No Comment? That Could Be A Problem
By Al Diamon
Created Aug 13 2007 - 12:13pm
August 12, 2007
I can understand why some people wouldn't want to be interviewed by me. They think I'm an irreverent jerk intent on unfairly ridiculing them. They could be right. There are days when I'm leery of talking to myself.
So, under ordinary circumstances, it doesn't surprise me when somebody I'm trying to question tells me to get lost, or else they'll unleash the lawyers, the pit bulls or the losing contestants from "Who Wants To Be A Superhero?" Rejection is a normal part of the news business. Like low pay and even lower self-esteem. All of which is just my way of saying that I have no problem with people saying no comment. It's their right not to talk to me, just as it's my right to turn them into objects of ridicule.
That's the rule as it applies to normal folks. When it comes to journalists, there's a somewhat different standard. Editors, reporters, news directors and anchors make their living by convincing people to go on the record. To refuse to do otherwise when the cameras and notebooks are focused on them would be hypocritical. Of course journalists are still free to ignore phone calls from me or any other reporter if they feel we haven't been fair to them in the past. But unlike corporate executives, supreme court justices and Manny Ramirez, members of our profession aren't supposed to have a blanket policy of refusing all requests for interviews. That wouldn't be ethical.
Nevertheless, that's the official position of Drew McMullin, the editor of the Journal Tribune in Biddeford. When I called McMullin recently for a Media Mutt story, he initially agreed to talk, but, after checking with his publisher, he changed his mind. "I do not talk to other publications in Maine on the record," he said.
How do you justify expecting other people to talk to your reporters, when you refuse to do the same?
"There's no ethical issue," McMullin said. "There isn't too much more to say about it except a general no comment."
For the record, my political column appears in some weekly newspapers that compete with the Journal Tribune. But McMullin didn't cite that as a reason for not talking to me. He made it clear his no-interviews policy applied to everybody.
Is there an ethics expert in the house?
"I've always believed that journalists who spend their careers asking questions of others … should be willing to be on the receiving end of questions about journalism," said Bob Steele, former University of Maine journalism professor and now the senior ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training and research program in St. Petersburg, Fla. "To issue an absolute [edict] that I don't talk to other journalists doesn't seem logical. I'd go so far as to say it's disingenuous."
McMullin's position of never talking to the press isn't widely embraced by the Maine journalists I spoke to.
"My bottom line is we represent ourselves as being no different than anyone else," said Hugh Bowden, executive editor of the Ellsworth American. "There's no justification for setting ourselves apart [by not talking.] That makes no sense to me."
Mo Mehlsak, editor of the Forecaster weeklies covering Portland and its suburbs, said responding to inquiring reporters' questions "sort of comes with the territory." Mehlsak was recently taken to task by Chris Busby, editor of The Bollard on-line newspaper, for not returning a phone call seeking comment for a story. But Mehlsak said the call came on a particularly busy deadline day, and he couldn't spare the time.
"By and large, we should be forthright and talk to people on the record," said Eric Conrad, editor of the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and the Kennebec Journal in Augusta. "Otherwise, we're seen as arrogant."
Conrad said he's refused interview requests in the past from alternative newspapers, such as the Portland Phoenix and Casco Bay Weekly (the former of which I currently write for and the latter of which I once did), but only because "we haven't got a fair shake" from them.
I'd ask McMullin of the Journal Tribune how he feels about that, but he's not talking.
Al Diamon has a long pedigree in the Maine media, having spent the past 30 years in radio, TV, print and, now, on the Internet. He writes the weekly column "Politics & Other Mistakes," which appears in 10 Maine newspapers, as well as the monthly column "The Other Column," which appears in three. If you write, maybe you can explain to him why these taglines are always in the third person. Is there a rule or something?Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.