What happened to disclosure?
Bob Who? The Portland Press Herald has failed its first ethics test since announcing last month that developer Robert C. S. Monks of Cape Elizabeth has become a major investor and board member of its parent company, MaineToday Media.
On August 13, the Press Herald ran a story by staff writer Tim Devaney headlined, “New apartments giving economy ‘shot in the arm.’”
The article on the front page of the local section labels a recently constructed Portland apartment complex called 53 Danforth as both “environmentally friendly” and “affordable.” Local and state officials are quoted praising the $5.4 million project, which was built with a $2 million subsidy from the Maine Housing Authority. It was also financed by sizable contributions that were required from the YWCA and the Portland Museum of Art to replace low-income housing they destroyed when the museum tore down the old YWCA building.
As for the economic “shot in the arm” mentioned in the headline, that quote comes from one of the developers, who apparently wasn’t asked how one relatively small housing project with unusual one-time funding could have a significant economic impact.
Nowhere in the piece is there any indication how much the “affordable” rents on 30 of the 43 units will be. There’s also nothing about how much the developers will be charging for the 13 apartments that aren’t considered “affordable.” Nor is there any mention of how this building differs in its “environmentally friendly” characteristics from any other energy-efficient construction.
To the average reader, there’s nothing to explain the gaping holes in the reporting or even why 53 Danforth merits such extensive coverage.
But there may be a clue in the sixth paragraph, where Devaney gives us a self-congratulatory quote from the project’s co-developer, who’s identified as “Bobby Monks.”
“Bobby Monks” is actually the newspaper’s aforementioned investor and board member. Those who doubt it can check him out in an extensive photo feature on 53 Danforth’s grand opening that appears in the same issue of the Press Herald (but not on its Web site), where Monks is shown celebrating with Gov. John Baldacci. (Monks is also a major donor to Democratic candidates, which might have had something to do with the governor’s presence.)
That there’s no mention in the story or the photo captions of Monks’ connection to the paper raises a number of troubling questions.
Was the omission of a disclaimer deliberate or accidental?
Was the routine information missing from the article the result of deliberately skewing the piece in favor of a board member, or was it just incompetent journalism?
How can a newspaper that doesn’t reveal its own conflicts of interest be considered credible when it calls out politicians or business leaders for similar offenses?
I realize that publisher-editor Richard Connor is concentrating most of his attention on rebuilding the business side of the Press Herald and its sister papers, but he should be wary of allowing journalistic standards to slide in the meantime. The newspapers’ long-term health – and the company’s bottom line – depends on them.
What context? On August 10, the Maine Department of Corrections sent out a press release in which it attempted to put a positive spin on an unpleasant personnel matter. State Prison warden Jeff Merrill was being pushed out of the top spot at the Warren facility, after months of management problems and the murder of an inmate.
Of course, the corrections administration didn’t quite put it like that in the release. They said Merrill was being reassigned to the high-priority job of finding ways for the prison system to save money on energy.
Yeah, that seems way more important than dealing with allegations of harassment of staff and inmates (as detailed in two outside reports), cutbacks in the number of guards and other key employees, and that murder back in April – which, to date, remains unsolved.
Staff writer David Hench of the Portland Press Herald saw through the spin and produced a solid story that strongly suggested there was more to the move than a need for somebody to be in charge of replacing incandescent light bulbs. Hench didn’t do anything brilliant. He just checked the archives, asked a few questions of knowledgeable sources and drew some obvious conclusions.
But as far as I can tell, he was the only reporter who didn’t get flummoxed by the crack public-relations team at the prison. Staff writer Abigail Curtis of the Bangor Daily News devoted her entire story to the potential for energy savings in the corrections system, relying on department bureaucrats and the press release for her information.
No mention in the Bangor Daily of problems with Merrill’s management style or his inability to address chronic problems.
No digging. No questioning. No skepticism.
No real journalism.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.