‘Tis the Season for Puff Pieces
Tough talk, soft serves: In an editorial published on Dec. 28, the Portland Press Herald takes the multitude of candidates for governor to task for criticizing incumbent Democratic Gov. John Baldacci without revealing how they would have dealt with the budget crises that have dominated most of his two terms in office.
“Candidates need to say how they would restructure government if elected,” the sub-headline reads.
That’s a sentiment I heartily endorse. The voters need solid, specific information if they’re going to make informed choices among the two dozen or so announced and likely gubernatorial contenders.
While it would be pleasant to think all the would-be occupants of the Blaine House would readily offer up clear plans for their administrations, experience has shown they prefer to stick to generalities and catchphrases. The responsibility for digging out the ugly details – eliminating popular programs, raising unpopular taxes, doing nothing and hoping for the best – falls on the news media.
As 2009 limps to a close, Maine newspapers appear to be taking that responsibility even more lightly than usual. They have yet to take a critical look at the economic proposals put forth by the few candidates bold enough to have made even the vaguest of statements. (“There’s just too many of them running,” one veteran journalist told me. “I want to wait until the field narrows a little.”) Instead, the space that could have been devoted to meaningful examinations of the candidates’ ideas has been filled with a series of fawning articles on current officeholders.
This latest round of public relations pieces masquerading as news kicked off on December 27 in the Maine Sunday Telegram with columnist Bill Nemitz sucking up to Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe.
Nemitz shrugs off angry reactions from both the left and right to the senator’s on-again-off-again support for health care reform, but lets Snowe go unchallenged when she claims to have been “striving mightily” to forge a compromise. He allows Snowe to quote a colleague calling her “a good legislator.” He even tries to construct an unlikely scenario in which the senator’s failed “trigger” proposal becomes a possible solution to a House-Senate impasse.
Tough questions? It’s not apparent Nemitz asked any.
Solutions to the problem. If Snowe offered any, they didn’t make it into this column.
Still, the piece will make a nice promotional brochure if Snowe runs for re-election in 2012.
In the Dec. 28 Kennebec Journal, staff writer Susan Cover has a holiday gift for Baldacci.
In the interview piece, Cover asks the governor stuff like “What are some of the most difficult decisions you’ve had to make?” and “How has [the budget crisis] affected what you’ve been able to do as governor?”
But she never gets around to any questions that might cause Baldacci to break a sweat. For instance:
Why have you continued to rely on the same experts to predict future state revenues, even though they’ve been wrong consistently?
Why did you decide to keep all current state programs, rather than eliminate some to maintain funding for those that are higher priorities?
Won’t the next governor be forced to raise taxes to cover the one-time revenue sources you’ve used to balance the budget?
The Bangor Daily News splashed sugar and spice for freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree all across its front page on Dec. 28.
Staff writer Walter Griffin told readers, “Her experience in state politics prepared her for the grind of committee work as well as the partisan battles and special interest lobbying she has encountered in the halls of Congress.” Griffin also informs the public that, “Pingree takes pride in the fact that the Maine delegation works closely together on issues of concern to the state.”
Like health care reform?
Well, no need to get into something messy like that. Best just to claim this mythical cooperation is a “fact.”
Some things I’d have liked to know:
How is Pingree dealing with her lack of clout as a rookie in the Democratic caucus?
What specific steps is she taking to help Maine balance its budget over the long term?
This fluff doesn’t bode well for coverage of the gubernatorial campaign. It doesn’t even bode well for coverage of the next municipal planning board meeting.
Crazy coverage: How tough is it to run a wire-service story without screwing it up? Pretty difficult if the December 24 efforts of the Morning Sentinel and Bangor Daily News are any indication.
Both papers managed to write inept headlines for an Associated Press article on how James Craig, Portland’s new police chief, is dealing with public safety issues involving people suffering from mental illness.
The Bangor paper slapped a headline on the piece that read, “Mental health crisis challenges Portland chief,” which could be interpreted as indicating Craig himself has psychiatric issues. The poor wording was revised on the BDN’s Web site to make the story subject clearer.
The copy editor at the Sentinel must have barely glanced at the story before writing a sub-headline that claimed, “In Portland’s Old Port, mental illness represents a huge public safety challenge.” (The article isn’t posted on the paper’s Web site.)
The AP article does mention the Old Port as a flashpoint for rowdy behavior in the city, but doesn’t make any connection between that neighborhood and mental illness.
Capitol idea: The Maine Public Broadcasting Network is planning some changes to its Web site early in the new year.
According to Maine Public Radio news director Keith Shortall, there’ll soon be a separate news page on the site that will include not only the stories MPBN is covering, but non-broadcast features.
In the latter category will be the rebirth of State House reporter A.J. Higgins’ political column (which once appeared in the Bangor Daily News). In an e-mail, Higgins said the column, to be called “Capitol Connections,” won’t deal in his opinions.
“I'm going to try and do about 500 words a week on a major topic that will be supplemented by nuggets of info that come through the pipeline every day,” he said. “I'll also do larger daily updates when circumstances merit it.”
Shortall said the new feature will debut in early January. “We want it to be going by the time the legislative session starts,” he said. Because of technical issues, it may first show up on MPBN’s Facebook page.
Payne’s gain: Tony Payne, the executive director of the pro-business Alliance for Maine’s Future, put out a column last week listing his suggestions for improving state government.
While many of Payne’s ideas are debatable, there’s no doubt the two that deal with the media would result in immediate improvement in the public’s awareness of what’s happening in Augusta.
Payne wants journalists to do stories that, “Debate the merits of policy proposals.” He argues that substantive coverage, rather than sensationalized blather from people with little working knowledge of the issues, would greatly improve the end results of the debate. Instead of talking heads making outrageous claims about “death panels,” for instance, maybe reporters could concentrate on the real problems associated with end-of-life care.
Payne’s other media-related suggestion is even easier: “Publish and explain roll call votes.” The Portland Press Herald used to do this for major issues, and the Lewiston Sun Journal sometimes runs tallies on legislators in its circulation area. Every paper ought to be carrying a regular featuring detailing how our senators and representatives decided important issues and – most importantly – why.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.