Maine Public Broadcasting Could Do More
Thirty minutes a week is not enough: The Maine Public Broadcasting Network isn’t shy about tooting its own horn. In the Dec. 28 Bangor Daily News, Helen Sloane Dudman, an MPBN trustee emeritus, has an op-ed extolling the “overall superiority” of its offerings. In the network’s monthly program guide, new president Mark Vogelzang writes, “MPBN not only has a strong reputation regionally and nationally, it also plays a critical role in serving so many of the communities and homes up and down the state.”
Maine Public TV has five over-the-air stations, and four digital channels available on most cable and satellite systems. Even with lots of duplication, there’s over one hundred hours of new programming every week. Of which the amount devoted to Maine news comes to exactly thirty minutes.
Except for the anemic “Maine Watch with Jennifer Rooks” program, a mix of polite interviews and soft features, there’s nothing else taking up all that airtime and bandwidth that remotely resembles local journalism.
When I’ve raised this criticism in the past, MPBN’s self-promotion machine has been quick to point out all the state news they produce on radio. Fair enough. Maine Public Radio is certainly one of the state’s major news outlets – as long as news doesn’t happen on weekends or holidays, when it’s little more than a hick-town rip-and-read operation. It’s long past time, MPBN expanded its radio offerings to all seven days of the week, at least in the mornings.
But no matter how good the weekday radio reporters are, that still doesn’t excuse the lack of local news on TV.
Of course, starting a conventional television news operation might be too expensive, particularly at a time when MPBN is fighting to keep its state funding intact. But there might be another way to offer some news without breaking the bank.
The Federal Communications Commission recently published a report titled “The Information Needs of Communities: The Changing Media Landscape in a Broadband Age.” It recommends that every state establish “a vibrant public affairs network, a state-based C-SPAN.”
MPBN, with its extra digital channels, is ideally positioned to take on this challenge. By reducing the duplication among its existing services, it ought to be able to free up one channel for continuous coverage of the Legislature, its committees, the governor’s office and the courts. Something similar exists in about twenty other states, according to the National Association of Public Affairs Networks.
For Maine to join that list, there’d have to be some significant upfront costs for equipment. But once the network was operating, expenses need not be excessive. In many operations in other states, staffing is kept to a minimum by use of automated systems, much like those at the original C-SPAN and less sophisticated operations, such as the one recently approved by the Portland City Council to stream its meetings live.
It’s well past time MPBN stopped ignoring its responsibility to cover Maine news on its television stations. Giving the state’s citizens unfiltered access to government proceedings would constitute a major step in correcting that deficiency.
And it would give the network’s flacks something legitimate to blather about.
Net needs work: The Dec. 28 Bangor Daily News had a solid piece by staff writer Kevin Miller on the controversy surrounding a small farm in Blue Hill that sells raw milk without state licenses or permits. Miller covers most of the angles of this complicated issue, but could use some help with his understanding of basic economics. He wrote, “Altogether, Sprocket produces about a gallon and a half of milk per day, which nets him roughly $8, he said. To obtain a license, Brown said he would likely have to redo his entire milking operation — which he said is not feasible on $8 a day, before expenses.”
That’s gross. I mean, the other kind of gross.
Self-censorship: Staff writer Darren Fishell of the Times Record had an interesting piece in the Dec. 22 issue on what he described as a “rogue, homemade publication [that] has bedeviled [Freeport] town officials, prompting questions about free speech rights and a series of public accusations of who is behind the staple-bound booklets distributed under the title ‘News as Viewed from A Crow’s Nest.’”
So outrageous were the Crow’s Nest’s attacks on municipal officials that they asked the state Attorney General’s Office if these attacks constituted crimes. The AG said they didn’t, and the town is still trying to figure out if it can ban the publication from public buildings.
There are a bunch of interesting media ethics issues raised here, and Fishell explores some of them. But the entire controversy is almost impossible for an outsider to evaluate because of one glaring deficiency in his story.
He never makes it clear what the Crow’s Nest said that so angered Freeport councilors. No quotes from the publication. No summaries of its allegations. No hint as to what’s really going on here.
I can understand a newspaper not wanting to spread libelous comments, but these claims were being discussed by public officials in public forums. No matter how outrageous they might be, they should have been reported in some form so readers could assess their credibility. To leave all that out tends to skew the story in favor of those being attacked by the Crow’s Nest.
On a positive note, I like the way the Times Record provided links on its revamped website to some of the source material for this story (the AG’s opinion, for instance, although, inexplicably, not any of the offensive material from the Crow’s Nest). There should be a lot more of this in online journalism.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.