Ignoring the Legislature
The Maine Media Takes a Pass on State House and Senate Campaigns
By Al Diamon
There are a lot of dopes, wimps and wackos in the Maine Legislature. The state’s media bear most of the responsibility for that.
Before I explain how news organizations are collectively to blame for the election of so many mediocre (and worse) senators and representatives, let me be clear. This isn’t a partisan problem that only cropped up after the 2010 balloting gave Republicans control. The shortfall in legislative smarts, courage and common sense dates back at least a couple of decades, during which Democrats were usually the majority party. The one constant in all that time was the attitude of reporters and editors toward legislative candidates.
Which can be summed up as indifference.
In the world of journalism, there’s prestige associated with covering candidates for major offices. Any scoops about those races get big play. But finding out where the challenger from some rural state House district stands on bonding or virtual schools or what chemicals can go in kids’ sippy cups is unlikely to make the front page. Or even the local page. It’s the sort of work relegated to newbies. Or, all too often, to nobody.
When it comes to legislative races, the media only pays attention when there’s controversy. Unless a candidate is accused of running a campaign-finance scam, a residency scam, concealing a criminal record or playing World of Warcraft, he or she is generally considered slightly less newsworthy than the local animal shelter’s list of cats available for adoption.
Without easy access to candidates’ policy positions and analyses of their fitness for the job, most voters go to the polls with no clue about how to cast their ballots, other than what they gleaned from a quick meeting with the legislative hopeful on the front porch (during which he or she nodded in agreement at virtually anything the potential supporter said, including a call for the annexation of Liberia), a brochure (claiming, with no supporting evidence, that the would-be senator or representative has the citizens’ best interests at heart) or, if the district is competitive, negative ads (which mostly make up in originality what they lack in accuracy). Such online services as Project Vote Smart attempt to fill the gap, but are of limited use if your local candidates don’t respond to the survey — and a lot of them don’t.
For years, the Bangor Daily News took the award for worst coverage of legislative races. With its immense circulation area, the BDN’s editors long ago concluded there was no way they could produce adequate stories on what was going on in nearly half of the state’s 186 legislative districts. So they didn’t even try. Every two years, they sent candidates a questionnaire asking them what their top three priorities are. Nearly all the pols sent back a predictable list that included jobs, the economy, taxes, education, the environment or health care. Once in a while somebody would include the annexation of Liberia, but that was a rarity.
In short, the paper gave its readers no useful information.
This year, the Bangor Daily tried to do a better job. The questionnaire was expanded to cover a range of issues, and the results were summarized in print and posted in full online.
Assuming the candidates in your district bothered to answer (many didn’t), the results could be somewhat helpful. Emphasis on somewhat. In House District 137, Republican William Guay left the question on abortion blank, dodged the one on same-sex marriage by saying it was up to the voters, and responded to the query on how to lower energy costs by saying, “Ensure policies examine, and allow for, all possible low cost energy, and energy saving options.”
What’s that mean? A reporter conducting an actual interview could have asked for clarification. A questionnaire doesn’t bother.
Asked about cutting the state income tax, Democrat Matt Moonen of Portland, who’s running in House District 118, wrote, “I do not support Governor LePage’s tax cuts for the wealthy. We must work to build a fair tax code for all Mainers.”
That hints at an answer. But with no follow-up, a hint is all voters get.
Still, that’s an improvement over most of the legislative coverage in the MaineToday Media papers. An Oct. 25 profile in the Kennebec Journal of the candidates in House District 83 (Belgrade, Fayette, Manchester, Mount Vernon and Vienna) told readers one of them favored smaller government, prioritizing spending and reforming the state pension system. The other wants to advocate for people and see how well the family court system is working. Both want to improve the economy and create jobs.
Nothing about social issues, school choice, Medicaid cuts, right to work, tax hikes or a host of other issues that might distinguish the contenders from each other or test their political competence and knowledge of how the state operates.
This piece isn’t an exception in MaineToday’s coverage. It’s the norm. An Oct. 23 Morning Sentinel article on Senate District 26 in central Maine gets to the issues in the third paragraph (the first two were brief bios) by announcing, “Both think jobs are the key to future economic growth and each has an interest in passage of a bill in the Legislature that would mandate the hiring of Maine-based production crews for all movies made in the state.”
That’s the most important thing to tell voters?
An Oct. 10 Sentinel story on House District 88 (a swath of Somerset County) never mentions industrial wind development, even though it’s a controversial topic in the area, and the incumbent representative is a leading opponent.
Or how about this gem of a first sentence from the Oct. 23 KJ: “The two candidates in the Maine House of Representatives District 59 race both like their chances of winning because they say they’re well-known in their communities.”
Yeah, that’ll help you decide.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the rest of the article presented some clear contrasts between the candidates. But it doesn’t.
The Sentinel did do a decent job on Oct. 26 covering the race in Senate District 18 (Franklin County), but that appeared to be because the challenger insisted on criticizing the incumbent’s record, leaving the reporter with little choice except to deal with the conflicts. If only the paper’s editors were so pushy.
You might think that local weekly papers, with fewer races to cover, would be eager to pick up the slack left by the dailies. If so, you’re mostly wrong.
While there are exceptions — the Downeast Coastal Press, the Advertiser Democrat and The Forecaster all deal with legislative candidates as if they were important — many weeklies seem to run out of questions after asking, “Why are you running?”
The Current Publishing papers in York and Cumberland counties often allow would-be solons to eat up more than half their allotted space with the answer to that one, providing the electorate with such self-serving blather as, “I have earned a reputation as a fair-minded legislator who strives to find middle ground in order to form consensus,” or, “If elected I will engage in a thoughtful dialogue on behalf of citizens, not driven by special interests or party doctrine,” or, “We must lean forward, not backward.”
When GOP state Rep. Amy Volk of Scarborough was asked by The Current how she stood on same-sex marriage, she refused to answer — even though the rival Forecaster had already reported she opposed it.
This sort of coverage is fairly typical at weeklies, where limited resources are more likely to be allocated to feel-good stories, rather than politics. The Mainely Media papers in York and Cumberland counties follow the same pattern, while the Free Press in Rockland did little more than list the candidates and print an occasional press release. Its sister Courier Publications papers went the questionnaire route, with the usual mix of quirky answers (“I do not believe the state should be regulating marriage”) and annoying non-answers (“I’ll be making my opinion [on same-sex marriage] known in the ballot box as a citizen”).
Lots of little weeklies, such as the Original Irregular in Kingfield, ignore the elections altogether, apparently figuring there’s nothing to be gained by printing anything that might piss people off.
Which goes a long way toward explaining why lots of voters go to the polls frustrated and confused.
And why the Legislature is full of boobs.
(As of The Bollard’s deadline, the Portland Press Herald and Lewiston Sun Journal had yet to publish their 2012 legislative profiles. In recent years, the Sun Journal has generally done a passable job, while the MaineToday-owned Press Herald has not.)
(Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Downeast Coastal Press, some Mainely Media papers and some Current publications.)
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com. Links to articles referenced above are available on thebollard.com.