Connor Tries Again to Explain Muslim Coverage
Ignore what I said before: Richard Connor can’t seem to get his apologies straight. On Sept. 19, Connor, the CEO of MaineToday Media and the editor and publisher of the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, ran yet another front-page attempt at explaining his papers’ editorial policies and procedures. His latest explanation attempts to convey a more succinct and enlightened view than the previous attempt, but still falls short.
The controversy began on Sept. 11, when the Press Herald published a front-page piece on the local observance of the end of the Muslim observance of Ramadan. This elicited numerous outraged – and often racist – comments from readers angered not only by the prominent display of Islamic tradition, but by the absence of any coverage of the anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The next day Connor ran his first, infamous, front-page apology:
“Our editors believed that 3,000 persons marking the passage of a religious observance and congregating in Portland to do so was news. I believe that decision was correct but I also believe we should have handled it in a more sensitive way.”
That brought outrage not only from the unappeased bigots, but from readers who thought Connor was backtracking on the Press Herald’s coverage of the Muslim ceremony.
Here’s Connor’s latest excuse:
“Our coverage of the conclusion of the local Ramadan observance was excellent and we are proud of it. We did not adequately cover 9/11 on the 9/11 anniversary, which also should have been front-page news, in my opinion.”
Connor first floated his revised line in an interview on WBUR (99.9 FM), a public radio station in Boston, on Sept. 16. “I think we made an error in judgment about what we didn’t do,” he told an interviewer. “I don’t think it was an error what we did, and we would run that Ramadan story … over and over again.”
Connor blamed much of the controversy on people he said hadn’t seen the original story or his (first) apology. He said the Portland paper had been thrust into a national debate over the role of Islam in American society.
“There’s a lot of bigotry [in this country] that … has prevailed for a long time,” he said. “And it’s still there, and it’s a hot topic right now, so we got caught in the middle of it.”
Later in the radio program, Bob Giles, head of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, said Connor was wrong to apologize in the first place and had missed a “teachable moment,” when he could have dealt with the intolerance that permeated much of the online criticism. Giles said Connor had an opportunity “to help educate the reader about why the story was published, why the story was important,” but failed to deal with those issues. He also said Connor should have been aware of the story selection, rather than leaving it to his underlings. “He has the responsibility to know what’s going in the newspaper every day,” Giles said.
Connor’s response? He dismissed Giles, who edited two papers that won Pulitzer Prizes under his leadership, as a product of “corporate journalism” and added, “I really don’t care what the journalism community at large thinks about me.”
He doesn’t? Then why do his newspapers make such big deals out of any honors they win from “the journalism community at large”? Such as the half-page house ad in the Sept. 18 Press Herald touting the New England Associated Press News Executives Association’s 2009 first-place awards for “Best Feature Photo” and “Best Headline.”
That beats two Pulitzers any day.
In an interview on the NPR program “On the Media,” Connor admitted some of the criticism of the Ramadan coverage came from people expressing “anti-Islam and anti-Muslim attitudes,” but insisted the complaints were “predominantly” from folks concerned about the lack of 9/11 coverage. Asked by the NPR interviewer why his first apology said many readers found the Ramadan coverage “offensive,” Connor grew testy, said he was not retracting his earlier apology, and hung up.
Politics as sport: Good political reporters are in short supply in Maine, and nowhere is that more apparent than at Connor’s papers, where somebody decided to assign coverage of the 1st Congressional District race to former sports reporter Glenn Jordan. Jordan has done a fine job in the past covering the Portland Sea Dogs and, more recently, high school sports, but he seems to lack the background for politics. In his first piece on the campaign on Sept. 16, he claimed Republican Dean Scontras “is bidding to become only the second challenger in the past half-century to unseat the incumbent in Maine's 1st District, which has been in Democratic hands since Tom Allen defeated Republican Jim Longley Jr. in 1996.”
Actually, if Scontras wins, he’d be the third such upset victor.
The Press Herald never ran a correction (or an apology from Connor), but Jordan did note in a Sept. 20 article that challenger David Emery had knocked off incumbent Democrat Peter Kyros in 1974.
But what’s really lacking from Jordan’s coverage isn’t just a failure to check the historical record. It’s a tendency – one shared with altogether too many journalists allegedly covering politics in this state – to repeat the same biographical tidbits as a substitute for digging out fresh news.
While Jordan does make some effort in the Sept. 20 piece to compare and contrast a few of the positions of Scontras and Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, he does no real digging. Has Pingree lived up to the campaign promises she made in 2008? Why has Scontras shifted from being an out-front advocate for traditional Republican positions to rarely mentioning his party affiliation? How has Pingree’s close personal relationship with someone who oversees offshore hedge funds affected her votes on dealing with the country’s financial crisis? Scontras says he opposes the war in Afghanistan, but he didn’t make much of an issue of that opposition in the 2008 GOP primary, when he was running against an opponent who was serving in Iraq. Why not?
There’s a lot of unreported information concerning this race. It remains to be seen if Jordan will uncover any of it.
But while he tries, here’s one more piece of advice: When covering politics, go easy on the sports analogies. Particularly when they’re pointless and stretched to the breaking point, as in this lead sentence from Jordan’s Sept. 19 story on poll results:
“A former kick returner for the University of Maine football team has a lot of yardage to make up in his quest to unseat Rep. Chellie Pingree in Maine's 1st Congressional District.”
Grand Gagnon: Some of the best political journalism in Maine isn’t being done by a journalist. Matthew Gagnon of the Web site Pine Tree Politics continues to set the standard for campaign analysis in his latest piece on the conflicts between the press corps and Republican gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage.
Gagnon, a GOP political consultant, clearly reveals his prejudices and conflicts (and how refreshing that is) in dissecting where his preferred candidate for governor went wrong in dealing with issues of his wife’s property tax breaks and residency. While the posting is clearly aimed at the political class, it should be must reading for reporters, as well.
And while I’m on the subject of the PTP site, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a big shout out to the superb analysis of the various gubernatorial candidates’ education proposals by Derek Viger. Viger skews to the right in breaking down the plans, but no more so than the old Maine Times used to skew to the left. And as with the work done by that defunct publication, it’s reasonably easy to separate fact from opinion in Viger’s work. And well worth the effort if one wants to be informed about education issues before casting a ballot.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com