I'm going to take a hiatus from writing Media Watch. The value of a blog depends on regularity, IMHO, and I no longer have the time to meet even the most elastic blog deadlines. However I do plan to continue commenting on current media issues, including the perennial -- and real -- matter of liberal bias, so I'm just moving my soapbox over to AMG's Public Square. See you there.
Robert Lenna, executive director of the Maine Municipal Bond Bank, demonstrated a poor sense of public relations to say the least when he told State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin that "I don't eat at Wendy's."
Wow, talk about executive hubris. Lots of real folks eat at Wendy's, or at Mickey D's, or at many other places that are apparently too ordinary for the haughty Robert Lennas of the world.
The Bond Bank boss's disdainful Wendy's comment if uttered by a Republican would give progressivists like, say, columnist Bill Nemitz something more than murals to froth over. Alas, judging from his hefty liberal political donations, the fellow with the bad case of Wendy-phobia is one of Nemitz's own people and therefore immune to criticism.
Lenna stumbled into his embarrassing situation when, according to a news story, State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin asked why, during a business junket to New York, Lenna found it necessary to treat himself and three colleagues to a $4,000 in dinners at two fancy restaurants. (The foursome also spent $4,000 for posh hotel accommodations.)
Poliquin wondered why Lenna could not conduct his business -- closing on $80 million the state was borrowing on behalf of 29 communities -- in a teleconference from the bond bank's office in Augusta. Lunch could have been takeout from the Wendy's located just down the street.
Lenna's retort was classic elitist: "I don't eat at Wendy's…I resent the implication that I am somehow wasting money."
So who is this guy?
Susan Cover, the MaineToday Media reporter who wrote the story, did a pretty good job of explaining Lenna's role in the complicated business of municipal bond dealing: He is, by all indications, very good at what he does. But Cover didn't delve deeply into his background, in which lies a political operative bound to stir concern among Maine conservatives.
One contributor who posts on AsMaineGoes did do some digging. The poster, who uses the name "Small Town Manager," logged on to the internet and found that Lenna has contributed more than $10,000 to prominent Democratic candidates in recent years.
That may be chicken feed in Las Vegas or Chicago, but in Maine it's big bucks. Other AMGers have since uncovered additional contributions that bring the total to nearer $15,000.
Obviously Robert Lenna is used to dealing in big money in both his business and political lives. No wonder he can afford to turn up his nose at Wendy's Deluxe Value Meals.
Republicans are rightfully upset about stories that have appeared recently in the MaineToday Media newspapers that sound more like unedited press releases from Maine Democratic operatives than news stories.
Note what's missing: any serious effort to contact the other side. The story's sources are mostly limited to viewpoints expressed by the quirky Rep. Cynthia Dill (D-Cape Elizabeth) and her sycophants. Ditto any effort to identify the genesis of Rep. Dill's petition.
A reasonably fair, talented and responsible reporter could have traced the origin of the petition to MoveOn.Org, the nasty cabal of Democratic character assassins who were responsible for the infamous "Gen.Betray-Us" television ad.
But whatever Ms. Bouthillette's limited journalistic talents, she doesn't bear the full blame for this kind of reporting. That goes through her supervising editors all the way up the line to her publisher, Rich Connor.
If this were the first such effort on this reporter's part, her bosses might be excused for lack of attention. But it's not. There's this recent piece on another subject from the Portland Press Herald:
Karen Moore and her family were looking forward to visiting Maine for a second time this summer, but after hearing of Gov. Paul LePage's decision to remove a mural depicting workers from Labor Department headquarters, they decided to vacation elsewhere….
This "open letter" quickly devolves into a familiar rant about "A national Republican-led, business-inspired bandwagon attacking working people…." A very thoughtful letter indeed.
So why should flaky comments by some woman in California -- whose political biases are quite obvious -- possibly rate a news story in a leading Maine publication?
Journalists used to pride themselves in their ability to detect phony stories and avoid being used by anybody. Yet the Press Herald, on the strength of a phone call, goes on to treat this "open letter" as real news.
It is not, and some folks in the MTM eyrie overlooking Monument Square ought to take the GOP's complaints to heart and become concerned about the paper's drift. Unless, of course, they don't care about their craft.
The Maine Public Broadcasting Network has its fans. Proof of that is the fact that about 2,000 of of them braved a howling snowstorm recently to see a personal appearance by a little known (in the U.S.) humorist and story teller named Stuart McLean.
