Pissing Off Powerful People
That essential aspect of quality journalism is missing in Maine
by Al Diamon
Maybe it’s cowardice. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe it’s chemical contamination that’s stimulated the human gene responsible for chronic wimpiness. Whatever it is, it’s caused most reporters and editors in Maine to shy away from controversy — particularly controversy involving powerful figures who might get angry and strike back.
When it comes to publicizing the faults of the high and mighty, this state’s journalists, with few exceptions, prefer to wait until they have plenty of cover — an indictment, a critical news story in the national media, a public demonstration — before writing unflattering stories about prominent business leaders or important politicians. That way, they can excuse their negative portrayal by attributing the uglier aspects of their reporting to the likes of a grand jury, the New York Times, or an Occupy-Something-Or-Other activist.
Examples abound of those deemed off-limits: most of Maine’s major employers, Bob Diamond, John Martin, Eliot Cutler, and the state’s congressional delegations, past and present. (Gov. Paul LePage is an exception, because it’s almost impossible to report on him without causing him to go ballistic.)
Companies such as L.L. Bean, Bath Iron Works and Cianbro rarely find themselves the subject of negative news coverage, and when they do, it’s almost never because a reporter probed into their inner workings. The few bad-news stories usually result from the intrusion of broader issues — exposure of Chinese sweatshops, claims of inefficient defense spending, proposals for an east-west highway — rather than tips from whistleblowers or examinations of public records.
While there’s nothing wrong with positive pieces (if they’re based on real news), there is something wrong with a steady diet of nothing but. The law of averages says companies this large are going to screw up from time to time, which should result in at least a few news reports that their public-relations people aren’t going to like. Ignoring that reality smacks of laziness and/or lack of balls.
Bob Diamond is a graduate and the chairman of the board of trustees at Colby College in Waterville. He’s donated buckets of cash to the school and has a building there named after him. He’s also the disgraced former chief executive officer of Barclays, one of the big banks linked to a rate-setting scandal with international financial implications. Even so, it wasn’t until months after the story broke overseas and a couple of weeks after Diamond was forced out as CEO that the Morning Sentinel, the daily paper in Waterville, dared to mention the ethical implications of Diamond’s tainted contributions and continued presence on the Colby board.
The Sentinel probably never would have gotten around to doing so had it not been for the difficult-to-ignore protests that kept cropping up on campus whenever the trustees held meetings.
John Martin’s business dealings are almost as complicated as Diamond’s, but during the years Martin served as Speaker of the Maine House, they were glossed over by docile reporters. Even after Martin was ousted from the speakership in a 1992 ballot-tampering scandal involving his top aide, his political power diminished only slightly, and the non-legislative aspects of his life remained unpublicized. In recent months, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting has produced a series of pieces exposing the shaky underpinnings of Martin’s business enterprises and the links between his political and private affairs.
Finding that information wasn’t all that difficult.
“Almost everything we’ve gotten on John Martin has been there to pluck out of the public records,” said Naomi Schalit, the center’s co-founder. “We started with a tip, but from there, it was just dig, dig, dig in the records.”
Nice work, even if it was about 20 years late.
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler got through the entire 2010 gubernatorial race without anyone in the mainstream media doing any serious digging into his background, most of which involves business dealings outside Maine and outside the U.S. That lack of initiative was particularly puzzling because of the existence of a then-anonymous website called “The Secret File on Eliot Cutler” that posted loads of leads into questionable endeavors in his past. Many of the allegations were accurate and might have been of concern to voters. But reporters instead focused almost exclusively on who was behind the attack site and why they’d concealed their identities.
After losing by less than two percentage points last time, Cutler is gearing up for another Blaine House bid in 2014. No sign to date that the media is planning to do any more investigative work on his past than it did last time.
Maine’s congressional delegation has long gotten a free pass on its members’ behavior while in Washington, particularly in regard to sex and other extracurricular activities. Straight-laced former U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith and her executive assistant, Bill Lewis, shacked up for years without a hint of scandal wafting its way northward. Even decades after both their deaths, the relationship is still dealt with in her home state only in the most discrete terms.
Of course, Lewis could have been a beard. Rumors that Smith and Guy Gannett Publishing Washington correspondent May Craig had an affair wouldn’t have made it into print because Craig was the only Maine reporter in D.C. (rare mentions of the Lewis and Craig relationships can be found in the 1996 book Margaret Chase Smith: Beyond Convention, by Patricia L. Schmidt).
Then-U.S. Representatives Olympia Snowe and John McKernan carried on a torrid affair in the District of Columbia without fear of discovery, although they did once have to make a call to the publisher of the Maine Sunday Telegram to spike a story about their canoodling (the reporter working on that piece confirmed this information to me at the time). The subject remained off-limits until Snowe and McKernan announced their engagement years later.
Peter Kyros caroused his way through his career as a congressman from the 1st District until he was charged by the Washington cops with leaving the scene of an accident, possibly while drunk — an incident even the spineless Maine media couldn’t entirely ignore.
Senators George Mitchell and Bill Cohen supplied Washingtonians with plenty of gossip during their bachelor days in the capital. But no Maine media outlet would have dealt with such unseemly matters.
John Baldacci spent some of his time in Congress boozing it up with attractive young women and renting living space from a weird cult with powerful political connections — activities exposed by national publications, but barely mentioned back home.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins had a long-running relationship with Tom Daffron, a lobbyist. That included jointly buying a house, something no local news source reported until the pair announced their engagement. Even then, the home crowd tiptoed around the uncomfortable implications of her sharing real estate and a bed with an influence peddler.
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree’s relationship with hedge-fund manager S. Donald Sussman went unmentioned (except for a boozy account in The Bollard) until a right-wing blogger caught her accepting free flights from a guy she then hastily announced was her fiancé, thereby exempting herself from reporting requirements for gifts.
And when it comes to 2nd District Rep. Michael Michaud, he has to be the least examined public figure in Maine. The media’s policy on Michaud could best be characterized as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
I’m talking about his positions on policy matters. What did you think I meant?
After all, I wouldn’t want to piss anybody off.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.