Who Pays for the Editor’s Car?
Free ride? Scott Wasser, the executive editor of MaineToday Media (his company Web bio still claims he lives in Dallas, but I’m told he’s since moved to Maine), finds time in his busy schedule each week to write a Sunday column reviewing a hot new car. (He doesn’t, apparently, find time to post his most recent pieces online, nor does the company’s Web site carry the correct publication dates for the older articles – they’re all listed as Oct. 29, 2009.)
Setting aside for the time being the issue of whether a newspaper that’s struggling with staff reductions that make it tough to stay on top of important local stories ought to be squandering resources on an automotive column, Wasser’s weekly effort raises a more important ethical question:
Who’s supplying all those new cars?
Wasser didn’t respond to a phone message asking that question, but I’m told on good authority that the vehicles come from area auto dealers. It’s not clear what benefit those dealers receive in return – Wasser, to his credit, is reasonably objective about the shortcomings of many of the cars he tests, and the reviews aren’t all raves – but it’s hard to believe these merchants are loaning out expensive new products for a week at a time and getting nothing in return.
Even if there’s no quid pro quo, the arrangement still creates the appearance of a conflict of interest every time the newspapers under Wasser’s control cover the local auto industry.
That possibility of conflict could be easily mitigated by a line or two of disclosure at the end of each column in which Wasser details whatever arrangement – or lack thereof – he’s made. Until he does, the omission is telling.
Self-promotion: It’s difficult to imagine another business at which the addition of a single lower-level employee would merit front-page coverage in the Maine Sunday Telegram. But when MaineToday Media hired a new State House reporter, essentially replacing a staff writer who took a buyout from the previous owner and departed in mid-2008, the announcement got played right out front.
The Telegram’s sister paper, the Morning Sentinel, was a bit more restrained, placing the same article (and a photo) on the front of the local section.
All this publicity concerned an event MTM CEO Richard Connor appeared, perhaps inadvertently, to downplay. The story, by Kennebec Journal staff writer Meghan V. Malloy, quoted Connor as saying, “We believe as the state’s largest newspaper company we have an obligation to try to be among the leaders in coverage of state government.”
Among the leaders?
Given the diminished state of the capital press corps, it would be difficult not to place among the top five contenders, since there currently aren’t more than half a dozen news organizations regularly covering the State House.
On a related note, one of those competitors is the Lewiston Sun Journal, which ran a story by staff writer Christopher Williams on Jan. 9 explaining how proposed state budget cuts might delay paychecks for district attorneys.
The Press Herald carried the same piece, as part of its story-sharing arrangement with the Sun Journal and other papers. But the Portland paper added its “MaineToday Media State House Bureau” logo to the article, even though its own reporters had nothing to do with the story.
I’ll give the Press Herald the benefit of the doubt and assume this was a mistake, because it if wasn’t, it was a cheesy attempt to deceive readers.
On a more positive note, Connor did say in Malloy’s story that his company is interviewing candidates to reopen its Washington bureau, closed in the same round of 2008 cutbacks, although he gave no timetable as to when that might happen.
Porter’s record: Mainebiz magazine did a nice job of digging up the background missed by other publications on the hiring of former Press Herald editorial-page editor John Porter as the new president of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.
As Mainebiz’s Jackie Farwell pointed out, Porter had a mixed record in his journalistic career when it came to supporting issues that the chamber backs. In one case, he called for an end to all business tax incentives, a position he told Mainebiz was idealistic, rather than pragmatic.
“Editorial writers exist in a universe where the world should be perfect,” he said.
So, that’s the problem.
Keeping it honest: The Lewiston Sun Journal editorial board deserves credit for including a disclosure with its Jan. 10 editorial on tax reform (I couldn’t find this piece on line, but given the convoluted state of the Sun Journal’s Web site, it could be there someplace).
The paper made its case for an expanded sales tax to stabilize Maine’s notoriously fickle revenue stream (disclosure: In my weekly political column, I’ve made similar arguments), but unlike other dailies that have advocated for that position, the SJ made clear its own underlying bias in the matter.
At the end of the editorial, the following disclaimer appeared: “The Sun Journal is a member of the Maine Press Association, which does not make political contributions, but which has in the past lobbied against a sales tax on newspapers.”
The rest of the association’s members should take note and follow suit.
Not close: On Jan. 9, the Press Herald ran a feature obituary by staff writer Emma Bouthillette on the death of Roman Catholic Bishop Donald E. Pelotte, a Waterville native and the first Native American to attain that post in the church. The same piece also ran in the Morning Sentinel.
In both cases the story carried the dateline “Gallup, N.M.,” which was where Pelotte died.
I’m going to go way out on a limb here and assume that Bouthillette, working as she does for a cash-strapped news operation, never set foot in New Mexico in the preparation of this piece, which relies heavily on material from the newspaper’s files.
That makes the dateline, which is supposed to designate where the reporter is filing from, a lie.
The Bangor Daily News and staff writer Roxanne Moore Saucier got it right on Jan. 11, datelining their piece on the bishop’s death “Bangor.”
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org