McLean is the host of an hour-long radio program called The Vinyl Cafe, a popular feature on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. His only connection to Maine is his show which is aired by MPBN at 2 p.m. on Sundays.
That time slot -- plus his followers' willingness to fight their way through a blizzard -- indicates that his MPBN following is ardent to say the least.
MPBN's audiences are also eclectic. In addition to unconventional performers like McLean, the network offers large doses of its staple classical music plus popular children's shows such as Sesame Street, the humor of automotive experts Click and Clack and, for sports fans, coverage of the state high school basketball tourney.
This mix has earned MPBN higher ratings than many commercial stations can boast. But despite all of that, the public broadcasting is not universally loved. In fact it is so disliked by many that efforts to defund it are progressing through the Maine legislature, just as they are through the U.S.Congress.
So why is that? Everyone knows the answer: politics.
When it comes to politics, MPBN seems to have lost its way as a truly public network. It's way too left and far too green for conservatives, who don't like footing the bill -- even a tiny part of it --to promote unrebuted political viewpoints with which they don't agree.
Despite that, the MPBN hierarchy has been managed to avoid inciting the depth of anger that NPR (formerly National Public Radio) has stirred in Washington. But no amount of popular entertainment programming will help Maine's public broadcasting network really appeal to conservatives as long as they feel its news operation is skewed left. Or that it goes overboard in favoring the environment over the economy.
These concerns may be arguable, but the evidence that stokes them keeps popping up, Take, for example, two sides of a story that made the news last week. It illustrates how a supporter (MPBN) and a critic (The Wall Street Journal) view the federal Environmental Protection Agency and its controversial chief, Lisa Jackson.
The MPBN view of the issue is headlined "Maine environmentalists hail new pollution restrictions."
A sharply opposite view is offered in an editorial from the Wall Street Journal Online entitled "Carbon and democracy."
The point here is that while Ms. Jackson is clearly toxic to conservatives, the MPBN commentary presents Jackson and her fellow bureaucrats as near-heroic figures. Its bias is not especially subtle and it angers conservatives. They're not the mindless yahoos than the NPR chiefs (and some inside the MPBN bubble) like to picture.
Still, with a few important changes -- like throttling back on the disrespect and becoming really fair and balanced, perhaps? -- MPBN could emerge emerge as an inclusive network that serves all Mainers. Then the folks who now rail against public broadcasting could surely be won over.
After all, many of them already enjoy such MPBN presentations such as Big Bird, and Click and Clack. They appreciate coverage of the basketball championships. They're even willing to mush through deep snow to see Stuart McLean in person. They would like to feel that MPBN is a friendly place
But their resentment at subsidizing a news operation that offers a steady diet of overly-liberal and excessively green viewpoints is increasing. They simply don't agree. Why is that so hard for the bubble-dwellers at MPBN to understand?
Both sides in the ongoing uproar over restrictions on the sale of products containing the chemical additive bisphenol-A, better known as BPA, may have equally valid arguments -- but the media, as happens too often, appears to have taken sides.
A recent article in the Morning Sentinel purports to be a "brief history of BPA"
in Maine, which is one of only eight states to pass restrictions on the product. The article appears at first glance to be a legitimate effort to explain the situation, but the effort keeps sliding off track.
The best example, perhaps, is the introduction into the story of a vocal BPA critic, one Mike Belliveau of the Environmental Health Strategy Center (EHSC), which describes itself as a Maine-based non-profit group. The Sentinel story describes EHSC as a "non-profit group that works to promote use of safer chemicals."
In the article Belliveau is critical of another non-profit agency called the Statistical Assessement Service, which is affiliated with George Mason University, because it has done a study that claims to show that if BPA is used correctly it is not harmful.
The article then goes on to suggest at some length -- quoting Belliveau -- that the George Mason study may be faulty because major donors to the university include the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation which spends "millions supporting right wing ideological interests" and "trying to manipulate public opinion on behalf of corporations and government."
""It's part of an actual, deliberate strategy by the chemical manufacturers to what's called to 'manufacture doubt; this comes from the tobacco industry playbook," Belliveau said. Tobacco companies funded studies, he said, just like the chemical industry has done on BPA, so they could use them to sway public opinion.
Okay, so it ends there? According to the Sentinel article, which drops the subject, it does.
But actually there's much more to the story. It's called the other side. And that is something that is too frequently missing in Maine news stories. In this case the Sentinel has created a classic "pot calls the kettle black" case.
