When the Governor Won’t Talk
by Al Diamon
Silent treatment: On June 18, Republican Gov. Paul LePage instructed his underlings to inform reporters from MaineToday Media that his administration was no longer responding to any of their requests for interviews or information. The governor’s decision was prompted by a recent three-part series in the MaineToday papers detailing how his commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection had used her office to aid former clients she once served as a corporate lobbyist.
The disturbing stories by staff writer Colin Woodard provided detailed information on decisions by Commissioner Patricia Aho that benefited power, chemical, development and other companies that she once represented in the halls of the State House. They were carefully researched and thoroughly documented, even though Aho stopped talking to Woodard after a single interview last February. Nevertheless, his reporting was dismissed by many GOP legislators as biased, apparently because MaineToday’s majority owner, hedge-fund manager S. Donald Sussman, is a major contributor to liberal causes and is married to Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District.
I examined the pieces carefully and could find no trace of slanted reporting. But as I’ve noted previously, Sussman’s ownership of the company creates a perception of leftward tilt that’s every bit as damaging to MTM’s credibility as it would be if reporters and editors were deliberately skewing stories to advance a political agenda. As a result, a lot of folks who should be concerned about what Aho is up to seem willing to dismiss Woodard’s work as propaganda, without any more evidence than that he works for Sussman’s company. That sort of reaction is to be expected so long as MaineToday is owned by somebody who insists on being both a media mogul and a political activist.
That said, LePage’s refusal to talk to the company’s reporters is shortsighted, self-defeating and childish. It won’t stop investigative pieces like Woodard’s, which received only minimal cooperation from the administration, anyway. It won’t stop other stories that portray LePage in a negative light, because the governor’s opponents won’t hesitate to talk to MTM. It will make it more difficult for MaineToday to present coverage that’s balanced, but that won’t be the newspaper company’s fault.
As any public relations expert would have explained to the governor, not talking is usually not smart.
For his last few years as Portland’s police chief, Michael Chitwood refused to speak to me or any of my colleagues at Casco Bay Weekly. He was angered by a profile I’d written about how the chief’s outspoken ways had interfered with criminal investigations and other official business. I can understand his annoyance. The piece was headlined “Chitwood’s Big Mouth.” But his unaccustomed silence didn’t serve him well. His enemies – and he had a lot of them – were more than ready to discuss Chitwood’s shortcomings and those of his department. Being shut out by the chief only resulted in an increase in tips and a consequent jump in articles that reflected poorly on the city’s top cop.
LePage is facing a tough fight for re-election next year. Refusing to present his side in the state’s largest daily newspaper and largest daily newspaper chain may briefly fire up his conservative base, but in the long term, it won’t help him win over any undecided voters.
And it won’t prevent any negative coverage.
Behind closed doors: When elected officials decide to conduct business in secret, reporters are supposed to be prepared to make sure they do so legally. Stories about executive sessions should clearly spell out why state law allowed the public to be excluded. Bangor Daily News staff writer Nick Sambides Jr. failed to do that in his June 17 piece about a joint meting of the Millinocket Town Council and School Committee. According to Sambides, the two groups spent 90 minutes alone “to discuss cutting costs.”
Nothing in Maine’s open-meeting law allows secret budget-cutting sessions. If that’s what this was, Sambides should have challenged the decision and left the room only under protest. He also should have requested that a recording or other record of the proceedings be kept in case a court later ordered the information made public. If something other than that was going on, he should have explained the exact reason for the secret session to his readers.
Paul gets a pass: Newspapers should be vigilant about identifying people who write letters to the editor, particularly if they have official connections involving the issues they’re writing about. Unfortunately, overworked editors often aren’t paying close attention, even though all that would take is a simple Google search of the person’s name.
For example, on June 17, the Portland Press Herald published a letter from Paul Williamson of Scarborough extolling the virtues of wind power. As an opponent of industrial wind energy informed me in an e-mail, Williamson is actually the director and “industry coordinator” of the Maine Ocean and Wind Industry Initiative, a pro-wind advocacy group.
That should have been noted below his letter.
The editor must have gone to an underfunded school: An otherwise solid report in the June 16 Lewiston Sun Journal by staff writers Lindsay Tice and Scott Taylor on the wide variations in local spending on schools was marred by a front-page error. The headline on a sidebar about how Lewiston and Auburn allocate less money for schools than other major cities in Maine managed to misspell “edcuation.”
Look, Ma, I’m on TV: The Portland Press Herald has recently taken to posting videos on its homepage each day featuring uncomfortable-looking staffers reading news headlines and promos. I’m not sure what the point of this feature is, since the same stories are usually displayed on the same page in far less clumsy form. But this ill-advised venture did prompt one wit to e-mail me on June 17 to say that staff writer Leslie Bridgers “looks as if she were forced in front of the camera as part of a kidnap ransom video.”
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.