The Media Gets Manipulated
Mike Michaud carefully controlled his coming out
by Al Diamon
Don’t ask, don’t tell until I tell you to
During his lengthy political career, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud has earned a reputation for rarely saying anything compelling. Michaud is almost never out front on an issue, and when contacted by reporters, he usually provides nothing that can’t be found in the Big Book of Generic Political Comments.
So when his gubernatorial campaign staff approached the MaineToday Media newspapers, the Bangor Daily News and the Associated Press on the first weekend in November offering an unusual deal, it’s tough to figure why anybody was interested.
Michaud’s team told the editors they’d be given an op-ed by the congressman, on an undisclosed subject, that had to be published on Monday, Nov. 4. What’s more, the media outlets had to agree that while they were allowed to do stories on Michaud’s piece, they were not to contact anyone for reaction until the following day. In other words, the initial articles would present only Michaud’s position on whatever he planned to announce.
I can’t recall another case of the news media agreeing to such an all-encompassing embargo. In fact, I can remember occasions when editors decided not to abide by time limits imposed by sources and broke stories ahead of schedule, rather than be seen as pawns in a political game. But MTM, the BDN and the AP all conceded to every demand of a guy not known for being all that newsworthy.
It could be argued that these organizations suspected the nature of the announcement — Michaud would confirm long-circulating rumors that he’s gay — and didn’t want to be scooped by the competition. But, instead of taking the easy route, an aggressive news outlet might have said no thanks to Michaud and dug up the information on its own, thereby presenting a balanced report.
To make matters worse, the Bangor paper didn’t even bother to explain in its initial story the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that limited its reporting. The MaineToday publications at least revealed the conditions they’d accepted. “Michaud’s campaign did not take questions about his announcement or its timing,” staff writer Steve Mistler explained in his Nov. 4 piece. “Terms of the embargo also prohibited reporters from seeking reaction until after 12:01 a.m. Monday. The campaign required that the newspapers agree to the terms in advance, while refusing to disclose the topic of the column until Sunday.”
This timid approach allowed Michaud to dominate the news cycle for two full days — one for his announcement and another for reaction and interviews with the candidate, during which he reverted to his usual style of saying nothing revealing.
This successful management of the media sets an uncomfortable precedent, and I wonder how long it will take other campaigns to catch on. I also wonder what excuse MaineToday, the Bangor Daily and the AP will have for not affording those politicians the same opportunity Michaud got to usurp their editorial authority.
A footnote: The one significant media outlet not offered the Michaud scoop was the Lewiston Sun Journal, the paper that covers the largest population center in the congressman’s district. When asked about that by Sun Journal reporter Scott Thistle a day after the news broke, Michaud told him, “I don’t want to get into that.”
That’s an answer?
Biting the hand that feeds me
The Bollard’s editor, Chris Busby, had a piece in last month’s issue about the lack of controls over iPad tablets issued to school kids in Portland and other municipalities, thereby allowing minors access to pornography and other inappropriate content. Busby pointed out that software that’s supposed to prevent students from logging on to X-rated sites is virtually worthless. And most parents are unaware of this unfettered access and the ease with which their offspring can hide their surfing history.
If Busby had stopped there, he’d have been fine. But he felt the need to escalate the threat this free flow of information poses. He claimed there’s research showing that “as many as one in five young males will become addicted to Internet porn.” He also said, “Teens are more susceptible than adults to addiction because their brains are still developing.” He warned that continued exposure to smut can lead to a form of erectile dysfunction.
Busby’s source for these claims is a lecture by Gary Wilson, a glib speaker who also believes being in love can lead to drug and alcohol addictions. But even Wilson admits, “[R]esearchers don’t know much about the effects of Internet porn.” He dismisses the fact that there have been no significant increases in reports of psychological problems associated with porn by claiming such issues are being misdiagnosed as depression or ADHD.
If Busby had checked less obviously biased sources, he’d have found reasons to doubt Wilson’s conclusions. There’s little evidence indicating porn addiction even exists, let alone that 20 percent of male youth could be afflicted with it. There’s also ample information indicating that teens’ brains are unlikely to be physically impacted by exposure to porn.
The belief that pornography warps young people’s minds is a mainstay of conservative groups, but proof of such allegations is in short supply. Busby should have included a broader range of opinions on the subject, rather than resorting to fear-mongering.
Odds and sods
• A big legal victory for MaineToday Media: On Nov. 14, a unanimous state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that transcripts of 911 calls in a Biddeford murder case were public documents. The state had argued that releasing the information might impede legal proceedings, but the justices said there was no evidence of that. The decision doesn’t automatically make all 911 calls public, but will require police and prosecutors to have good reasons for refusing to release such material in future cases. MaineToday’s Portland Press Herald put its newfound access to use on Nov. 20, publishing a detailed story on what the transcripts revealed.
• The Lewiston Sun Journal will place most of its online content and that of many of its weekly papers behind a paywall, starting Dec. 3. Subscribers to the print edition of the Sun Journal will continue to get free access to the website, but only until their current subscriptions run out. After that, they’ll be charged an additional fee (described as “only pennies more per day”) to read the paper online. It’s not clear whether there’ll be an option for a Web-only subscription at a lower cost. In addition to the Sun Journal, the paywall also covers the Advertiser Democrat, the Bethel Citizen, the Rumford Falls Times, the Livermore Falls Advertiser, the Franklin Journal and the Rangeley Highlander, but not the Forecaster papers in southern and midcoast Maine.
• According to a story in the Nov. 2 Bangor Daily News, the Portland Daily Sun, a free paper published four days a week, is buying Maine News Simply, a website and e-mail newsletter that collects stories from newspapers, broadcast outlets and online sources and redistributes them along with unedited news releases. Sun publisher Mark Guerringue said the acquisition won’t result in much change at either entity.
• As Maine Goes, the conservative website and online forum, may be going out of business. Owner Scott Fish made the announcement on Nov. 2, citing the $150-per-month expense of operating the site, as well as his inability to be directly involved in AMG due to conflicts with his job as spokesman for the Maine Department of Corrections. As Maine Goes began as an e-mail newsletter in 1998 and grew into an important news source. But in recent years, Facebook and Twitter have diminished its impact, and the departure of many of its more informed participants has lessened its value. Nevertheless, some contributors are attempting to raise money to continue the site. But when a liberal Democrat like Ethan Strimling has better sources in the Republican Party than AMG does, it’s probably time to call it quits.
• The Portland Phoenix is getting a new editor. Deirdre Fulton, a staff writer at the alternative weekly since 2007, will assume the top spot in January, replacing Jeff Inglis, who’s edited the Phoenix since 2005. In a news release, the company said Inglis was “moving on to pursue other career avenues,” which he says will likely be in Massachusetts.
• On Oct. 1, Maine began charging a 5.5 percent sale tax on newspapers and magazines. Publishers accepted the new tax in return for legislators agreeing to continue to pay them big money each year to publish public notices, a deal Maine newspapers didn’t bother to report until after the fact. That monetary agreement also doesn’t get mentioned in media lawyer Sigmund Schutz’s attack on the new tax posted on the website of the New England First Amendment Coalition. To Schutz, this wasn’t a business decision (newspaper readers, not publishers, will pay most of the sales tax). It was an attack on free speech. “The First Amendment was meant to prevent taxes on knowledge,” he wrote. So where was the knowledge of this backroom deal when the public still might have had a chance to intervene?
Headline of the month
From the Nov. 1 Bangor Daily News: “Maine to limit elver harvestt”
I know one place a cut could be made.
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 email@example.com.