Media Mutt

Village Soup Mishandles News of Discrimination Complaint

by Al Diamon

Reade writes: Usually, when a newspaper is involved in a legal dispute, its reporting on the matter is dealt with delicately. The paper goes to great lengths to make sure it covers both sides, giving its opponent’s arguments every bit as much space as its own. If the lawsuit involves issues that have been litigated elsewhere, that should be noted, as well, since it adds perspective. Doing all this is not only a simple matter of fairness, but also enhances the publication’s credibility.

At Village Soup in Rockland, that’s not the way it’s done.

According to a story (which is behind a paywall) by reporter Juliette Laaka in the May 23 Courier Publications weeklies (Courier is the print part of the VS operation), the company had a complaint filed against it with the Maine Human Rights Commission by Pine Tree Legal Assistance for running a discriminatory advertisement on its website. The ad, placed directly on the site by a Camden woman, offered to rent an apartment, but specified “no pets, smoking or children.”

That last limitation is the problem. It’s illegal to limit rentals to people without children, although there is an exception for owner-occupied buildings with four or fewer units. But even in that case, the no-children limitation is not supposed to appear in advertising.

Laaka does a decent job of explaining part of the law. She has several paragraphs of quotes from Soup owner Reade Brower, arguing that Pine Tree and the commission went too far in enforcing the statute. She also notes that Courier settled the complaint by agreeing to run $300 worth of fair-housing public service announcements and pay $200 for a training session on the law for its advertising staff.

What her story didn’t have was any comment from Pine Tree or the rights commission. In her last paragraph, she wrote, “Responses to questions emailed to the Maine Human Rights Commission were not available by press time.”

She also didn’t bother to find out why the law bans even small, owner-occupied buildings from being advertised as not allowing children. Since that requirement seems nonsensical, good journalism would seem to demand an explanation for its existence. Getting that information should have been easy, since Pine Tree Legal came to Courier to conduct the aforementioned training session before the paper’s deadline. In addition, there must be dozens of fair-housing experts out there, some of whom ought to be willing to explain this curious restriction.

To make matters worse, Brower wasn’t satisfied with being the only person quoted in Laaka’s story. He used his privilege as publisher to churn out an overlong op-ed (it’s also behind the paywall), reprising the entire episode from his perspective.

Brower answers none of the lingering questions from the news piece. In fact, he raises an additional one. In Laaka’s story, he says the company reviews online ads for compliance with the law. In his column, he indicates there’s no way for Village Soup to monitor ads placed directly on its site.

The rest of Brower’s rant is unabashedly self-serving. He wouldn’t discriminate, he says, because he’s one of the “good guys.” Courier wouldn’t do something like that because it “has a good history behind it.” Somehow, he works in David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox dropping an F-bomb on TV, as an example of … hmmm, hard to say.

Brower indicates he learned something at the training session conducted by Pine Tree, but doesn’t say what. Given how he and his staff handled this mess, he ought to consider inviting some journalism ethics experts to put on another workshop on the pitfalls of inept self-coverage.

What’s the rush? Somebody should tell the Lewiston Sun Journal that this is the age of instant communication. On May 29, the paper’s Franklin County edition used a third of the front page of its local section for photos from Farmington’s Memorial Day parade, which took place two days before.

TV-style news in the newspaper: On May 29, MaineToday Media reporter Colin Woodard revealed the background on recent decisions by the LePage administration regarding laptops for schools. It was a thorough, balanced and understandable piece dealing with some complex issues.

The Bangor Daily News responded by throwing this brief piece up on its website, in which it skimmed across Woodard’s story, leaving out all the complicated stuff that gave it context.

If I wanted soundbites, I’d watch the tube.

Speaking of context: In his May 26 story, MaineToday Media staff writer Tux Turkel provided real insight into the state’s shift from oil to natural gas for heating and power generation. Turkel laid out the financial aspects of the move, as well as the tricky policy issues. Must reading.

Taxing topic: The Maine Press Association is running ads in some papers warning that Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed sales tax on newspapers and magazines is a “$6 million tax increase on the working men and women of Maine.” Oddly enough, most of the state’s dailies and weeklies have ignored this issue, the exception being the Times Record, which ran an editorial on May 16 opposing the idea, and the Sun Journal, which mentioned it in passing back in January.

Given that this proposal directly contradicts what LePage has repeatedly said about not raising any taxes, you’d think somebody would have decided there might be a story there.

Saga sued: Saga Communications, which owns seven radio stations in Portland and dozens more in 22 other markets, is being sued by Arbitron, the radio rating company. According to the All Access website, Arbitron claims Saga is using its copyrighted numbers to sell advertising even though it doesn’t subscribe to the service. The filing says the practice has been going on since 2010 and is “widespread” within the company, but doesn’t say if any infractions took place in the Portland market. Arbitron is seeking damages amounting to $150,000 for each infringement.

Missing run:  From the Portland Sea Dogs website on May 25:

“Binghamton starter Logan Verrett was perfect in six of seven innings but Portland scored three times in the third inning to take a 2-0 lead.”

Must have started in a hole.

Al Diamon can be emailed at

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