Press Herald Rewrites History In Bennett Obit
Milk dud: Newspaper obituary writers walk a fine line. Like other reporters, they’re supposed to stick to the facts, presenting a balanced picture of their subjects’ lives. But if they did that, they’d have to deal not only with the accomplishments, awards and accolades, but also with the more unpleasant aspects of the deceased’s existence.
Such an approach is often a little too telling for editors, fearful that pointing out the departed’s warts – even in a passing reference – would cause pain to the survivors. And in cases involving a major advertiser, it could produce some hurt to the paper’s bottom line.
The result is that unless the dead person was so notorious that their faults and failures couldn’t possibly be ignored, the obituary carefully skirts around any failings, leaving an unblemished image to posterity.
On Feb. 25, the Portland Press Herald produced just such a story on the passing of Oakhurst Dairy CEO Stanley Bennett II.
The front-page piece by staff writer John Richardson made prominent mention in the sub-headline and the fourth paragraph of Bennett’s “David-and-Goliath battle with Monsanto Corp.” In 2003, the giant chemical company sued the Portland-based dairy over the labels it placed on its milk stating, ”Our farmers’ pledge: No artificial growth hormones.” Monsanto marketed a widely used hormone and contended that Oakhurst’s label made it appear as if that additive was unsafe.
Richardson’s story made it clear who won that legal battle. “Oakhurst kept the pledge on its labels, and the company’s stand has since spread throughout the industry.” Later in the article, Richardson quotes a family member praising Bennett for refusing to back down from fighting an expensive court case, saying he was “very proud of our stand with Monsanto.”
Trouble is, Oakhurst did back down. About six months after the suit was filed, Bennett quietly agreed to settle with Monsanto by changing the label to wording the bigger company considered acceptable. Bennett never commented on why he gave up the fight, but speculation was that his company couldn’t afford the enormous expense.
Reaction to Oakhurst’s decision to quit wasn’t particularly positive, with one consumer advocate (writing in the Press Herald) calling it a “concession” and adding, “It’s a shame we can’t get to see someone put Monsanto in its place. Or maybe, when Monsanto tries to push around another dairy, we will.”
The chemical company later announced it was getting out of the growth-hormone business, and Bennett himself lent weight to the theory he’d lost the legal battle when he told reporters he felt “somewhat vindicated.”
To scrub his obituary clean of his defeat doesn’t further that vindication. Nor does it enhance the Press Herald’s credibility.
Site stats: The Dirigo Blue Web site has some figures on how many people visit Maine’s major news outlet’s online operations.
According to figures it obtained from Compete.com, the Bangor Daily News leads all newspapers in the state over the past year in unique visitors to its site (329,213 in January 2011). The Press Herald was second (285,609), followed by the Lewiston Sun Journal (183,640). But in January 2011, WCSH-TV’s site topped all of them with 331,405 visitors.
Here’s a little footnote Dirigo Blue missed. April 2010 was the only month in which the Portland paper had a significant lead over its Bangor rival. According to an informed source, that bump came entirely from one story, the Press Herald’s coverage of a march through Portland’s streets by a group of bare-breasted women.
News diet: A headline from the Feb. 28 Morning Sentinel:
“Waterville Catholic churches announces reduced Masses”
Does this mean there’ll be less weighty doctrine?
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.