Media Mutt

Do Maine Reporters Understand Campaign Finance Law?

By Al Diamon

Contribution confusion: When Republican state Sen. Nichi Farnham of Bangor was accused by Democrats of violating Maine campaign finance law, the state’s news media jumped on the story. Farnham, they reported, was listed as one of the officers of a political action committee that was spending big bucks to attack her opponent in the November election. Farnham said she thought she had severed ties with the PAC months ago, and the problem was just a clerical error.

Farnham is running as a publicly funded candidate, which seemed like a significant point to columnist Bill Nemitz in his Nov. 4 piece in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

“As a Clean Election candidate,” Nemitz wrote, “she is legally prohibited from having any involvement in such outside help.” Later, he added that Farnham’s exoneration by the state ethics commission “breaches the firewall between … Clean Election funding and the nearest friendly PAC.”

That’s true. Sort of. It’s certainly consistent with earlier coverage in the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News.

But it provides an incomplete and potentially misleading impression of what’s prohibited under Maine statutes.

According to a legal expert, Farnham — had she been found to have coordinated with the PAC to finance the attack ads — would have been guilty of a violation whether she was receiving Clean Election money or not.

“A traditionally funded candidate also can’t run a PAC that spends money on his or her behalf, because that would be a way around the contribution limits for traditional candidates,” said the attorney (who asked to remain nameless due to potential conflicts with the person’s regular work).

In other words, it’s a violation either way. Nemitz notwithstanding, the source of the candidate’s funding has little to do with any potential legal problem from meddling with PACs.

“Such a fundamental mistake, repeated again and again, makes one wonder if a reader can trust any of the coverage on the subject matter,” said the expert.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I would suggest that before the next election, journalists take a refresher course in campaign finance law in hopes that will help them avoid this sort of unclear reporting.

Change thing considered: A couple of e-mail correspondents have complained about the recent format change for Maine Public Radio’s “Maine Things Considered.” The network’s flagship news show, which airs at 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, has long begun with a rundown of the day’s top stories, followed by more in-depth pieces, an arrangement that mimics that of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

Now, MTC starts off with a major piece on whatever its editors consider the day’s big story. The brief mention of all the other news is relegated to the middle of the program, a format that replicates PBS’s “NewsHour.”

According to a staff member, the change was made to avoid repetition at the beginning of the program. “A lot of times the same story led the opening newscasts,” the staffer said, “and then we came back to it two minutes later in more detail.”

One disgruntled listener wrote that the change was annoying. “If the first story is uninteresting and I tune out, I miss the headlines,” he said. “Every other news program on public radio has the headlines at the top or bottom of the hour. Listeners shouldn’t have to listen to a story that may not interest them to get the day’s headlines.”

There’s more bad news for those unsettled by such alterations. I’m told that serious consideration is being given to finding a new MTC theme song.

Is nothing sacred?

Wires crossed: More e-mailed complaints about local radio, this time concerning programming on the morning of Nov. 5 on the Big Jab, sports stations WJAB (1440 AM) and WRED (95.5 FM) in Portland. As one concerned listener put it, “[A]s I was making the morning commute today, I tuned in to 95.5 and was not greeted by WEEI’s Dennis and Callahan, as I have become accustomed to. Instead it was ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike. What gives?”

Atlantic Coast Broadcasting general manager Jon Van Hoogenstyn blamed technical problems for the brief change in programming.

“We had a studio issue at our end, and we lost our feed for like 90 minutes,” Van Hoogenstyn said. “[WEEI] is back on now. Thank god it wasn’t the morning after a Patriots game or we’d have been swamped with complaints.”

Talk or else: According to a Nov. 3 article in the Bangor Daily News, Duke University has won a round in its court battle to compel Dr. Robert David Johnson of Scarborough to reveal his sources and turn over his notes from a book he wrote about the 2006 Duke lacrosse rape case.

A magistrate judge has recommended that Johnson be forced to give confidential information to Duke’s lawyers. Johnson has asked a federal judge in Portland to block that action, and a cross section of the Maine media has filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting his position.

Among those objecting to requiring the author to reveal this information are the Bangor Daily, the Portland Press Herald, the Maine Press Association, the Maine Association of Broadcasters and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Duke is being sued by former players and their families over the damage done to reputations and careers by the false allegations of sexual assault. The school wants Johnson’s papers because it says they might help disprove those claims.

Worth considering: An alert political observer called my attention to the fact that nearly all the televised debates among the U.S. Senate candidates in Maine were held within an eight-day period just before the election. At least one was held in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when thousands of people were without power. The observer noted that scheduling a couple of debates earlier in October might help avoid such political overkill and could even result in a campaign that was “a bit more issue-oriented.”

Al Diamon can be emailed at

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