Covering Congress: Maine Media Don’t Bother
Deserving censure over censure reporting: Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to censure Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of New York for a variety of transgressions over a number of years. Censure is the most severe form of punishment the House can dish out, short of expelling a member.
Maine media coverage of the Rangel affair relied primarily on wire service stories, although some enterprising editors did insert a paragraph mentioning that both of the state’s representatives, Democrats Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, supported the censure motion.
The Portland Press Herald ran an editorial on Dec. 4 calling the House action “appropriate.” It said nothing about Pingree or Michaud. A casual observer might have concluded there was nothing to say.
David Offer isn’t a casual observer. The retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, writes a weekly column in those papers that rarely ruffles feathers, but his Dec. 7 piece was an exception. Offer had obviously had enough of Rangel’s attempts to spin the censure story and of the local media’s failure to follow up on Pingree’s vote.
As Offer reported, Pingree hadn’t wanted to censure Rangel at all. She was one of 149 House members who supported a lesser punishment called reprimand. When that effort failed, she reluctantly voted for the harsher penalty.
This seems like something Pingree’s constituents would want to know, but as far as I can tell, no Maine newspaper, TV station, or radio outlet informed them of it. Even after Offer’s column appeared, no reporter followed up with a news story asking Pingree why she had gone along with a report prepared by her staff claiming, “there is no evidence that Rangel purposely and knowingly violated the law or House rules.”
As Offer and numerous others have pointed out, Rangel sought donations from corporations that had significant bills before his committee. He failed to pay taxes and concealed assets. He used his congressional influence to solicit donations for a college in his district. Given Pingree’s own ethical issues in her last campaign, you might think some enterprising journalist would want to ask her about the Rangel votes and her general views on proper congressional conduct. That no one did makes me wonder what else our delegation is up to that we know nothing about.
Maybe some columnist like Offer will fill us in next week.
Spitting hairs: Here’s a gratifying exception to the lackadaisical lack of follow up that seems to be the standard in Maine journalism.
On Dec. 4, the Morning Sentinel carried a front-page story by staff writers David Robinson and Erin Rhoda on a forum in Farmington where businesspeople complained about excessive regulation by state government. The article began with an anecdote related by Bob Neal, a turkey farmer from New Sharon, who claimed health inspectors had cited one of his workers at a booth at the Fryeburg Fair for not wearing a hairnet while serving food, even though the employee was bald.
Neal’s story got wide circulation and was cited by commentators as a glaring example of how government bureaucracy stifles economic development. The tale would undoubtedly have drifted into legend if Robinson hadn’t gone to the trouble of following up.
In a Dec. 8 article, he reported that Neal’s story needed considerable clarification. After talking to state officials, the allegedly hairless employee, and others, Robinson discovered that the inspection hadn’t taken place “recently” as the original story had said, but had occurred twelve years earlier. The employee wasn’t bald, but had short hair. And Neal’s booth had been hit with similar violations in 1994, 1995, 1998 and 2000. Also, Robinson reported that Neal, who could have faced a $100 fine for each citation, didn’t recall ever paying any penalty.
The original anecdote was a good one. The reporting that debunked much of it was a lot better.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.