Barely Covering Maine’s Delegation
Both sides of the line: No Maine newspaper or television station has a reporter based in Washington. The MaineToday Media newspapers keep making vague promises about hiring a District of Columbia-based correspondent to cover the state’s congressional delegation, but nothing has come of it, so far. The papers haven’t had a presence on Capitol Hill since their previous owners, the Blethen family, shut down its one-person D.C. bureau in 2008. The Bangor Daily News used to rely on a Washington news service employing college interns for semi-localized reports, but there’s been nothing from them recently. Some TV stations use network reporters masquerading as local correspondents, but their stories are usually generic, with little more than a soundbite from a Maine senator or representative to distinguish them from what’s being shown in Boston, Boise, or Baton Rouge.
In place of having someone on the scene, Maine news organizations rely on interviews with delegation members to determine what they’re up to. This method has several obvious drawbacks, the most glaring being that our elected officials in the nation’s capital aren’t likely to tell us anything they don’t want us to know. Maine voters are dependent on the delegation’s assessment of itself. These types of stories could be improved if locally based reporters did enough research to counterbalance the spin, but that rarely happens.
In fact, doing thorough checking on whatever senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and representatives Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree claim to have supported or opposed is almost unheard of in the mainstream media. Journalists who regularly cover the delegation don’t want to annoy any of the members, because that could result in being frozen out of interviews. As a result, stories about the Mainers in Congress generally fall in a couple of categories: 1. how influential they are and 2. how they stand on controversial issues.
The first group of articles can be dismissed, because they almost always rely heavily on the senators and representatives themselves to make the determination about their influence. Without better sources – sources that aren’t afraid that if they’re honest they’ll lose the delegation member’s vote – there’s no point in doing these pieces. They aren’t journalism. They’re campaign material.
The second group could be useful if reporters put in enough effort. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often.
There was a glaring example of the shortcomings of this approach in the June 12 Bangor Daily in a story headlined “President wants broader veto power; delegation wary.”
The article was written by Mal Leary of the Capitol News Service in Augusta. Leary is a reliable reporter with a long memory, but nobody can remember everything. He wrote that Collins opposed President Obama’s request for stronger line-item veto power. “She said the president’s proposal would fundamentally change the balance of power,” Leary wrote, “and she cannot support such a shift.”
The Collins Watch Web site was quick to point out that this was the reverse of the senator’s stand in 2008, citing the questionnaire Collins filled out for Project Vote Smart in which she said she supported expanding the chief executive’s power to veto line items in appropriations bills.
If Leary had asked Collins why she changed her mind, he might have uncovered some real news.
I don’t mean to single Leary out for taking the senator at her word without further checking. He’s not alone in this practice. Collins and her fellow Washingtonians are routinely being given free passes to change their stands without comment because no one is checking to see what they claimed to support in the past.
Reporters ought to have the entire delegations’ old Vote Smart surveys bookmarked. A little Google searching wouldn’t hurt, either. And a clip file of positions taken in recent campaigns might come in handy. Those resources, properly employed, could lift the level of Washington coverage from fawning public relations to marginally competent.
No front page for LePage: I got a number of e-mails criticizing my posting last week on the bias being displayed by the Portland Press Herald toward independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler.
Most of the writers contended Cutler was not being given preferential treatment, or if he was, it was unintentional and not part of a management-mandated scheme.
But the evidence to the contrary keeps mounting. While Cutler’s fundraiser with a celebrity chef merited the front page of the local section on July 13, Republican Paul LePage’s effort to generate cash by renting a passenger train was relegated on July 19 to page B4.
And unlike Cutler, LePage didn’t get a full story, merely an item in Susan Cover’s weekly political column.
Missing the news: Press Herald staff writer Trevor Maxwell spent several weeks researching his special report on convicted murderer Dennis Dechaine, but somehow didn’t uncover the only new information in this twenty-two-year-old case – that Dechaine had attempted suicide in April.
That scoop was first reported by the Village Soup newspapers (disclosure: My weekly political column runs in those papers) on July 15, based on a court indictment.
The Press Herald finally caught up with the story on July 17, after Dechaine wrote a letter to Maxwell explaining why he tried to kill himself.
Since Dechaine’s self-administered drug overdose was common knowledge among many of his family members and supporters who were interviewed by Maxwell, it’s difficult to figure how he didn’t come across that information.
Makes me wonder what else he didn’t catch.
No restraint on restraints: It’s good to see the Lewiston Sun Journal following up with an editorial on the excellent story by Emily Parkhurst of the Forecaster on the inappropriate use of restraints in public schools.
(The Forecaster and Sun Journal are owned by the same company.)
The July 18 Sun Journal piece makes the important point that local school districts are applying the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to avoid disclosing details on the use of restraining devices. That doesn’t appear to be the intent of the law, and its use to prevent disclosure of information that might be embarrassing to the school systems is likely a violation of the Freedom of Access Act.
The Sun Journal is to be commended for keeping the pressure on. The rest of the media, which has to date ignored this story, needs to cast off the bonds of lethargy, and do some real reporting for a change.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org