The Dangers of Trying to Buy Access
by Al Diamon
How much for an ethical ticket? The Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News tried to buy their way into a July 2 fundraiser for Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
According to a story in the July 3 Portland paper by staff writer Eric Russell, “The Portland Press Herald tried to buy a ticket for the general reception but was told the event was closed to the media.”
On the same day, Bangor Daily reporter Seth Koenig wrote, “The Bangor Daily News sought to purchase a $100 ticket for entry to the event, but LePage political adviser Brent Littlefield said that no tickets would be sold or issued to members of the press.”
It’s understandable why both news organizations wanted to get into the event, which featured a speech by possible GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Not only would it have been interesting to hear what the moderate Bush had to say about the conservative LePage, but anytime the governor opens his mouth, he’s likely to say something … uh … newsworthy.
What’s not clear is why two supposedly ethical newspapers would choose to pay for access, particularly in a situation where the money involved would legally constitute a political donation. If the LePage campaign had accepted the reporters’ cash, it seems to me the Press Herald and Bangor Daily would have been obligated in every story they published thereafter about the gubernatorial race to include a disclaimer stating they had contributed to LePage’s re-election.
It would appear editors at the two publications approved in advance this aborted effort to get better coverage. It would also appear those editors failed to consider the consequences of doing so. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to envision candidates with fewer financial resources than LePage charging the media for admission to campaign events as a way to boost funding. If either the Portland or Bangor papers refused to pay that toll, they could be accused of bias, since they’re on record as being willing to spend to watch the governor.
Late to the party: On July 3, the Portland Press Herald published a story about major changes the Legislature made in the law governing convicted drunk drivers. This somewhat incomplete scoop — by either staff writer David Hench (online version) or staff writer Dennis Hoey (print version), both of which are identical, so go figure — explained how some people will be able to get shorter license suspensions if they agree to install and pay for ignition interlock devices in their cars. These gizmos won’t allow the vehicle to start if the driver’s blood-alcohol level is too high.
What’s wrong here is that, as far as I can tell, this is the first coverage of what has in the past been a controversial issue. Opponents of ignition locks have argued that only the wealthy can afford to rent the devices, which means low-income people have no option but to submit to long license suspensions. A TV story following up the Press Herald report filled in some of the holes in Hench’s or Hoey’s reporting by noting that the technology costs $200 to install and $90 a month to rent. That’s in addition to about $700 in fines and fees to settle a case.
It also might have been interesting to know if manufacturers of these machines spent money lobbying the Legislature to win passage. But neither Hench/Hoey nor the TV folks bothered to check.
I talked to three members of the legal community who regularly deal with operating-under-the-influence cases, and none of them were aware this change was pending, let alone that it had passed. It seems likely that there was some heated legislative debate about the matter, either in committee or on the floor of the state House or Senate, but somehow it slipped by the snoozing watchdogs of the press.
It makes me wonder what else they missed.
Price hike: I got a form letter from MaineToday Media last week informing me that as of July 1, the price of my home-delivery subscription to the Morning Sentinel had gone up nearly 11 percent. Mitigating that pain somewhat is the word from an informed source that the newsstand price is increasing by 25 percent. Similar hikes will also hit readers of MaineToday’s other dailies, the Portland Press Herald and Kennebec Journal.
The letter also says, “In a few weeks, you’ll receive another communication from us explaining how to access a new e-edition of the newspaper, which home delivery customers receive for free.”
What that means is the long-promised paywall for MaineToday papers is coming soon.
Nice work: If you haven’t read reporter Scott Dolan’s excellent story in the July 7 Maine Sunday Telegram on the philosophical (and political) dispute that’s threatening the existence of the Cumberland County drug court, you should. Dolan did some serious leg work, including slogging through documents for statistics the state corrections department refused to compile, to bring to light significant information anyone concerned about drug abuse and the law ought to know.
Even though I was still on vacation, I read every word.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.