More Columnists With Conflicts
by Al Diamon
When balance isn’t enough: Last month, I took Portland Press Herald columnist Mike Tipping to task for writing a critical piece on Republican Gov. Paul LePage while also working for a liberal organization, the Maine People’s Alliance, heavily involved in the gubernatorial race. I suggested that like other pundits with similar conflicts, Tipping should take a break from journalism until the campaign is over.
Tipping defended himself on Twitter, saying he has no intention of quitting. Shortly thereafter, the Portland paper contacted Steve Robinson, editor of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center’s news service, the Maine Wire, and asked him to write a column to run beside Tipping’s on alternate Saturdays.
Which took a bad situation and made it worse.
Now, instead of one columnist spouting the company line, we have two. Neither Robinson nor Tipping is ever going to write a word that isn’t exactly aligned with the views of their respective employers. Both will simply regurgitate the same tired arguments already aired by the left and right, and the reason is simple: they’re not independent voices; they’re paid front men. And the Press Herald is aiding and abetting them in their propaganda campaigns.
Political columnists should be free of outside constraints in expressing their opinions. Otherwise, there’s no point in running their stuff.
Disgruntled disclosure: George Smith — a columnist for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, and a former director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine — has long maintained that he didn’t need to disclose any conflicts of interest he might have, because he didn’t consider himself a journalist. Which has to be about the worst excuse for ethical lapses ever.
Smith has written numerous laudatory columns and positive travel pieces featuring companies that sponsor his website, including First Wind, a leading wind-power developer. But his March 12 column extolling the virtues of alternative energy may have been a little too gushy for his editors.A cranky-sounding Smith came clean, sort of, in his second paragraph: “Anytime I mention wind power these days, opponents of this new energy source pummel me with accusation of bias because First Wind is one of many sponsors of my website and outdoor news blog. Of course, all the state’s major environmental groups are also sponsors, so you could, I guess, say I am biased toward a cleaner environment.”
Smith neglected to mention that most of those environmental groups also favor wind turbines. His grudging admission of who’s lining his pockets makes it appear as if he’s less concerned with preserving Maine’s natural resources and more interested in keeping the folks who pay him happy.
Even so, this disclosure is an improvement over Smith’s earlier refusal to acknowledge he needed to play by the rules.
In the interest of staying at least as transparent as Smith, it should be noted that I’m on record as opposing industrial wind development, although nobody is paying me to say that.
Exaltation over an explanation: The Press Herald editorial office has rarely felt the need to explain itself. The paper printed what it printed, and critics be damned. So it was a shock on March 5 to see editorial-page editor Greg Kesich devote his weekly column to explaining why he ran an extra-long op-ed by one politician, but insisted another stick to the usual word count.
The Portland paper had been criticized in online forums, such as the Maine Wire, for allowing Republican state Sen. Roger Katz of Augusta to exceed the 750-word limit in his piece calling for Medicaid expansion, a position the Press Herald has supported. Opponents of expansion were quick to call attention to all the times they’d been told to trim their submissions in order to get published.
In Kesich’s response, he said the paper allowed Katz extra room because his article was “newsworthy enough to make an exception.” He explained the difference between censorship and editing. He discussed why he favored pieces of 750 words or less. He denied the Maine Wire’s contention that Donald Sussman, the majority owner of the paper’s parent company, had anything to do with the decision.
Kesich’s piece was a refreshing change from the ivory-tower attitude that has too often emanated from the newspaper’s executive offices. Let’s hope this is the start of a trend.
The color of liquor: On March 12, the Press Herald posted a story online about controversial remarks by a lawyer for a Portland bar that police are attempting to close. The attorney for Sangillo’s Tavern said the establishment had stopped serving Hennessy and Remy Martin cognacs because “the purchase of these liquors was related to detrimental conduct.”
In some quarters, that comment was interpreted to mean those brands attracted African-American customers, since both market heavily to that demographic.
According to several readers, when the story was first posted on the Portland paper’s website, it carried a subheading that appeared to be racist. My sources don’t agree on the exact wording, but all say it prompted numerous negative comments. Within a short time, the offending wording — and all related postings — were scrubbed from the site, and a more neutral subheading was inserted in its place.
It’s almost as if this editorial lapse never happened.
Rush Callaghan: The Daily Kos seems to think WCSH-TV anchor Pat Callaghan is a right-winger. In a March 8 post on the liberal website, someone writing under the moniker “RandomNonviolence” noted that Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows, in an interview with Callaghan for the “In the Arena” feature, “holds her own against tough questions (with a conservative bias).”
What Bellows was asked was whether, given her avowed leftist leanings, she’d fight to preserve jobs at defense contractor Bath Iron Works and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, two of Maine’s larger employers.
Conservative bias? Compared to the Daily Kos, most everyone has one.
Arrivals and a departure: MaineToday Media has shut down its Washington, D.C. bureau — at least temporarily. Reporter Kevin Miller has been recalled to Portland “for now to help with 2014 campaign coverage,” according to an e-mail from Steve Greenlee, managing editor of MaineToday’s Press Herald. Other sources indicate the move might be permanent, since having feet on the ground on Capitol Hill hasn’t proved to be much of an advantage in covering Maine-related stories.
MaineToday Media has added to its business-reporting staff by luring Whit Richardson away from the Bangor Daily News. Richardson left his post as business editor of the Bangor paper and started at MaineToday’s Press Herald on March 10. In an e-mail, he said he made the move because, “I grew up in the area and currently live in Portland. Plus, there are exciting things happening at the Press Herald and I look forward to contributing to the paper’s expanding business coverage.”
Other additions at the Portland paper include photo editor Yoon Byun, late of the Boston Globe, andfeatures editor Chelsea Conaboy, who formerly worked at the Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Former Portland Phoenix editor Jeff Inglis announced in the March 7 edition that he’s giving up his media-criticism column, called Press Releases. Inglis is relocating to Massachusetts. New Phoenix editor Deirdre Fulton will take over the monthly slot starting in April. (Disclosure: My weekly political column runs in the Phoenix.)
The Christian Civic League of Maine and publisher Bob Pushard, former owner of the Hometown Newspapers, announced in March that they’re launching a new magazine called Forward Living. According to the CCLM’s newsletter, it will focus “on Maine issues with a Judeo-Christian perspective.” Hmmm, I wonder what that means.
Good idea: Ben Meiklejohn, a reporter for the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier, has started a new column called Executive Session Watch, in which he’ll analyze closed-door meetings of local government bodies to determine how well they comply with the state’s right-to-know law. For the past couple of years, Meiklejohn hasn’t been shy about holding officials accountable for their actions, and having a regular forum to do so can only result in greater public awareness of the need for openness.
RESTORE: the Maine media: Jym St. Pierre, the activist behind RESTORE: The North Woods and the Maine Environmental News website, recently posted his tongue-partly-in-cheek assessment of the Maine media. Among his observations…
“The Kennebec Journal is read by people who think state government is important and Augusta is not.”
“The Morning Sentinel is read by no one because it is identical to the KJ, except less coherent.”
“[Maine TV stations] are watched by people who hate reading, hate news and suffer from such severe Attention Deficit Disorder that they need moving pictures.”
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, and the Current Publishing weeklies. He also writes a column for Current’s My Generation magazine. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com. For links to articles mentioned above, visit thebollard.com.