Stuff I Like
A highly personal list of my Maine media favorites
by Al Diamon
There’s a lot not to like in the Maine media. The daily newspapers are rife with sloppy editing and less-than-thorough reporting. The weeklies have a tendency toward dullness and take excessive care not to offend local advertisers. Television news is an amalgamation of rehashes from the papers, supplemented by breathless reports of crime, fires, car wrecks and weather. Public radio is timid and unimaginative. Commercial radio has long since ceased to be a serious source of information. What was once a vibrant collection of Internet news and opinion sites has deteriorated into little more than predictable rants. A majority of the state’s bloggers are self-indulgent and ill-informed. The minority is even worse.
Nevertheless, there are a few bright spots, people who haven’t been ground down to mush by public indifference or managerial ineptness. They continue to uphold the traditions of quality journalism while making good use of innovation. Some of them have been doing that for decades. Some are newly arrived on the scene. But all are consistently worth your attention.
Steve Mistler: Mistler set new standards for political and State House coverage during his nearly two years at the Lewiston Sun Journal, regularly scooping the competition and digging deeper into stories than anyone else. But when he moved to the MaineToday Media papers in 2012, his work seemed to suffer. He was still covering the same beats, but his writing no longer shook up the political scene. Whether it was editorial incompatibility or just some adjustment issues, his stories lacked the insights that had been his trademark at the Sun Journal. They were competent, but nothing more.
However, as the 2013 legislative session convened, Mistler found his groove again. His blog postings became must-reading for those who wanted to know what was really going on in Augusta. His daily reporting was often more revealing than anyone else’s. That Mistler’s legislative coverage stands out is all the more remarkable for the fact he’s competing against a collection of better-than-average reporters, including the Bangor Daily News’ Robert Long, Christopher Cousins and Matthew Stone, the Sun Journal’s Scott Thistle, and Maine Public Radio’s A.J. Higgins. Those whose oxen he’s gored may whine about Mistler being biased, but the rest of us are better informed.
Dennis Bailey: Bailey hasn’t been a journalist for decades, but when he was, he was a pretty good one. Today, he’s a public-relations guy, committed to spinning stories in his clients’ favor. But when he’s not trying to convince us of unlikely propositions, such as that Shawn Moody or Rosa Scarcelli should be governor – or that Eliot Cutler should not – he devotes some of his time to pointed blog postings on media matters.
Bailey knows his stuff, and any journalist who wants to avoid being scammed will benefit from his insights. Non-journos can appreciate how he exposes a wealth of material on behind-the-scenes maneuvering to win the public’s hearts and minds. Bailey is like Penn & Teller, showing us how he performs his magic tricks even as he still manages to fool us again.
Mark LaFlamme: If Mark Twain had been born in Maine about a century and a half after he was actually born in Florida, he might have grown up to be LaFlamme. (Or Rosa Scarcelli — no telling what such a wrenching relocation would have done to his DNA.) LaFlamme, the Lewiston Sun Journal’s cop reporter and city columnist, has a sharp wit and a lively satirical bent. And you gotta love a guy who hates press conferences: “The reporters wait, tense and hungry for the facts. They’ll have to wait longer. By national law, the suits have to begin every press conference by thanking each other before getting down to the meat of the sad story.”
And how about this on column writing: “The idea is to find something light and meaningful, a little chunk of useless knowledge that might save you people from crying in your Cheerios on Wednesday and Sunday mornings. Although, let’s be honest. Can you really call that thing I do for the Sunday paper a column? Doesn’t it feel more like some kind of psychological experiment in which I’m the lab rat and you people are the guys poking it with sharp sticks?”
I’d cancel my Sun Journal subscription if it weren’t for LaFlamme. Well, and Sun Spots, too.
The Sardine Report: Chuck McKay, of Newport, and a few friends produce the website he bills as “Maine’s Fishiest News Source.”
Obviously, he hasn’t read the Twin City Times.
But when it comes to being intentionally funny, The Sardine Report has the edge. A very sharp edge. When the anchors at a Bangor TV station resigned on the air, McKay put the matter in perspective: “Despite [Tony] Consiglio’s and [Cindy] Michaels’ insistence that anchoring the 3rd-rated news program in the 153rd largest television market in the U.S. somehow makes them relevant, industry analysts say we live in a meaningless universe where our actions ultimately amount, at best, to insignificant little waves of pleasure from empty masturbation. This harsh reality is most evident in two places: blogging and local TV.”
When a fictional gym teacher banned high school students from using the term “friggin’-a,” free speech advocates allegedly stepped in: “’The purpose of school is to prepare young people for the life they will encounter as adults,’ said Zachary Heiden of the ACLU of Maine. ‘How will they know how to behave in their rec basketball leagues or college intramural floor hockey games if they can’t even say “friggin’-a” once in a while? I mean, Jesus, man.’”
And on gender equality in the Legislature: “Of the 151 current voting members of the Maine House of Representatives, only 36 pee sitting down. Same goes for only seven of the 35 State Senators (that figure includes Jonathan Courtney). That calculates to only 22.5% of our state legislators who would be qualified to dutifully slurp up the semen of their male counterparts when called upon to do so. And when you factor in the lesbians, it’s even less.”
I wish I’d written that.
The Beer Babe: I admit it. With a name like that, I was probably going to like this blog on the Portland Press Herald’s website, even if it was written by an illiterate, hideous teetotaler. But it does help that Carla Companion is none of that. Instead, she’s smart, thoughtful, and has a deep love for fermented beverages that shines through in her writing. Without getting overly technical, Companion tells her readers exactly what they want to know: whether they’ll like the beer she’s sampling. I’ve followed her advice on many occasions, and rarely have I been disappointed. If you’re doing your drinking without her, you’re missing out.
Scott Thistle’s pen: As mentioned above, Thistle is the Sun Journal’s State House reporter. He’s also the master of the magic pen.
OK, it’s not really magic. But for those of us who labored for decades trying to decode our illegible notes and searching in vain on cassettes for that killer quote, this thing seems supernatural. The pen, made by a company called LiveScribe, records interviews as the reporter takes notes on special dot-matrix paper. A camera in the pen establishes where the writing instrument is at any point in time, so all one has to do is touch a word on the page, and the pen brings up audio of the quote. No more guessing what the scribbles mean. What’s more, the audio files can be uploaded to the paper’s website. Not only does this let readers decide for themselves whether a quote was taken out of context, it also allows them to hear the emotions behind the words. And in moments of controversy, it provides strong evidence of who’s zooming who.
The pens can be had for under $100, but require pricey paper and ink cartridges, so they’re not for the cash-strapped. As for the ethics of a recording pen, Thistle said in an e-mail that he always tells interview subjects about that capability. “If people object, I just don’t turn the recording on and take regular, old-fashion notes,” he said.
Next month, back to stuff I hate. I promise.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.