WGME-TV’s Feeble “Investigations”
by Al Diamon
Shallow digging: WGME-TV’s Jon Chrisos doesn’t just claim to be an investigative reporter. In station promos, he’s billed as Maine’s “only” investigative reporter. Apparently, the folks at CBS-13 have never stumbled across the work of MaineToday Media’s Colin Woodard, the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting’s John Christie and Naomi Schalit, the Lewiston Sun Journal’s Lindsay Tice or the Portland Phoenix’s Lance Tapley – just to name a few.
But Chrisos isn’t really doing the same thing those aforementioned journalists are, because his pieces are light on both investigating and reporting. Instead, he seems to be promoting a conservative agenda, employing provocative language and selective use of the facts.
Take, for example, this segment on the Maine Arts Commission’s partial funding of the recent Winslow Homer exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art. The commission helped underwrite the project to the tune of $17,000. Chrisos notes that the showing drew thousands of people and critical acclaim. But then he sticks in a soundbite from J. Scott Moody of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a right-wing think tank, saying that if taxpayers are “footing the bill,” they “deserve to know where their money is going.”
If it’s going anywhere other than where it was supposed to, Chrisos neglects to tell us. He does say that the commission pays for a variety of artistic endeavors, but the closest he can come to corruption is “ukuleles for some elementary schools.”
Later in the piece, Moody says the grant to the museum paid “for one piece of artwork,” but Chrisos never explains that comment or assesses Moody’s claim that this is “extravagant.” Nor does he dig into an arts advocate’s assertion that the grant produced $1.5 million in economic benefits for businesses near the museum.
Toward then end of the story, he has Moody ask, “Is this really what state government should be doing or not?” That’s a fair question. Too bad this piece doesn’t delve into it in any but the most superficial way.
In a Sept. 23 “Waste Watch” report, Chrisos covers a lengthy federal investigation into home health agencies that defrauded the government by using fake patients and billing for care that was never provided. This matter has been in the news for several years, and the case seems to be pretty well wrapped up. But Chrisos has “documents uncovered by CBS-13” that reveal … well, it’s not clear what they reveal that hasn’t been previously reported. Chrisos doesn’t bother to explain what the documents are or where they came from, although they appear to be part of the court filings in these cases, which means they were “uncovered” by looking in a public file.
Much of this poorly edited segment is devoted to an interview with a man who works or owns one of the agencies involved. He denies doing anything wrong. Only at the very end does Chrisos note that he’s not charged with any crime.
Late in his story, Chrisos interviews Maine Department of Health and Human Services commissioner Mary Mayhew, even though the state doesn’t seem to have had a role in this case. He tries to tie the federal investigation to recent claims by the LePage administration that it’s cracking down on welfare abuse – even though the two matters seem unrelated, since the feds began their probe six years ago, before LePage was even in office.
In general, Chrisos’ work is poorly edited and leaves significant gaps in its coverage. Its strong biases seem more suited to the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s alleged news service the Maine Wire than to an allegedly objective mainstream news outlet such as WGME.
Signs of life: Until this week, I couldn’t recall the last time the Associated Press office in Augusta produced a piece of investigative journalism. The once-vibrant AP bureau in the capital has been reduced over the years to a single reporter churning out nothing but rewrites and routine reports.
But maybe things are changing. New reporter Alanna Durkin kicked some serious butt on Sept. 23 with her thoroughly researched piece on the LePage administration’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering to thwart an off-shore wind project. Durkin ploughed through reams of documents, tracing a complex series of actions designed to stop the state from encouraging Norway-based Statoil from pursuing the construction of floating turbines. She sorted it all out and produced a clear and understandable report.
I can only come up with one small criticism. I would have preferred that the article contain some mention of the governor’s long-standing opposition to any subsidized renewable energy projects, making it clear LePage wasn’t singling out Statoil for his wrath.
Here’s hoping this is the beginning of Durkin doing more digging.
New tweeter: The Portland Press Herald has hired Jeff Blackwell, late of the Rochester, N.Y. Democrat and Chronicle, to produce online content. I’m not sure what that will entail, but while in Rochester, Blackwell spent a lot of time on Twitter posting stuff about Maine.
Clamming up about Chellie: MaineToday Media seems to have, once again, decided not to run disclaimers in stories about 1st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who’s married to S. Donald Sussman, the majority owner of the newspaper company.
Although Pingree got prominent mentions in stories on Sept. 23, 24 and 25 about allegations Somali extremists had recruited terrorists in Maine, none of them included any mention of the congresswoman’s relationship with the boss man. And when Pingree and 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud co-authored an op-ed on Sept. 24 decrying the impact of pending federal cuts to the food stamp program, it too lacked anything indicating who she was married to.
Strangely enough, the MaineToday papers did include a disclaimer in a Sept. 25 article on Maine Citizens for Clean Elections’ analysis of donations to gubernatorial candidates that noted that Sussman is a major contributor to the group and has donated to Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign.
I suppose some transparency is better than none.
Closed mouth on Collins: Speaking of missing disclosures, does no one in the Maine media know what U.S. Sen. Susan Collins’ husband does for a living? Tom Daffron is the chief operating officer of a lobbying firm that specializes in setting up deals for contractors with the federal government. Given the controversy over recent security breaches by some contract employees, it’s odd that connection isn’t mentioned in stories by Maine news outlets about Collins questioning how contract workers are screened, since it would appear she has something of a conflict of interest.
Speaking of non-disclaimers: I’ve mentioned this before, but the Maine Public Broadcasting Network continues to undermine its credibility by not including a disclaimer in stories involving major underwriters of its programming. It happened again on Sept. 24 in a story about the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a long-time MPBN underwriter, accusing the administration of Gov. Paul LePage of allowing water quality in the state’s lakes to deteriorate.
The piece by reporter Jay Field seems balanced enough, but failing to reveal the financial connection leaves the segment open to criticism from the governor’s defenders, as well from scolds like me who’d just like to see more transparency.
Going offline, mostly: This posting marks the end of my gig doing twice-a-week (or so) updates on this site. While I’ll continue to produce a monthly column on the Maine media for the print edition of The Bollard (it’ll also be posted online the first week of the month), for the time being, I’ll no longer be covering breaking news about the news business.
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 email@example.com.