three staff photos of a Native American ceremony in Gray, an event that didn’t even merit a story. Feeble.
Running the bull: There was a time when the word “bullshit” would never have made it into a Maine daily newspaper, no matter how crucial that language was to the story. I’m happy to report that time has finally passed.
On August 4, the Maine Sunday Telegram dared to use that epithet in Kevin Miller’s political column, quoting U.S. Sen. Angus King’s unguarded reaction to weak environmental and safety laws in countries that produce cheap goods that are imported into this country.
And on August 10, the Bangor Daily News probably shocked a few readers of a Beth Brogan piece on a proposed reality show that takes place in Newcastle’s “Cowshit Corner.”
Both papers are to be commended for avoiding the asterisks and giving us the plain truth.
Now, on to the F-bomb.
Rationalizing away: For the worst attempt I’ve ever seen at explaining away conflicts of interest, check out outdoor-issues blogger/travel writer George Smith’s latest self-congratulatory posting.
Take only with a grain – make that a bucket – of salt.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.