Media Mutt

Good Work, Bad Work, No Work At All

by Al Diamon

Good work: Writing a solid news story is often about more than simply getting all the relevant information and putting it in coherent form. It’s also about explaining the implications of whatever happened for future events. That can take extra time, something reporters rarely have the luxury of these days, but that time is an indulgence editors should be more liberal in granting if they have any interest in quality.

Case in point: On Jan. 17, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling rejecting a convicted murderer’s request for a new trial based on DNA evidence. Most of the state’s court reporters apparently figured the denial was routine, because the first story on the Olland Reese case didn’t turn up until Jan. 24 on the Bangor Daily News’ website.

Staff writer Christopher Cousins correctly deduced the implications this matter held for a far more infamous legal proceeding. In denying Reese’s claim that DNA from another person found on duct tape used to bind Reese’s victim was sufficient evidence to win him a new trial, the high court cast a shadow over similar claims by convicted murderer Dennis Dechaine.

Dechaine, serving a life sentence for the 1988 killing of 11-year-old Sarah Cherry in Bowdoin, has long argued that DNA found under her fingernails and on her clothing isn’t his and indicates someone else committed the crime. Cousins contacted several lawyers familiar with the law regarding appeals based on DNA to assess the implications of the Reese ruling on Dechaine’s chances, revealing an overlooked aspect of this seemingly mundane decision.

This thoughtful and thorough piece shows there’s still some institutional memory left in the Maine media.

Disclosure: The Bollard has a business relationship with the Bangor Daily News.

More good work: Earlier this month, several news organizations did stories on the abrupt firing of the warden of the Maine State Prison. None of these stories explained why Patricia Barnhart got the ax. All of them relied heavily on information from a representative of the state employees union, because state Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, citing the confidentiality of personnel decisions, refused to comment.

At which point, the media lost interest. After all, there was a Zumba prostitution trial to cover. No time to waste on the finer points of corrections department politics and policy.

The only exception was freelancer Lance Tapley, who’s made prison coverage a specialty over the past several years. Tapley kept digging after everyone else stopped and came up with the reasons behind the surprise dismissal, which he published in this week’s Portland Phoenix.

His story puts the termination in a significantly different light than those of reporters who allowed the union official to spin coverage. And he raises important points about how Maine is doing in reforming its corrections system.

Fine work from somebody who makes a habit of it. I wonder how long it will take his competition to catch up. Maybe after the Zumba trial ends.

Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Phoenix.

Bad work: I’ve complained before about the Lewiston Sun Journal’s use of unedited and uncredited press releases on its entertainment pages. For instance, on Jan. 22, the paper published a gushy (“Many of the songs on this album will end up being favorites and it’s not fair to say one song’s better than any other”), frothy (“You can hear it in every chord. It’s their finest yet”) release promoting a concert by the Drive-By Truckers and Old 97’s at the State Theatre in Portland.

So indifferent was the editing in the print edition that the piece is cut off in mid-sentence.

At least, once I’d waded through the drivel, it told me what I wanted to know (where, when, how much). Sloppy work, but harmless.

Of much more concern was this item from the Jan. 23 Sun Journal concerning efforts by the Humane Society of the Untied States to ban hunting bears in Maine with bait or dogs.

In the second paragraph, the unbylined piece claims its information comes from a “news report,” but that’s not true. The bulk of the alleged story was lifted verbatim from a Humane Society press release.

If the Sun Journal lacked the resources to cover this controversial issue, it would have been better off publishing nothing. Printing the arguments for one side, without even asking for a comment from the other, is unethical and inexcusable.

And, at the Lewiston paper, all too typical.

No work at all: The Maine Public Broadcasting Network botched it not once, but twice when it came to scheduling a new film with Maine connections. According to a story in the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 25, the filmmakers behind the documentary about troop greeters in Bangor, called The Way We Get By, which has aired on MPBN several times, contacted the network last year about scheduling a showing of their latest effort, called Lifecasters.

No response.

In the meantime, PBS committed to airing the new film nationwide on Feb. 7. But even though MPBN is a PBS affiliate, it has decided not to schedule Lifecasters, the production of which involved several Mainers, at that time.

The reason: According to network president Mark Vogelzang, it’s scheduling conflicts. Apparently, MPBN doesn’t want to pre-empt Maine Watch, its softball-question interview show. Because Maine TV has way too much original programming and not nearly enough wimpy public-affairs shows.

Instead, Lifecasters is set to air on Sunday, April 7 at 3:30 p.m.

Practically prime time.

Al Diamon can be emailed at

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