The Secret Lives of Legislative Candidates
The Maine media miss basic facts
by Al Diamon
It doesn’t matter if they’re crazy, stupid or criminally inclined
When Roger Reed of Carmel announced in November 2011 that he was planning to run for an open seat in the state House of Representatives, the Bangor Daily News assigned the story to its sports department.
Which, strangely enough, did a decent job.
The decision wasn’t as wacky as it appears. Reed was a longtime basketball coach at Bangor High School, and sports writer Ernie Clark gave his readers a reasonable idea of what sort of guy Reed is. The article is a little light on politics — other than mentioning that Reed is a Republican — and it would have been stronger if Clark had included at least a hint of criticism. But the story makes it clear the candidate isn’t a nut, a doofus or a fugitive from justice.
That’s more than can be said for most such coverage.
It could be argued that one of the major reasons Maine has a less-than-impressive Legislature is because hardly anybody in the news business makes an effort to vet the potential representatives and senators for looniness, lunk-headedness or larcenous tendencies. In addition, most candidate profiles barely mention the issues. This leaves voters with little to base their decisions on, other than a flyer stuck in their door or a handshake at the polls. Even crackpots, clunkheads and convicts can manage those.
On Dec. 28, 2011, the Lewiston Sun Journal ran a story headlined “Dunlap to celebrate Senate candidacy.” It appears to be a verbatim reprinting of a news release from the campaign of Joanne Dunlap, of Rangeley Plantation. Not surprisingly, it makes her seem like an appealing person (“When pressed, she will admit that she can be seen on stage from time to time, since she’s an unabashed ham”). Unlike most such releases, this one does mention who Dunlap would be running against and what party Dunlap belongs to (in the next-to-last paragraph), so it’s a notch above most of the press releases the Sun Journal slaps in the paper without any sign of editing.
The Lewiston paper is hardly an exception. On Jan. 4, 2012, the Bangor Daily published an announcement from Republican state Rep. David Burns, of Whiting, that he was seeking to move up to the state Senate. No mention that Burns had a primary opponent who’d already announced.
The same week, the Morning Sentinel offered readers the news that Democrat Stanley Short, of Pittsfield, was seeking a state House seat. Nothing about who currently held the seat, whether that person was running or whether anybody else was in the race.
If that basic information is missing, it’s no surprise that the media does an even more abominable job on issues. Both weekly and daily papers rely heavily on questionnaires sent to candidates that usually contain generic queries such as (from the Current newspapers in 2012), “What do you think are the three most important issues facing Maine? (Of these please identify at least one issue that is specific to your district.)” This produces answers of an equally generic nature. Nearly every candidate offers up some variation on this theme: “The three most important issues are education, the economy and our quality of life.”
The Portland Press Herald’s 2012 questionnaire asked how the economy could be improved, prompting one candidate to reply, “We need leaders and lawmakers who will seek realistic and practical solutions — and that includes maintaining a realistic view of how we can improve our state while touting our strengths.” Nobody bothered to note that he hadn’t answered the question.
These examples aren’t exceptions. They’re the norm at nearly every publication in the state. As for broadcast media, forget it. The only legislative races TV mentions are those the print media discover involve scandals or weirdness. Online? With the demise of As Maine Goes and Dirigo Blue, there’s little aside from personal attacks from disgruntled acquaintances.
There are no short cuts to producing solid reporting on potential legislators. Reporters need to meet the candidates face to face. They need to ask specific questions about issues, both statewide and local. They need to assess the responses for understanding and accuracy. They need to mention if the fledgling pol is wearing a beanie with a propeller on top or if the candidate’s windows are covered in aluminum foil. They need to ask about criminal history and follow up with background checks.
They need to, but they haven’t, and I’m willing to bet they won’t in 2014.
Unless the sports department gets involved.
• In November, the Alliance for Audited Media released its latest numbers on Maine newspaper circulation. As with the U.S. Postal Service figures published in October, the new figures show sharp declines for every daily in the state that submitted numbers to AAM. The Portland Press Herald was down 8 percent from a year ago, the Maine Sunday Telegram was off 11 percent, the Bangor Daily News dropped 9 percent on weekdays and 8 percent on weekends, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta took a 5 percent hit during the week and 8 percent on Sunday, while the Morning Sentinel in Waterville declined 10 percent weekdays and 9 percent on Sunday. For the Press Herald and Telegram, the losses were slightly less than those experienced a year ago. For the Bangor paper, they were slightly more. But the overall trend for the decade continues to be dismal.
• Time Warner Cable of Maine announced its intention to dump New England Cable News from its lineup at the end of December, due to what TWC said are low ratings and excessive rights fees. NECN is owned by a subsidiary of Comcast, a rival cable company, so the move probably had more to do with corporate infighting than content or cost. But loud public protests (plus some concessions from somebody in negotiations) resulted in a change of heart. TWC now says it will keep NECN in its lineup, which means the network’s tiny Maine bureau, with two part-time reporters and one photographer, will survive.
• Kennebec Journal staff writer Craig Crosby deserves credit for the extensive digging he did for his Dec. 8 story on the possible release on parole of a convicted murderer, who was originally sentenced to life in prison. But Crosby left out key information, an omission that could give readers the wrong impression about Maine’s judicial system. He noted in passing that the convict was sentenced under an old law, but neglected to mention that Maine abolished parole in 1976, three years after this killer was convicted. That’s the reason he’s one of the few lifers eligible for release. That fact should have been clearly stated.
• The Courier, a weekly covering Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach (in which my political column appears), scored a legal victory in November. Reporter Ben Meiklejohn and his publisher filed suit against the Biddeford City Council over an executive session held in April, allegedly to discuss personnel matters, but actually to talk about budget cuts. State law doesn’t allow elected officials to go behind closed doors to deal with money matters, and after the usual lawyerly maneuvering, the city settled the suit by conceding the councilors had erred and paying the newspaper’s legal costs.
Biddeford officials also promised not to engage in such behavior in the future. Illegal executive sessions are all too common in Maine municipalities, but this case shows that if journalists — and their employers — have the courage of their convictions, there is something that can be done about them.
• Funny that when Maine newspapers editorialize in favor of higher wages for workers at fast-food joints and big-box stores, they never mention the marginal pay received by the folks who deliver newspapers.
Is Paul LePage writing your copy?
The most offensive headline of the month appeared on The Bollard’s December cover, promoting this column’s piece on how the Maine media were conned by the gubernatorial campaign of U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud in their coverage of his announcement that he’s gay. It read: “Bending over for Michaud”
Hand me the paddle, please.
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 a column for Current’s My Generation magazine. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.