Media Mutt

Maine Media Fail to Probe Hospital Merger

by Al Diamon

Suspect diagnosis: It’s a good thing some journalists are paying attention to the reasons behind the failure of the merger between Portland-based Mercy Health System of Maine and Steward Health Care System of Massachusetts. Unfortunately, none of those journalists are in this state. They work for the Boston Globe.

On Dec. 11, the Globe broke the story that Steward had unilaterally pulled out of the deal because Mercy’s financial figures didn’t look reliable. The paper based its report on a confidential memo circulated within Steward’s corporate offices that calls the Maine hospital’s future into serious question.

But on Mercy’s home turf, no reporters had bothered to look deeper than the Dec. 7 announcement that Mercy and Steward had mutually agreed to end merger talks and that the Portland hospital was instead negotiating to combine its assets with Bangor-based Eastern Maine Health System. Failing to probe that sudden shift resulted in the state’s tame newshounds being scooped by their big-city competition.

More importantly, the lack of follow-up exposes how local reporters and editors are inclined to accept at face value whatever they’re told by influential figures in the community. The Steward memo would seem to indicate Mercy has far more serious financial problems than have been previously reported. But even in the wake of the Globe report, the Portland Press Herald was still acting more like Mercy’s public-relations arm than a skeptical observer. It’s too-little-too late catch-up piece on Dec. 12 carried a headline that touted Mercy’s position that it hadn’t tried to conceal any problems. In fact, the story seemed to indicate the hospital didn’t really have any such issues.

At least the Bangor Daily News was a bit more objective. Its coverage raised legitimate questions about why Eastern Maine would want to merge with Mercy, as well as concerns the deal could increase health care costs and limit reproductive-care options. The Bangor paper was initially as slow on the uptake as its Portland counterpart, but at least it tried to do some digging once it finally woke up.

There’s no excuse for any media outlet considering hospitals – or any other community institution – to be sacred cows. Here’s hoping this humiliating oversight will prove to be the beginning of a much-needed attitude change.

The Susan and Peggy Show: The Portland Press Herald has introduced a new video feature on its website. According to a story in the Dec. 12 paper, former  journalists Susan Kimball (WCSH) and Peggy Keyser (MPBN) will contribute weekly online features.

Among K&K’s initial offerings: a short interview with Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz that comes off as more self-promotion than reporting, a soft piece on restaurateur David Turin’s passion for surfing, and a decent look at destitute people who stand on Portland street corners with signs asking for help.

New content is supposed to be posted on Wednesdays (according to the Press Herald story) or Tuesdays (according to the introductory video).

The production is slick and professional, but the content is mostly on the light side. It’ll be interesting to see if this amounts to anything other than publicity for the producers.

Al Diamon can be emailed at

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