Smear Campaign? Not Hardly
A trip by the Wire: The Maine Wire, the news website of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center think tank, is apparently unfamiliar with standard journalistic practice. The Wire seems to think it’s unethical for reporters to thoroughly investigate rumors they hear or tips they receive. Which is odd, because that’s where a significant percentage of all news comes from.
Earlier this week, the Maine Wire posted a scathing attack on the Portland Press Herald and reporter David Hench for inquiring about widely circulated gossip that Republican Gov. Paul LePage had been arrested for drunk driving in Waterville. The Wire’s unbylined story suggested the motive behind Hench’s questions was to “smear” LePage, and that there was “political collusion” between the newspaper and American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super-PAC in Washington. It offers no evidence of that, other than that Donald Sussman, a minority owner of MaineToday Media (the Press Herald’s parent company), has donated to American Bridge, which has also made inquiry with the Waterville police about the alleged incident.
The rumor of LePage driving under the influence is unlikely, since the governor almost never gets behind the wheel, leaving that to his State Police escorts. The Wire claimed Hench had refused to accept the official word from Waterville’s police chief that no such arrest took place and quoted the top cop as saying Hench had placed a “real burden” on the department by filing a Freedom of Information request for all police communication over a one week period.
Since LePage is a former mayor of Waterville, there was good cause for Hench to look for more proof than simply the chief’s word. In most journalistic circles, that’s called being thorough.
Keep in mind that the Portland paper hadn’t published a word about this drunk-driving incident until March 16, when LePage himself joked about it at an event in South Paris. In the meantime, the MHPC had put out a press release calling attention to the Maine Wire story (and the rumor), further fueling the gossip mill.
That prompted Dennis Bailey, former spokesman for independent Gov. Angus King and now a public relations operative, to blog about the stupidity of promoting the false information and the irrationality of attacking a news organization for doing its job properly. Bailey pointed out that the MHPC hasn’t been shy about filing extensive FOI requests in its efforts to discredit Democratic politicians. He also noted that the center had failed to follow one of the basic rules of PR: Don’t repeat the negatives.
There’s good reason to be suspicious about political influence on news reporting at the Press Herald in light of Sussman’s many connections to Democratic and progressive individuals and groups. It’s worthwhile to keep scrutinizing the stories in the MaineToday papers for signs of bias. It’s even legitimate to critique what they don’t cover if there are indications it’s covering up something. But this foolishness seems aimed at nothing so much as damaging the paper’s credibility, even though there’s no basis for doing so.
On second thought, there does seem to be a smear campaign going on here – being run by the Maine Wire.
Washington washout: The March 16 Bangor Daily News carried a story by staff writer Dawn Gagnon on the confirmation hearing by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of William Kayatta Jr. of Cape Elizabeth to a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
The article was datelined Washington, D.C., but it seems unlikely Gagnon actually traveled there. Although if she did, it’s puzzling as to why she waited an extra day to file her piece, since the hearing was held March 14.
What’s most troubling about Gagnon’s reporting, though, is its lack of context. The piece makes it seem as if it’s just a matter of time before Kayatta is confirmed by the full Senate and sworn in. In fact, the headline on the print version says he’s “headed” for a federal judgeship.
As much better reporting by other Maine media and national reports shows, that’s far from the case. Approval of federal judgeships gets more difficult as presidential election years progress, coming to a complete halt by late summer. There’s no guarantee Kayatta will become a judge before the election – or after.
If Gagnon was really in Washington, she should have picked up on that. And even from Bangor, she should have gotten a hint.
Dunkle redux: Daniel Dunkle, until last week the associate editor of the now-defunct Village Soup Gazette in Rockland, has been hired by Reade Brower, the purchaser of Village Soup’s assets, to oversee the revival of weekly papers in Rockland and Belfast. Dunkle is a former editor of the Republican Journal in Belfast before that paper was taken over by Soup.
Al Diamon can be emailed at email@example.com.