A Long Way from Layoffs
Inscrutable: It’s almost as if the several rounds of layoffs this year at the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel didn’t happen. It’s sort of like the Press Herald wasn’t forced by its poor financial condition to close its State House bureau and three other regional offices. It’s not at all similar to the latest news that the Portland paper will cut more pages from its Sunday and Friday editions to save money.
Because while there isn’t enough in the budget to adequately cover state government (the Press Herald is lagging six weeks behind the Bangor Daily News in reporting on a possible special legislative session to increase heating aid for low-income people) – or even local government (it took a month for the Press Herald to notice the story about another attempt to put slot machines at Scarborough Downs, even though the Forecaster published the information in mid-July) there’s apparently more than enough in the budget to send sports reporter Mike Lowe to Beijing to cover Maine athletes competing in the Olympics. Good thing, because otherwise poor Ian Crocker wouldn’t get any coverage at all. I mean, other than the three-quarters of a million hits you get if you Google his name.
Lowe, however, will bring something special to his coverage. In his initial blog filing on August 6, he tells us that his new granddaughter was born on Sunday, that he spent the previous night at his brother-in-law’s house in Massachusetts, that there were a lot of people at Logan Airport (but not in the line for his flight to Newark), that he put too much stuff in his luggage and had to transfer some items to his carry-on (including his beloved Planter’s Cocktail Peanuts), and that he hoped to get lots of sleep on the long flight to China.
That posting alone is worth laying off a couple of experienced political reporters.
Intrusive: Chris Busby, editor and publisher of the Bollard, the Portland-based online news site and monthly print publication, is a friend and former editor of mine. So, I’ve got a bias here. You’ve been warned.
Busby seems to be waging a one-reporter campaign to break down the Maine media’s longstanding tradition of politely pretending the people they cover don’t have sex.
In the July print issue of the Bollard, Busby stalked congressional candidate Chellie Pingree and her alleged paramour (and largest campaign donor) S. Donald Sussman, providing strong evidence they share more than a commitment to certain issues.
On August 6, in the online Bollard’s gossip section, he provided detailed coverage of the relationship between Karen Rajotte, publisher of the Forecaster weeklies (where he once worked), and Godfrey Wood, head of the Portland Regional Chamber business group. Busby offers next to no evidence that affair has had any impact on the Forecaster’s coverage. He quotes an ethics expert who doesn’t think a publisher’s personal life is all that big a deal. And his claim that the paper’s weekly listings of local arrests (without later reporting whether the person was convicted) shows the publication has “questionable ethics” seems to be beside the point.
But I’ll give Busby this much. He’s no wimp. And that distinguishes him from the vast majority of his colleagues, dating back to the era of Margaret Chase Smith (who lived with her top aide, although that fact never made it into print during her long tenure in Congress). Later, John McKernan and Olympia Snowe (whose affair while both served in the U.S. House was well-known in Washington, but considered taboo by Maine editors) got a free pass, at least until Steve Campbell, the Press Herald’s much-missed D.C. correspondent, badgered his bosses into letting him tell the truth. In more recent times, then-U.S. Rep. John Baldacci got no negative press as a result of his attendance at a questionable party for congressional interns – at least until the national media mentioned it – and his affiliation with a politically connected religious cult that gave him cheap room and board – again, until the story broke in a national magazine (although, even then, it got little attention in Maine).
There’s been considerable negative reaction to Busby’s Pingree piece in both political circles and among the more moralistic media types, and I expect this current item, even though it’s clearly labeled as gossip, will produce more of the same. But in both cases, there’s at least some legitimate public interest in knowing about behind-the scenes (or behind-the-bedroom-curtains) connections.
If news organizations are going to err on one side or the other in reporting these types of stories, they could do worse than making Busby’s mistakes. Better to be smeared as sensationalistic tabloid journalism than found guilty of protecting the local power structure through the selective use of censorship.
Instructive: There wasn’t a whole lot of fresh information in the Press Herald’s coverage today of visits to its facilities by members of Maine Media Investments, the group that’s seeking to buy the Blethen holdings in Maine.
We found out that the time frame during which MMI, headed by former U.S. Sen. William Cohen, holds the exclusive right to negotiate to buy the company is 60 to 90 days. And we learned that the Newspaper Guild, the largest union at Blethen, has agreed to re-open its contract to allow the potential owners to work out some kind of new arrangement, likely involving cuts in wages and benefits in return for an employee stock ownership plan.
Other than that, Richard Connor, the journalistic member of MMI, said he didn’t know what would become of Blethen property on Congress Street in Portland or other prime real estate. His separate closed-door discussions with Press Herald editor Jeannine Guttman and union members were both described as “candid,” a word that, if not very informative, is at least unusual in a story associated with the Blethens.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.