The Blurry Boundary Between Politics and Journalism
Do some of the state’s best-known commentators regularly cross it?
by Al Diamon
“At what point is the line, and where is the standard?” wrote Bangor Daily News political columnist Matthew Gagnon in an e-mail to me last month. “More importantly, where am I in relation to it?”
These questions were prompted by an ethical dilemma. Gagnon isn’t just a columnist. As his brief biography on the Bangor Daily website notes, he’s also the director of digital strategy for the Republican Governors Association. He sent me those questions after reading a Media Mutt posting about fellow BDN opinion-page contributor David Farmer.
In that piece, I said Farmer should resign or be fired because he was regularly using his space in the paper to denigrate Republicans in general, and GOP Gov. Paul LePage in particular, while failing to disclose that he is the spokesman for the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Michaud. Gagnon found his situation to be uncomfortably similar to Farmer’s.
“I have operated as a columnist all this time under the assumption that I’m bumping up close to the line where I shouldn’t write anymore, but still behind the line,” Gagnon wrote, adding that because he wasn’t directly involved in any Maine campaigns – indeed, it would be illegal for him to do so while working for the RGA – his situation was a little different than Farmer’s. But he conceded that was a “fine line.”
Gagnon’s job in 2014 will be to elect and re-elect Republican governors, including LePage. He can’t legally coordinate with the governor’s own campaign, but he can get his pro-LePage message out by pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into Maine as a third-party actor.
Doesn’t seem like much ambiguity there. It’s a conflict. After I said as much in my reply to Gagnon, he decided to discuss with Bangor Daily editors putting his column on hiatus in 2014 once he begins campaign activities.
On August 21, Farmer announced he will take a break from opinionating following his August 28 column. In an interview after my piece criticizing him appeared online, he said he believed his column was conflict-free because he wasn’t yet a paid staff member of the Michaud campaign (he becomes one Sept. 1). “I’m a volunteer at this point,” he said.
Farmer said he’d had an “ongoing discussion” with his editors at the BDN about disclosing his political activities. But no disclaimer about his involvement with Michaud appeared until August 15, well after he began serving as unpaid press secretary. And that notice didn’t show up in the online edition. His reason for calling it quits: “My column has always been my voice, my opinion .… My opinion might be transferred onto the congressman [Michaud], and that’s a real problem.”
Actually, the real problem is something else entirely. Both Gagnon and Farmer are using their columns to advance an agenda that enhances their occupational opportunities in politics. That seems to me to be unethical, no matter how much disclosure there is.
In that, Gagnon and Farmer are far from alone. Dan Demeritt, a Republican political consultant and former spokesman for Gov. LePage, is a bit more honest about the political motivations behind his regular column in the Maine Sunday Telegram and his commentary on Maine Public Radio. “My insights are not for sale,” Demeritt wrote in an e-mail, “but my tone is certainly influenced by professional considerations. I write respectfully about political topics and participants because it is the right thing to do, but I am also aware that bomb throwing is bad for the bottom line.”
It would appear there’s no way for politically active individuals to completely separate writing about politics from working in it. But not all of them see it that way.
Ethan Strimling, a liberal analyst for WCSH-TV and the Bangor Daily News, said he’s made changes in his political activities since taking on those roles. Strimling no longer contributes to candidates, and is careful to disclose if he’s done work for a campaign. “Journalism is a new world for me,” he said. “I want to make audiences understand I’m looking at [politics] as critically as possible. I want my analysis to mean something.”
Which is all well and good, except that Strimling, a former state senator, continues to harbor ambitions involving elected office (he’s already run unsuccessfully for Congress and mayor of Portland). He admitted it’s “hard to say” where the line is between casual involvement in politics and activities that might conflict with his journalism gigs.
Mike Tipping writes a column for the Portland Press Herald and blogs for the Bangor Daily. But Tipping’s day job is as a pollster and organizer for the liberal Maine People’s Alliance, which is regularly involved in campaigns of all sorts. He said disclosing that information ought to be sufficient, because otherwise, “I’m not sure what political columnists would be left.”
As for the inherent conflicts between his two occupations, Tipping noted, “I don’t think that’s all that different from a journalist writing a journalism column.”
Tipping, like nearly everyone I talked to, said the key is disclosure of outside connections. Maine Sunday Telegram columnist Alan Caron, a rare centrist in the state’s media, said that disclosure should go beyond mere financial connections to include a writer’s political inclinations. “You should disclose if you support a candidate,” Caron said. “It’s not forthright to do otherwise.”
Greg Kesich, the editorial page editor of the Press Herald, defended using politically involved columnists like Tipping and Caron (who took a leave of absence from writing last year while he worked on then-Senator-elect Angus King’s transition team). “We don’t run them because they’re great writers or professional journalists,” Kesich said. “We run them because they have insights.” He mentioned Tipping’s deep understanding of polling as an example of information that might be lost to readers if stricter standards were enforced.
But Kesich also admitted it’s tough to draw a bright line between the advocacy of groups like the Maine People’s Alliance (Tipping’s employer) and outright campaigning. “I’m a little uncomfortable making that distinction,” he said.
There’s an additional aspect to this whole issue, one that may explain why so many politically involved people subject themselves to charges of conflict of interest just to spout their opinions in public forums: ego. They enjoy the recognition they receive as a result of their regular appearances in print or on the airwaves. Their columns and commentaries reinforce their images as serious players in Maine’s political scene. They like it so much, they’re willing to do it for nothing.
For instance, there’s Cynthia Dill, former Democratic legislator and failed U.S. Senate candidate, who admits she’s approached several newspapers about being a columnist, so far without success. But she did land an unpaid position as a liberal commentator on Maine Public Radio. “People who want to play in politics are willing to work for free,” Dill said. “It’s an opportunity to exert influence.”
In his book This Town, Mark Leibovich, New York Times Magazine senior Washington correspondent, noted that pols transforming themselves into media stars is now a well-established career path in the nation’s capital.
“They are, by and large, a cohort that is predominantly white and male and much younger than in the bygone days of pay-your-dues-on-the-city-desk-for-ten-years veterans for whom the political elite jobs were once reserved,” Leibovich wrote. “They are aggressive, technology-savvy, and preoccupied by the quick bottom lines (Who’s winning? Who’s losing? Who gaffed?). Such shorthand is necessitated by their short deadlines, nervous editors, limited space, constrained reader attention spans, intense competition, and the fact that they are writing for wannabe (or actual) insiders like themselves.”
The situation in Maine isn’t quite that bad.
In addition to serving as The Bollard’s media critic, Al Diamon writes a weekly political column that runs in the Portland Phoenix, the Downeast Coastal Press, the Daily Bulldog, some Mainely Media weeklies and some Current Publishing papers. He also writes columns for a couple of Current’s magazines. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Links to articles mentioned in this piece can be found at thebollard.com.