The Sunday Telegram: Great or Just Late?
Raise praise: How wonderful was the Maine Sunday Telegram’s long, long story on Aug. 31 on the terrible financial mistakes the Portland School Department made in negotiating a new pay scale for teachers?
It was “riveting.”
That’s not my opinion. I’m more in the range of “competent” or “reasonably thorough, if a little behind the times.” If I wanted to pick nits, I’d add that it was “a little draggy in the middle.”
The person who thinks it was “riveting” is the person who edits the paper in which this story appeared. That’s Jeannine Guttman, who devoted her weekly column on Aug. 31 to gushing about this investigative report, claiming the paper had to overcome “formidable obstacles and barricades” to get the story.
What does that mean? Did somebody threaten the life of the reporter, Dieter Bradbury? Did a major advertiser warn the paper that it would spend its money elsewhere if the article ran? Did a powerful politician hint that his vote on a bill to levy a 75 percent tax on newspaper profits would depend on how the investigation treated him?
Well, no. As Bradbury told Guttman, the most difficult barrier was “a distinct lack of cooperation from the school department.” It appears the administration was a little on the slow side in responding to requests for information. According to Guttman, this resulted in drastic measures. “Dieter camped out at the school administration office,” she wrote, “spending hours in the reception area until his presence was acknowledged.”
Wow. Kinda makes the dangers faced by journalists operating in war zones pale by comparison.
Which is not to say this story isn’t important and valuable. It is. It just isn’t all that special, mostly because it’s way too late.
The Portland School Committee approved the contract with the teachers’ union in November 2006. Guttman’s papers paid little attention to it until the spring of 2007, when school officials admitted they were having financial troubles – troubles that eventually would be traced to lax management and the new contract, which gave teachers huge raises for taking courses. Since the issue arose, most of those responsible, including the superintendent and several school committee members have left office, not all of them voluntarily. The contract has been amended to better align its costs with fiscal reality. The controversy is more-or-less settled.
Most of the information Bradbury presents was readily available to a diligent reporter a year and half ago. If somebody had dug it out back then, this actually might have been a “riveting” story. At that time, it probably would have had a profound impact on public policy and a negative impact on a number of careers. In early 2007, Guttman’s crew might have had some excuse for patting themselves on the back.
But coming as late in the process as it does, this lengthy article is more history than investigative journalism. It’s mostly useful in providing the public with information that might help prevent future mistakes.
That’s a legitimate reason to have published it. It’s not a legitimate reason to go all swoony about it. Guttman could have made better use of her space by explaining how her paper missed all this screw-up in the first place, and how it can prevent such an oversight from happening again.
Boss’ background: That same issue of the Telegram did contain a story that merited some self-congratulations. Staff writer Elbert Aull did a better-than-average job of digging up the dirt on Richard Connor, who – if the investment group he’s part of succeeds in buying the Blethen Maine Newspapers – may be the paper’s next publisher.
Aull presented a warts-and-all portrait of Connor, who’s been involved in enough controversies over the years to keep an entire reporting corps busy. He doesn’t shy away from any of it. No pulled punches. No sugarcoating.
It’s the kind of story that ought to earn the writer a little praise from the editor, but is more likely to result in a transfer to the night police beat sometime shortly after its subject assumes his new office.
Issues, schmissues: On Aug. 29 at 6:49 p.m., Jessica Alaimo, reporter for the PolitickerME.com Web site, filed a story that began: “Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) has a background in hunting, fishing and snowmobiling, and some Republicans say this will make U.S. Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) ticket very attractive in the 2nd Congressional District.”
Five minutes later, Alaimo posted another piece, this time with a different take on what would sway voters. “Abortion became a subject for the talking heads when news broke that U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) might go with a pro-choice running mate,” she wrote. “In reality, however, Mainers are much more concerned with energy costs and the economy, sources say.”
She then quotes some of the same prominent members of the GOP, who had just stated that whether a candidate hunts and fishes would be crucial in voters’ decisions on the next president. In this story, however, they were claiming that issues like abortion wouldn’t matter, because all anybody cares about is the price of oil.
Probably should have asked them about that little discrepancy.
Error terror: From a story in the Lincoln County News, Aug. 27: “In regard to Allen, Justice H.J. Elm ruled, ‘A party to a legal proceeding may not represent another as the latter's ostensible attorney-in-fact.’”
(Do the lawyers call the judge “Dutch Elm” behind his back? Probably not, because his actual name is Jeffrey Hjelm.)
From a story in the Portland Press Herald, Aug. 30: “Local school districts could adopt a four-day week to cut heating and transportation costs under a bill to be introduced in the Legislature’s next session.
“’It’s an automatic 25 percent reduction in transportation costs. That’s a huge savings,’ said Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Saco.”
(Better put those savings into math classes.)
A sub-headline over a story about the book “The Jewel of Medina,” in the Morning Sentinel, Aug. 31: “’Jewel of Media’ sparks debates worldwide.”
(I didn’t realize Jeannine Guttman was that famous.)
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.