Filed December 7, 2007
The Portland Press Herald's editorial on Dec. 1 made the newspaper's position on teen drinking clear. "Underage drinking is a public health crisis that has widespread consequences," it read. "Unfortunately, it is not usually recognized as the serious problem it is because of alcohol's acceptance in this culture."
Less clear is the message sent by a contest on MaineToday.com, the Web site of the Blethen Maine Newspapers, the owner of the Press Herald. According to a story by Peter Smith in the Dec. 5 issue of the Forecaster weekly newspaper, the competition was called "Drunk Uncle," and readers were urged to "Post your best Drunk Uncle tales - even if they are not really an `uncle.'" Prizes for the top stories included an Xbox 360 and the "Rock Band Deluxe Edition" video game.
According to Smith's story, the contest was pulled from the Web site after complaints from youth groups that it glorified excessive alcohol consumption and that the prizes were meant to appeal to young people. Joe Michaud, the president of MaineToday, is quoted as saying, "The bottom line was it made light of drinking, and that's against the core values of our company. It was poor judgment on the part of some people here."
"Drunk Uncle" hit the Web shortly after the November deaths of two underage youths, one in Auburn and one in Portland, due to heavy drinking. That prompted the Press Herald editorial quoted above, which also included this sentiment: "If this problem [of underage drinking] is going to be addressed, it will not be through changes in policy alone. It will take a change in the way people of all ages look at drinking to make a real difference."
But anyone who figured Blethen would use its mistake to illustrate the prevalence of societal blind spots on this topic figured wrong. Once the contest disappeared from the Web site, there was no mention of the incident, either on-line or in print. Michaud told the Forecaster nothing further was required. "MaineToday makes mistakes," he said. "And corrects them. That's news?"
The Press Herald's editorial page seems to believe it is. "Too many adults think that binge drinking and drinking games are just part of growing up," it told readers.
If any other local Web site had offered something like "Drunk Uncle," I suspect a newspaper with such a strong stand on the issue of teenagers and alcohol would have covered the story. Too bad the Press Herald didn't apply that same standard of what constitutes news to itself. And credit is due to the Forecaster for picking up the daily paper's ethical slack.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com .