The EHSC, Belliveau's organization, turns out to be as left-wing ideological as Koch is right-wing. Perhaps more so. But the Sentinel article doesn't touch on that even though the comparison is crucial to a balanced story.
Strings lead from the EHSC in Maine directly to San Francisco, home of what is perhaps the nation's leading funder of left-wing causes. On the EHSC website, tucked away at the bottom of the Directors and Advisors page, is this:
The Environmental Health Strategy Center is a Maine based organization that operates as a project of the Tides Center, a national 501(c)3 organization that employs the staff and provides management and financial services to the Center. The Tides Center Board of Directors is responsible for all of our legal, taxation, and regulatory issues..."
That leaves little doubt about who is pullng the EHSC strings.
It's the very same Tides Center that liberal mega-foundations and macro-wealthy lefties like George Soros use to channel huge amounts of cash to left-wing anti-consumer groups such as Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council. And, of course, to such radical groups as Move-On.org, whose nasty "Gen. Betray-Us" ad will live in infamy.
The Center serves as a conduit through which the shadowy Tides Foundation -- shadowy because legally it doesn't have to report the money it receives -- accepts donors' money and passes it through the Tides Center to finance various left-wing causes. Thus the original donor is never publicly identified.
Now all of this really is legal, as are the Koch donations. But too often journalists, as in this case, seem to be much more certain about the motives of those who fund right-wing causes than they are about those whose donations prop up the "progressive" left.
If Koch is identified as a right-wing organization, as it is in the Sentinel article, than the Tides-sponsored EHSC should be clearly identified as left-wing. That would provide much needed context for Belliveau's critical comments.
As it stands, the article is a good example of the kind of unfair reporting that has already sent the media spiraling to new lows in public perception.
The fascinating saga of the Maine Green Energy Alliance has many of the elements that make a good political scandal story. It involves political shenanigans involving the former governor and more than a few well-known State House luminaries.
Republicans can breathe easy on this one because none of the perps are named LePage. And most are well-known Democrats. Perhaps that's why so much of the Maine media has picked up the story with all the caution they might exercise in handling an angry lobster.
Not so Naomi Schalit, the feisty (and former) editorial writer for the Kennebec Journal. who is now senior reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting (MCPIR), a news service which was established up to specialize in reporting the type of investigative stories that the Maine Media tends to ignore.
Ms. Schalit, who many readers of this website would call a dedicated green liberal (among other things), stepped fearlessly into this issue, which must have been a tough decision for her since it included some pummeling of her (assumed) political soulmates.
But the result has been the kind of let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may reporting that is rare in Maine. It deserves more accolades than it has received.
Perhaps this is because the news service is unknown to many readers. Some of the state's larger news outlets including the MaineToday Media group, which consists of the daily papers in Portland, Augusta and Waterville, do not subscribe to the MCPIR service.
As a result The MTM papers were late to the Maine Green Energy story and appeared dismissive of it. In fact it seem more interested in chastising the involved Democrats for letting their side down than for their actual mis-steps.
Example: this effort from Bill Nemitz, who appears to be morphing from a pleasant and readable human interest columnist into a snarly local version of Keith Olbermann.
To be fair, the MTM papers have since published at least one fairly comprehensive article on the matter and the Kennebec Journal has weighed in with a decent editorial. But it's appropriate to note that the MTM papers have not reported on the issue with much gusto. Nowhere near, for example, like their recent enthusiastic reportage on "The Cutler Files."
It's true also that this blog did not welcome the birth of the MCPIR with much enthusiasm either. That's mostly because the outfit's first story, which many perceived as having an anti-GOP bias, was the work of a writer who had made significant financial contributions to the Democratic Party.
To allow that perception to develop was a fundamental mistake that John Christie, MCPIR's founder (and former CEO and general manager of the Kennebec Journal) has not repeated. His group, which still includes staffers who make conservatives nervous, has gone on to establish itself as the state's most effective specialty news service.
The contagion is spreading.
A new website called "The Issa Files" has been launched by a group of California Democratic operatives in an attempt to discredit U.S.Rep. Darrell Issa, GOP chairman of the Oversight and Government reform Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.
A different group has initiated a second attack site called "Issa Watch," which has the same objective. "Issa Files" and "Issa Watch." Do they have a familiar ring?
The possibility that they could be knock-offs of Maine's controversial "Cutler Files" and "Collins Watch," is fascinating. We might have thought that California's much-practiced political cut-throats could come up with something more original than channeling political tactics from 3,000 miles away.
