MaineToday Media’s Phony Non-Endorsements
by Al Diamon
We have no opinion on that: On Aug. 31, the MaineToday Media newspapers (Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel) announced in an editorial that they won’t be endorsing candidates in this year’s political races because “it’s not our job to tell you how to vote.”
The editorial goes on to say that research shows readers don’t find endorsements helpful, and some even consider them “insulting.” According to the MaineToday editors, the practice of making such choices is an outdated vestige of 19th century journalism.
The arguments continue to stretch thinner and thinner. “[N]aming a favorite,” said the editorial, “is not necessarily taking a stand on principle — it can be an emotional response to a candidate’s personal qualities.” One of those qualities the editorial cited was trustworthiness, which seems like a legitimate reason to back someone.
Finally, more than halfway through this bizarre attempt to justify the new policy, the piece touches, ever so delicately, on the real reason the papers are taking a pass on making choices in this year’s elections. It seems that MaineToday faces a “perception challenge” because its majority owner, hedge-fund manager S. Donald Sussman, is married to Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District (who’s up for reelection), and Sussman is also a major contributor to the Democratic Party and liberal political action committees.
“We understand that readers watch what we do to see whether we are trying to further our owner’s political goals or advance his wife’s career,” the editorial said. “We think that the quality of our reporting speaks for itself, but we are stepping out of the arena of political endorsements in part to tell our readers that our published opinions are not undercover political advertising.”
But if Sussman’s activities are such a problem in the political arena, why isn’t MaineToday taking a similar stand in other areas where its owner is involved in controversial issues. For instance, Sussman serves on the advisory board of the Israel Policy Forum, a pro-Israeli think tank that advocates for a two-state solution. I can find no disclaimer mentioning that connection accompanying any piece MTM has published on local or national reaction to the latest conflict in Gaza. But I have heard from a couple of pro-Palestinian activists who claim Sussman’s involvement with the group is responsible for local coverage that tends to skew in Israel’s favor. I’m not sure that’s true, but to these readers, it creates another pesky “perception challenge.”
Now back to local politics. In spite of the Sussman connection, MaineToday isn’t completely abandoning its efforts to influence outcomes at the ballot box. “We will continue to make endorsements on bond issues, people’s vetoes and other referendums,” the editorial said. “These are purely questions of policy that lend themselves to analysis of pros and cons.”
The papers will also continue criticizing candidates for specific stands.
In other words, MTM will selectively endorse or attack policies closely associated with politicians, but will take a hands-off approach regarding the individuals promoting those ideas.
Because people don’t run government, policies do.
Even liberal Sunday Telegram political columnist Michael Cuzzi couldn’t accept what he called “an indiscriminate abandonment of the endorsement process.” In a Sept. 7 piece, Cuzzi termed the tortured logic behind the decision “Baloney.”
To be fair, MaineToday isn’t the only newspaper company that has decided endorsements are no longer appropriate. In the 2012 elections, at least 17 major papers offered no endorsements, according to National Public Radio.
But the Los Angeles Times went the other way. It ended decades of not picking a side by endorsing Barack Obama, a move that earned it considerable criticism. “We weigh in all the time during the year on what the president is doing, what the alternative theories are about governing,” Robert Greene, an editorial writer at the Times, told NPR. “We ought to work through that with our readers and tell them where we come out.”
While I think Greene has it right, there are rational arguments to be made for the opposite view (some of which were contained, however shakily, in the MaineToday editorial). There’s also the question of whether endorsements have any impact on voting, to which the answer seems to be sometimes, but not always, and it’s not clear why or how much. In general, getting a nod of approval from newspapers seems to be more effective in local rather than national races.
But expressing an opinion in print isn’t always about changing the outcome of an election. Sometimes it’s worth weighing in even if the race isn’t likely to be close. Valid views that run contrary to public sentiment need airing, if only in a vain attempt to blunt the impact of mob rule.
As Robert Peel, the 19th century British prime minister, put it, “Public opinion is a compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, right feeling, wrong feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs.”
It’s a shame to take that last one out of the mix.
Speaking of conflicts: If MaineToday is so concerned about the perception that Sussman’s extra-journalistic activities skew its coverage, it should also be taking a hard look at the aforementioned Michael Cuzzi’s political involvement. After former President Bill Clinton came to Portland in early September to participate in a campaign rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud, Jodi Quintero, a Maine House Democratic staffer, posted the following on her Facebook page: “Great job to Chuck Quintero, Rick Redmond, and Michael Cuzzi for an amazing looking event tonight.”
If Cuzzi is working for either the Michaud campaign or the Democratic Party, he should, at a minimum, disclose that in his newspaper column. Better yet, he should take a break from journalism until after the election.
Odds and sods: Steve Robinson is out as a Portland Press Herald political columnist. Robinson — a writer for the Maine Wire, the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center’s news service — was canned a couple of weeks after he secretly recorded a Sept. 4 conference call among progressive groups discussing Republican attack ads aimed at immigrants.
Robinson initially lied about the source of the recording, saying he’d gotten it from a source who took part in the meeting. “Without getting too much into the details,” Robinson wrote in an e-mail, “they wanted me to write an apologetic and regretful column about the recording flap. I did, but it wasn’t contrite enough for them. So we’re parting ways on friendly terms.” His column had been paired in the paper every other Saturday with one from liberal activist Mike Tipping. At The Bollard’s deadline, no word on a replacement.
The Downeast Coastal Press in Cutler will cease publication after its Nov. 4 issue. Editors/publishers Fred and Nancy Hastings started the resolutely old-fashioned Washington County weekly 26 years ago, but now want to retire. The couple isn’t trying to sell the 3,000-circulation paper because, as Fred Hastings told the Bangor Daily News, it has few assets aside from the owners, and anyway, anyone who wanted to could “just start a newspaper” of their own. (Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Downeast Coastal Press.)
The Twin Cities may soon have a glossy publication to replace the defunct Lewiston Auburn Magazine, which folded in February after its publisher was arrested on child porn charges. According to the Lewiston Sun Journal, the new magazine will be called Current and will be put out by a company called Current Media. Or maybe not. Westbrook-based Current Publishing, which puts out a weekly paper called The Current, has already been in touch with the new group to explain why poaching its name might not be such a hot idea. (Disclosure: My political column runs in the Current papers, too.)
Mainebiz, the biweekly business paper from Portland, enhanced its reputation for doing puff pieces with its Aug. 25 profile of Pineland Farms CEO William Haggett. While the story by staff writer James McCarthy prominently notes that Haggett, once considered a likely candidate for Maine governor, spent eight years as president of Bath Iron Works in the 1980s and ‘90s, and was instrumental in transitioning BIW into new Navy shipbuilding programs, it neglects to mention his abrupt departure in 1991. Haggett resigned after it was discovered he’d photocopied sensitive government documents that had been inadvertently left at BIW, possibly giving the company an unfair advantage in bidding for contracts. That should have been worth a sentence or two.
Carla Companion, the knowledgeable and entertaining blogger known as the Beer Babe on MaineToday Media’s website, is now using the byline Carla Jean Lauter, a result of her recent marriage. Raise a pint or two in her honor.
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in the Portland Phoenix, the Downeast Coastal Press, the Daily Bulldog and the Current Publishing papers. He also writes a column for Current’s My Generation magazine. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.