MaineToday Stops Disclaiming Pingree
by Al Diamon
The boss’s wife gets a pass: Ever since hedge fund manager S. Donald Sussman bought a majority stake in the MaineToday Media newspapers in 2012, the company has included disclaimers in any story dealing with Sussman’s wife, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District.
These frequent reminders of MaineToday’s inherent conflict of interest are repetitive and space-consuming, but they’re absolutely necessary, because to do otherwise would open the papers up to charges of secretly slanting news stories in Pingree’s favor.
Except, now MTM is doing otherwise.
There was no disclaimer attached to Washington bureau chief Kevin Miller’s May 19 column, which included an item about Pingree. Likewise, Miller’s May 20 piece on agriculture bills before Congress, one of which is sponsored by Pingree and another of which she opposes, is disclaimer-less.
Perhaps these are oversights (I could find out if MaineToday editors ever returned my phone calls). But if not, this is a serious ethical lapse. The argument that most readers already know Pingree and Sussman are married doesn’t hold water, since there’s no way to determine if that’s true. And even if it is, it’s important to keep the record straight for newcomers and those with short memories.
MaineToday has a sketchy record of revealing its conflicts. Under former CEO Richard Connor, it regularly omitted any mention of minority owner Robert C.S. Monks from stories about projects he or his family were involved in. The company still hasn’t mentioned that Monks is no longer involved with MTM. Nor has it bothered to explain exactly who the remaining minority shareholders are. Which means the Pingree disclaimers may not be the only ones MaineToday is missing.
Inspection of inspections gets high marks: The May 19 Maine Sunday Telegram kicked some serious butt. The front page featured two quality news stories and one outstanding investigative piece.
Let’s start with the latter. Staff writer Randy Billings spent lots of time, effort and Sussman cash digging out the facts on Maine’s shoddy and inconsistent history of restaurant inspections. Billings overcame such barriers as the state’s impenetrable record-keeping system, subjective standards for assessing violations and rules that are among the least restrictive in the nation to get at the facts, which are that inspections are less frequent, complaints are up, and finding out how a particular eatery rates is almost impossible. His work was detailed, but not excessively so, and he avoided the catastrophic rhetoric that mars many investigative stories. His editors gave him space to lay out the facts, and he made excellent use of it.
Further strengthening the Telegram lineup was Kennebec Journal staff writer Betty Adams’ fine piece on security problems at the state’s only facility for people with serious mental illnesses who have committed crimes. Adams’ story wasn’t as tightly edited as Billings’, but still managed to illuminate a serious issue without resorting to sensationalism.
Finally, there’s staff writer Eric Russell’s timely follow-up on the Maine Turnpike Authority’s controversial rate hikes last year. The state’s media have traditionally let stories like this slide, forgetting about such issues as soon as the protests fade. Russell uncovers some good information about pike revenues (up, but not by all that much) and traffic (down, but not by all that much) that was just sitting there waiting for any journalist with a bit of initiative to pick up.
It took me considerably longer than usual to read this week’s Telegram, but it was time well spent.
De-Connorized: The last significant executive from the Richard Connor era at MaineToday Media is gone. Bill Thompson – hired by Connor as an editorial page editor, but inexplicably elevated to editorship of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel – is out, according to a May 20 memo to staff from MaineToday CEO Lisa DeSisto.
Scott Monroe, the KJ’s city editor and a former reporter, will take over as interim managing editor of both papers. Jim Evans will become city editor of the Sentinel, while Susan Cover was named interim city editor of the Augusta paper.
DeSisto also said, “This is a critical time for all MTM properties as we are on the verge of go-live for the new content management systems for print and online.”
I’m not sure what that means, but a MaineToday official said earlier this year that the company was planning to start charging for online content.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.