Down East Magazine’s Photo Fakery
by Al Diamon
Obscuring the lines: I’ve always thought Down East magazine presented a warped view of Maine. With rare exceptions, its coverage is sanitized and prettified, an alternate reality that includes little mention of the uglier aspects of the Pine Tree State. If issues such as drug abuse, racism, domestic violence, economic stagnation, educational failings, environmental degradation or political incompetence are dealt with at all, they’re given as positive a spin as possible, emphasizing efforts to correct the problems, which are portrayed as though they really aren’t that awful, anyway.
When I wrote the Media Mutt blog for Down East’s website, there was often editorial blowback complaining about too many critical pieces and not enough positive stuff. I was surprised our relationship lasted five months, let alone the five years this feature called Downeast.com its home.
The self-proclaimed “Magazine of Maine” also had its ethical blind spots. Near the end of my tenure as its media critic, I called out Down East for using a reporter with ties to an advocacy group to cover a story about mining regulation, an issue with which he was directly involved.
Then-editor Paul Doiron responded that a brief disclaimer at the end of the piece was sufficient. “I think the article was fairly reported,” Doiron told me, “with sufficient space given to arguments in favor of the law. It also happens to reflect our editorial position that the mining law is a travesty. It doesn’t shade any facts to make its points. The details speak for themselves. So I wouldn’t change my decision.”
There’s a certain arrogance reflected there, an attitude that the rules other media have to live by ought to be waived for Down East.
So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise this week when the Portland Press Herald reported that Down East had altered the photo on the cover of its September issue to make it more scenic. Telephone poles and power lines had been removed from a shot of a road leading to Orr’s Island. The alteration was discovered by Doug Warren, a former editor at the Press Herald, and posted on a media website.
Down East’s reaction was predictable. After admitting this wasn’t the only time photos had been altered, Doiron said, “We don’t think what we’re doing is outside the mainstream of magazine journalism. Quite frankly, I’m surprised it’s news. That’s what we do. If you talk to all magazines, you’ll hear the same thing.”
Playboy, maybe. Maxim, for sure. But “all magazines”? Not likely.
When photos are altered, the procedure at many publications is to identify the piece as a photo illustration. That still seems a bit too euphemistic to me. I’d prefer a caption that said the picture had been changed to remove or include material not in the original scene. Or call it a collage.
There’s an ironic footnote to this controversy. The Orr’s Island photo was used to promote a story called “Maine’s Prettiest Drives.” The road in the altered photo wasn’t one of them.
And one more footnote: Down East announced this week that Doiron is handing the editorial reins of the magazine to managing editor Kathleen Fleury. He’ll assume the post of editor emeritus.
No word yet on whether the change on the masthead indicates a change in ethical standards.
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 emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.