Maine Media Miss the Issue on Welfare Fraud
We’re so good: It was a week for self-congratulations among the state’s news-gathering organizations. They’re all proud of themselves for not being fooled by a short video produced by a conservative activist that allegedly shows a Maine Department of Health and Human Services worker trying to help someone posing as a drug dealer to sign up for Medicaid.
Reporters and columnists were careful to note that they’d watched more than the two-minute edited version of the event. They bragged about sitting through the entire forty-nine minute ordeal to ferret out the truth. They also did a quick Google search to dig into the questionable (and well-documented) background of Project Veritas, the “citizen-journalist” organization that conducted the sting. They quoted state officials and other alleged experts saying the incidence of actual welfare fraud was very low.
Then, ripe with self-satisfaction, they took the weekend off.
Although, not before a couple of them prepared a Monday-morning column with an item on the perpetrator of the scam in which he praises himself for his “investigative” efforts and wonders why the mainstream media aren’t more aggressive in pursuing this issue.
The guy has a point. Well, half a point, actually.
His claim to be a journalist is ludicrous, since he’s clearly a political activist intent on advancing an ideological agenda. If he weren’t, he wouldn’t have waited six months to release his video. He would have contacted DHHS and the LePage administration for reaction. He wouldn’t have created a short version of the video that was obviously intended to mislead.
But those shortcomings don’t obliterate his valid contention that no news organization in Maine has made any serious effort to investigate the extent of welfare fraud in the state. Instead, whenever the issue comes up, reporters and editors tend to rely on old statistics that show such occurrences are rare. Of course, the source of those stats is DHHS itself, which has something of a vested interest in appearing competent. The department also has a long-standing reputation for being otherwise.
While too many Maine journalists were straining their arms patting themselves on the back, none was risking back strain by doing some serious digging. There are plenty of legitimate ways to investigate public-assistance programs, although none is as much fun as pretending to be a drug dealer, and all are labor- and time-intensive.
That level of commitment may be daunting, but the surest way to draw a distinction between phony journalists and real reporters is to do some real reporting.
Hey, these people actually are good: Not every journalist in the state was wasting time on “gotcha” politics. A couple were actually working at their craft.
Lindsay Tice of the Lewiston Sun Journal turned in a nice piece in the August 14 edition on how consumers can choose their own electricity suppliers. Tice explained the complexities of Maine’s “deregulated” system in a clear and concise fashion and pointed out how the average person can save a little cash by opting for something other than the standard offer on power prices.
Not as sexy as welfare-fraud videos, but a whole lot more useful.
Meanwhile, staff writer Tom Bell graced the Maine Sunday Telegram with some solid reporting on how one can obtain a license to go lobstering – or, more precisely, how one is likely to find such a task impossible. Bell shows how the difficult permitting process has serious implications not only for lobstering families, but also for the industry as a whole.
And he did it without pretending to be someone else or using a hidden camera.
Right to know: Capitol News Service’s Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, has an informative essay in the August 15 Morning Sentinel on the group’s tenth anniversary and the modest gains it’s been able to make in expanding open government at the state and local level.
And for a completely different take on the problems associated with public access to public documents, check out Lewiston Sun Journal managing editor Judith Meyer’s August 14 piece on how ordinary citizens are causing problems for municipalities with their demands to see loads of material they have a legal right to look at.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.