Mike Tipping’s Book: Politics Disguised As Journalism
by Al Diamon
Pseudo-reporting: Mike Tipping is an important player on the Maine political scene — a skilled pollster, a relentless researcher, a sharp analyst, a thoughtful commentator and a reliable source of information that otherwise might not come to light.
Tipping is the communications director for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center, two closely affiliated, liberal-activist groups heavily involved in the current gubernatorial race in support of Democratic candidate Mike Michaud.
As I’ve noted before, the media outlets that carry Tipping’s blog and column (the Bangor Daily News and the Portland Press Herald) have, for some unstated reason, not held him to the same standards as other politically involved columnists, whose writings have been suspended for the campaign season. This has given Tipping a platform to promote his employers’ views, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in Maine journalism since 2010, when then-CEO Richard Connor required staff at the Press Herald to provide favorable coverage of Eliot Cutler’s independent gubernatorial candidacy, or in the 1980s and ‘90s, when former Bangor Daily political reporter John Day served as a cat’s paw for the state Republican Party.
Recently, Tipping got plenty of media attention due to the publication of his book, As Maine Went: Governor Paul LePage and the Tea Party Takeover of Maine, which contains the revelation that the GOP chief executive held meetings with members of a right-wing extremist group.
Tipping scored a legitimate scoop, one that took hours of digging, assuring his book solid sales among the political-junkie class. To further boost readership, he promised that As Maine Went contains other heretofore unreported facts about LePage. So, I bought a copy.
I was hoping Tipping had produced a volume that would compare favorably to Willis Johnson’s long-out-of-print 1978 book The Year of the Longley, a thoughtful, witty exposé of the foibles of Maine’s first independent governor, James Longley.
I was expecting too much.
Johnson — who had his own ethical baggage as a former press secretary for Longley’s predecessor, Democratic Gov. Ken Curtis — also had real journalistic chops, having been an Associated Press reporter in both Maine and Vietnam. He brought a light touch to his writing, employing humor and irony to make his points about Longley’s ineptitude.
Johnson comes off as a sly fox. Tipping looks more like a rabid pit bull.
Tipping does a fine job of covering LePage’s early days as a long-shot candidate, well before the news media was paying serious attention. He reveals that the governor-to-be spent his time writing anonymous posts on the As Maine Goes website praising himself. He also offers insight into how LePage’s campaign devised its strategy to win the Republican primary by targeting “unlikely voters,” disaffected working-class people the other candidates ignored. He shows how LePage’s angry demeanor motivated his core supporters. He offers illuminating portraits of Tea Party stalwarts, whose efforts were crucial to LePage’s success.
But after about 50 pages, once LePage secures the GOP nomination, the book gets less interesting. In part, that’s because other reporters had begun focusing on LePage, so there’s less fresh material to uncover. But it’s also because Tipping’s political agenda starts to override his journalistic tendencies.
He still offers some good analysis of how LePage forged a coalition with traditional Republicans that helped him win the general election. He delves into the role of the media in the campaign, including a quote from one of my old columns about Connor’s outrageous behavior. And his coverage of the conflicts that arose, after LePage won the Blaine House, between grassroots supporters and the corporate-lobbyist types who took over his administration is valuable.
But the bulk of the chapters on health care, welfare, taxes, budgets, the environment and labor issues are little more than rehashes of old news, albeit with a distinctly anti-LePage slant. In Tipping’s view, none of the governor’s accomplishments — paying off hospital debt, passing a huge tax cut, revamping education — have any worth. The book presents them in the worst possible light, carefully selecting which facts get emphasized to make his negative point.
Which is: “The two qualities that Paul LePage’s supporters might most readily identify with the governor are his authentic commitment to core beliefs and his willingness to pursue what they see as needed but sometimes controversial policies, regardless of the consequences or of who stands in his way. What LePage’s conduct in office shows, however, is that these qualities, at their core, are based in insularity and pessimism.”
In other words, even when the governor does something right, he does it for the wrong reason.
Take, for example, LePage’s attempts to stop welfare fraud. Tipping dismisses any possibility this effort might have a legitimate basis — even though that’s something many Mainers outside the liberal bastion of Greater Portland firmly believe — instead claiming, “The governor and his advisers see the specter of welfare fraud and the othering of those who receive public assistance as a potent tool to help motivate their Tea Party base and make sure they make it to the polls in November.”
The result of this overriding bias against LePage is that Tipping’s book is easy to dismiss as a partisan screed, little more than an extra-thick campaign brochure of the attack variety. LePage haters will find it confirms what they already think they know about the governor. LePage supporters won’t even bother to read it.
In short, it’s unlikely to open anyone’s mind, let alone change it.
If that’s journalism, it’s the worst possible kind.
Odds and sods: After an absence of almost two years, the West End News is back in print. The quirky publication covering the Portland peninsula, which has continued to publish online, has been sold by founder Ed King to Tony Zeli, a Green Independent Party activist. The first issue of the new era hit the streets in late August. King said he’ll continue to contribute to the biweekly paper and handle its website.
Has MaineToday Media reopened its Washington bureau? The publisher of the Portland Press Herald, Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel ran a story on Aug. 10 about the veterans hospital at Togus bylined Lisa Chiu, who’s identified as “Washington Correspondent.” An online search shows Chiu is a freelancer who previously worked for the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Sunlight Foundation. So far, she’s only written one story for MaineToday, but it’s a slow time in the nation’s capital.
Nice work by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting’s Marina Villeneuve in her four-part series on the sad state of restitution for crime victims in Maine courts. Villeneuve had to overcome a lack of official statistics on restitution cases, both in Maine and nationally, to show that the chances of being reimbursed by someone convicted of robbery or assault aren’t quite as good as the odds of winning the lottery. Dogged reporting resulted in important revelations about this serious shortcoming in the court system.
Lots of changes at the Bangor Daily News. Susan Young, who had been managing editor, will return to her old job as editorial page editor. It’s not clear if the ME job will be filled, but it’s no longer listed on the paper’s website. Meanwhile, Erin Rhoda, who’d been handling the editorial page, will move to a newly created position overseeing Maine Focus, the paper’s in-depth reporting unit. At the features desk, Sarah Walker Caron takes over as editor, having previously made stops at the New Haven Register, Educationworld.com and My Weekly Reader. The post had been vacant for several months, since Kathleen Pierce was shifted back to a reporting job.
Reporting from the center of the universe: Reuters correspondent Dave Sherwood puts a dateline of “Bowdoinham Maine” on nearly all his stories, even when he’s writing about events hundreds of miles away.
Either there’s a lot going on in Bowdoinham, or Sherwood needs to get out of the house more often.
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 papers. He also writes a column for Current’s My Generation magazine. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.