Okay, most likely it's just a coincidence. But it does demonstrate that devious minds think alike, even if they're a continent apart. More importantly, it's a solid example of an ugly new political reality: successful candidates everywhere are going to have to deal with internet attacks from the moment they're elected.
It appears the Portland Press Herald will not stop its continuing campaign to make a laughing stock of itself by inflating a minor political brouhaha to an issue of gargantuan proportions. The paper's now in a defense mode, featuring letters applauding its position.
As all PPH readers must know, the newspaper has been having a cow over something called "The Cutler Files," the internet effort last fall of a pair of political operatives -- Dennis Bailey and Thom Rhoads -- to assure the defeat of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler.
The paper has been unrelenting in its attempt to portray "The Cutler Files" as the epitome of iniquity. Take this sample of condemnatory words and phrases:
"One of the sorriest chapters in Maine's mostly proud political history," "sleazy election website." "crude injustice," "relentless internet assault," "more disgraceful than legitimate."
"deplorable undertaking," "shoveling garbage," "unfair tactics," "shameful," "disgraceful,"
Whew. Some ugly fusillade. And all from one, just one, editorial.
It's but a small sampling of the invective that has appeared in PPH news stories and columns as well as editorials during the weeks since Cutler was defeated. Each time readers were thinking the barrage might be over, new stories full of sound and fury topped Page 1.
And now some readers are reacting and letters are pouring in. After reading enough critical news stories, overblown opinion columns and over-the-top editorials it's no wonder some readers have become concerned that something sinister might be happening.
So what has all this noise been about? Why is the state's largest newspaper so upset it has devoted more staff time, more news space, more strident columns and more "end-of-the-world" headlines to "The Cutler Files" than to any other any other current news story?
That's something readers (and the editors of the PPH) should be asking themselves.
The paper's editorial assault on "The Cutler Files" has been very loud but desperately thin. It all started when, for whatever reason, Bailey and Rhoads, who were opposed to Eliot Cutler, decided to ramp up opposition to him. So they established an anonymous website and loaded it with critical information about Cutler, much of which they had found on the web.
This aroused a curiously intense level of ire on the part of the Cutler backers at the Press Herald. They mounted a counter-attack using all of the persuasive artillery a newspaper can command, including repetitious articles, clamorous columns and some of the biggest headlines in their inventory.
While this onslaught may have convinced some readers (and the state Ethics Commission) that the website operation was snarky, which perhaps it was, nobody has effectively contradicted the contention of Bailey and Rhoads that the everything they aggregated was accurate.
Nor was the website itself unduly dastardly by today's standards. Like it or not, such attack websites are becoming facts of political life. Just ask Sen. Susan Collins who long has had a website entirely devoted to attacking her. "Collins Watch" is the work of a critic who remains anonymous.
So lets's zero in on the anonymous part, which seemed to particularly enrage the folks at the Press Herald -- despite the fact that the paper itself vigorously defends the anonymous editorials it carries every day.
Obviously, readers will find nothing critical of anonymity here. Nor should they.
Anonymous commentary has been a staple of the American political scene ever since Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, using the pseudonym "Publius," combined to write a series of newspaper articles urging their countrymen to accept the proposed U.S. Constitution.
"Publius" has been used on many other occasions. A half century ago, for example, a distinguished University of Maine professor wrote newspaper articles under that pseudonym in an effort to persuade voters to unseat a powerful U.S.senator. Which they did.
The fact is, some anonymous posts are effective, some are not. The same applies to newspaper stories and editorials. In most cases it's the content, not the name of the writer, that counts. The public can make up its mind on that without the help of some (also anonymous) folks gathered around a table in a newspaper's conference room.
Their time and money would be better spent figuring out how to cover real stories, stories that have much more relevance for their readers. Like the DHHS computers, for example. Or DirigoChoice. Or vernal pools. Or the Wiscasset by-pass. The list of important subjects crying for media scrutiny goes on and on and on.
But for the Press Herald, at least, none of these highly consequential topics has reached the level of attention accorded "The Cutler Files." Very strange indeed.
How did Maine's media perform in the wake of the Tucson shootings. Not too bad -- with one awful exception: this Jan. 10 editorial in the Bangor Daily News. It includes these comments:
"When...Sarah Palin, posts a map on her website with crosshairs over certain congressional districts...civil discourse is degraded.
