Tentacles of government threaten the media

What would happen if government bureaucrats gained control of Maine's daily newspapers?

A cynic might suggest this has already happened considering the fervent support that many of the state's papers have been offering liberal candidates and causes lately. But be assured, for the moment, all Maine papers remain in the private sector.

So why raise the question of state control? Look no farther than neighboring New Hampshire where the state has recently agreed to guarantee 75 percent of a $250,000 bank loan to help the Sample News Group purchase the Claremont Eagle Times.

The Eagle Times, which had a circulation of 8,000, had been published in the Connecticut River community for more than 60 years before it closed last July, putting 66 full-time staffers out of work.

Three months went by before Sample worked out the unusual financing arrangement with a local bank and the state of New Hampshire that allowed it to purchase the newspaper. Sample is the Pennsylvania-based outfit that owns a portfolio of small dailies including two in Maine, the Brunswick Times Record and the Biddeford Journal.

The deal has stirred surprisingly little controversy even though only a few years ago, when times were better, it might have shaken the journalism establishment. After all, it involves a newspaper accepting financial aid from the officialdom it covers thereby clouding its ability to act as a watchdog on government.

So will this convenient financial arrangement render the watchdog toothless?

Some worry that it could. One is Lou Ureneck, former executive editor of the Portland Press Herald who is now chair of Boston University's Journalism Department. He told the Associated Press that the state guarantee "raises an obvious red flag" even if the goals of the transaction might be understandable.

"It certainly creates the appearance and probably the reality of a conflict in the paper's coverage of state government," Ureneck said.

And Jim Sullivan, a former Claremont city councilor, underlined the conflict issue in his personal blog. "Because the Eagle Times is now beholden to government officials for what appears to be crucial financing," he wrote, "this could prove to be a conflict of interest for the newspaper."

As a practical matter, the conflict issue may not arise anytime soon, and the re-emergence of the newspaper has allowed 20 staffers to return to work. The real danger is that in the longer run more failing newspapers will be inspired by the Claremont deal to reach for a government lifeline.

With the success of each such instance the light of inquiry cast over government by an independent press will grow dimmer.

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