Why Sussman Matters
Donnybrook: There are plenty of people who own news outlets who have strong political prejudices. The Warren family used to go to outrageous lengths to promote Republicans and bash Democrats in the pages of the Bangor Daily News. Those practices didn’t cease until well into the 1990s. The Gannett family was solidly GOP and made sure their newspapers – the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel – reflected their political tastes. That bias didn’t disappear until the family sold to the Blethens, also in the ‘90s. The owners of the Sun Journal in Lewiston and the Journal Tribune in Biddeford both tilted toward conservative Democrats (back when such creatures existed), although the former eased up after a new generation of the Costello family took over, and the latter after the paper was sold to the Sample Media Group, an indifferent chain.
The fact is that for most of its history, Maine’s dominant media have been seriously skewed and made no apology for that. It might not have been an ideal situation, but it was the norm in most places.
While the last two decades have seen a shift toward allegedly objective reporting and editing, that’s proved to be no guarantee that the public was being given the whole story. Without access to multiple sources of information, it’s virtually a certainty that some facts will be overlooked, and a few will even be suppressed. Such practices become more difficult to sustain when there are partisan outlets dedicated to exposing these omissions, which is why websites such as the liberal Dirigo Blue and the conservative Maine Wire are vital parts of the media mix.
There’s also nothing terribly wrong with news organizations being openly prejudiced. Most consumers are capable of taking the slant into account, and those that are too lazy to consider the information they receive critically deserve what they get.
So what does it matter that Donald Sussman – fantastically rich hedge fund manager, major Democratic Party donor and husband of a congresswoman – recently purchased a minority share in MaineToday Media, the company that now owns the Blethen’s newspapers?
If this were the 1950s, I guess it wouldn’t matter at all. It would just be business as usual, except the papers would lean left instead of right. But this isn’t the ‘50s, and expectations in the 21st century are somewhat different than they were then. Disclosure of conflicts of interest is considered the ethical norm. Personal opinions are supposed to be confined to the editorial pages. And there’s a much greater awareness of the subtle influences ownership can exert over news coverage.
Under ousted CEO Richard Connor, the MaineToday papers routinely and deliberately avoided disclosing the involvement of Robert C.S. Monks in news stories, even though Monks is a part owner and board member of the company. Monks was also a key player in bringing Sussman into the financially troubled business, a fact that was notable by its omission from MTM’s coverage of the ownership shift. It’s also no secret that HM Capital of Dallas, Texas, the majority owner of MaineToday, wants out of its unprofitable investment. According to knowledgeable sources, Sussman and Monks remain the most likely buyers (at a cut-rate price) of HM’s share. That would give two men – who are both top donors to liberal political causes in Maine and nationally, as well as developers involved in projects that are frequently newsworthy – control of MaineToday.
That control is almost certain to be acknowledged in the newsroom in ways both subtle and overt. It remains to be seen if it will be fully disclosed in stories involving either of the two.
The whole issue could have been settled (at least for the time being) if somebody in top management at MTM had published an open letter to readers explaining how conflicts would be handled. That hasn’t happened, perhaps because top management is in transition, with an interim CEO trying to straighten out the financial mess Connor left behind, and a new executive editor attempting to deal with dramatically reduced resources. Once the dust settles a bit and a permanent CEO is hired, maybe a little illumination on MaineToday’s inner workings will be forthcoming.
Or maybe not. Such a step would be a major change in the corporate culture at the papers, where there are still people who miss the bad old days of the Gannetts.
Bidding too low: The Feb. 27 Portland Press Herald carried a front-page story by Web editor Jason Singer on the Portland Police Department’s use of an online auction firm to dispose of recovered or confiscated items. Singer pointed out that the cops save time and staff by letting an out-of-state company handle the sales. He also noted that the auction doesn’t result in much profit for the city. But he couldn’t come up with a crucial piece of information: the details of the contract with the auction company that show what percentage of a sale comes back to the PPD.
“Nicole Clegg, the city's spokeswoman, said the attorney who has access to that contract wasn't in the office Friday,” Singer wrote. “No one else knows the specifics, city officials said.”
This wasn’t a breaking news story. The auction deal had been in place for months. The Press Herald felt comfortable holding the article from the time Singer did his reporting on Friday until Monday. If it had been delayed one more day while Singer filled in that hole, it seems as if it would have been worth it in terms of informing the public.
Even if the story was desperately needed to fill what would otherwise have been blank space in the Monday paper, an update could have been posted online providing the missing facts. But that hasn’t happened, yet, and I expect Godot will get here before it does.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.