When the leader of U.S. Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, says his top priority is to ensure President Barack Obama serves only one term, we can no longer hope that compromises...will be in the offing.
"When...Rep. Michele Bachmann, tells her adherents to be “armed and dangerous,” violence is not a surprise."
These examples of editorial inanity brought a solicited (we suspect) quote from Sandy Maisel, a reliably liberal Colby College professor who loves to opine. He said, "For someone who's deranged, to hear people say that if the ballot box doesn’t work, it’s time for bullets … it’s frightening,”
What is really much more frightening, Prof. Maisel, is your implied willingness and the obvious eagerness of the the Bangor Daily News -- with no evidence whatsoever -- to pin the blame for the Arizona shootings on conservatives.
The editorial does, of course, reflect the fairly recent decision by top management at the BDN to steer hard left, but it's likely that few will had realized how far down the road this course had already taken the paper. Until now.
It serves no purpose here to defend Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. The insinuations in the BDN editorial that their actions somehow caused the Arizona madman to act, was an instant reflex for many on the left. But those hasty conclusions have been thoroughly and (except, perhaps, for readers of the Huffington Post) universally debunked.
As for the insipid reference to Sen. McConnell, far worse things have been said about conservative and Republican politicians in BDN editorials or columns over recent months without inciting violence.
Perhaps if the BDN had waited a few more hours before rendering judgment -- as Maine's other large dailies did -- it could have saved itself embarrassment and provided its readers with more accurate and thoughtful commentary.
Could have. But the odds against it should discourage even the more daring risk-takers who frequent the slots emporium across the street from the Bangor News. After reading this editorial even they must fully understand what the BDN has become.
Probably not. Mostly likely we're going to continue hearing about an internet website called "The Cutler Files" for a couple more weeks. Or, at least, until Jan. 27. That's when the state's Ethics Commission says it will decide whether to fine the operators of the website $200 for inflicting their views on Mainers without proper identification.
Rarely has so much been said about so little.
Eliot Cutler, the defeated candidate for governor, and various of his acolytes -- including some in journalism and others in law -- have been engaged since November's election in howling that the anonymous authors of "The Cutler Files" had treated their candidate shabbily.
What? A political website being nasty to a candidate? Shocking. And doing it anonymously? Even more shocking. So shocking, in fact, that some in the Cutler camp have even called for a governmental investigation.
Investigation? Now there's a word that should have jarred the First Amendment bones of folks at the Portland Press Herald, which has been the most prominent Cutler cheerleader. But it seemed to do just the opposite.
Check these subsequent PPH headlines:
Dec. 19: "Regulators will revisit legality of 'Cutler' site" (page 1B)
Dec. 21: "Author of Cutler bash site broke law" (page 1A)
Dec. 24: "Political insider admits role in creating Cutler Files website" (lead story and huge headline on page 1A)
And so on through Jan. 7: "Documents reveal Cutler File probe focused on trio" (page 1A)
With more still to come. Talk about overkill.
Thus, as we await the state's verdict, there's no attempt here to defend the "political insider" named in the headline. We only note the oddity of all the sound and fury over an issue that never rose to scandal stature and never deserved the media play it got.
Any original mystery about "The Cutler Files" quickly dissipated. PR operative (and former Press Herald reporter) Dennis Bailey outed himself (and his partner, sort of) and presented their side of the story on his company website
Bailey, who claims everything said in the website was public knowledge and true, has challenged Cutler to prove otherwise. So far, crickets. Bailey also suggests that if the media had done a decent job in covering Cutler (like they have covered LePage, maybe?) "The Cutler Files" would not have become a reality.
That may be open to debate, but the certain reality in today's politics is that websites designed to whack candidates are not unusual and seem to be multiplying with every election. A senior example of this genre is "Collins Watch," a website designed solely to criticize Maine's junior senator.
Its anonymous author, who appears to have considerable time on his hands, has been flailing away at Sen. Susan Collins with little visible effect for many months now. But none of the issues the site has raised have developed much traction.
And even though some of the jabs have been downright mean, Collins, unlike Cutler, has absorbed them without whining or threats. And, it might be noted, with little help from friends in the media.
Nobody has burst into print calling for Collins' tormentor to identify him/herself. No front page stories have speculated on the cost of this effort -- or, more importantly, who is financing it.
The result: "Collins Watch" has been an exercise in futility. Which should have suggested a wiser course of action for the hand-wringing Mr. Cutler and his friends at the Portland Press Herald.