He Said, She Said
By Al Diamon
Created Dec 3 2007 - 1:32pm
Is there some regulation in the Great Big Book of Standard Journalistic Practices and Accepted Industry Procedures that requires reporters covering public hearings to produce stories that bore readers to death? If so, I apologize in advance for the impending criticism. If not, duck and cover.
One of the reasons newspaper circulation is declining faster than the credit rating of sub-prime lenders is because of the way the print media insist on dealing with public hearings and other similar events (candidate forums, legislative debates, potential nuclear confrontations, etc.).
First, they supply readers with a quotation from a speaker on one side, usually something on the order of how the proposal in question will cure most of humanity's ills by reducing the incidence of crime, global warming, cancer and Adam Sandler movies. Oh, and there's almost always a reminder aimed at whatever august body is conducting the hearing that it has only a tiny timeframe in which to take advantage of this opportunity and so should act with as much haste and as little thought as possible. Any unpleasant complications brought to light by irresponsible advocates of delay can almost certainly be swept under the rug until some more opportune occasion. Like never.
Then, there's a quote from a representative of the opposition, pointing out how approving the proposal will lead to the complete destruction of the planet, followed by other, even worse, disasters. There's usually at least a hint that advocates of the project are morally deficient slimeballs with reputations for engaging in genocide, steroid use, kitten paddling and idling their SUVs for extended periods of time outside strip clubs. And speaking of time, the opponents nearly always demand the whole process be slowed down, reconsidered, reduced, further diluted and - following careful and unbiased study - rejected. After which, the plan's originators should be arrested and sentenced without trial to re-education camps.
All this might provide material for some interesting stories if both sides hadn't already spent months pushing exactly the same agendas in earlier news reports, op-eds, blogs, interviews and feature-length films (in which the actual central conflict has been replaced by the unlikely sexual attraction between the beautiful and virtuous environmentalist and the handsome-but-callous corporate attorney). For the unfortunate reporter assigned to cover a public hearing, the problem becomes how to craft something compelling out of an event at which not one damn thing being said hasn't been said - and reported upon - dozens of times before.
Take, for example, coverage of the Plum Creek development on Moosehead Lake. If something fresh came out of the Land Use Regulation Commission's public hearings in Greenville on Dec. 1 and Augusta on Dec. 2, it didn't turn up in any story I saw. Those in favor of building resorts and housing in the area were reported to have talked about creating jobs and enhancing economic development, while preserving for the birds and bears those parts of the land not bulldozed for buildings. The folks opposed to the idea were quoted as saying that the only way to save the wilderness from suburban intruders and honor the traditions of rural poverty in Maine was to prevent even a single hot tub from defiling the landscape.
Lots of people showed up at both hearings to repeatedly make the same points. In Greenville, more speakers favored the Plum Creek plan than opposed it. In Augusta, the opposite was true. That's about all the new information conveyed in coverage from the Bangor Daily News and the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel/Portland Press Herald (all of which ran the same story) on Dec. 3. Both papers featured extensive selections of quotes from those for and against. Neither offered anything further. Both stories could have been written a week ago. Or a month. Or a year.
In contrast, the Maine Sunday Telegram of Dec. 2 engaged in some actual journalism. While the paper devoted significant space on its front page to the predictable rants from both sides during the first day of the hearing, environmental reporter John Richardson also did some digging. Richardson produced a lengthy - but not overlong - sidebar on Plum Creek's political donations, in which he explained how the company attempted to influence the state's decision makers, both overtly and subtly.
"Plum Creek has given more than $175,000 to legislative candidates and referendum campaigns in Maine during the past five years," he wrote. "That ranks it among the top 10 corporate givers, along with L.L. Bean, Verizon and Nestle Waters, the owners of Poland Spring."
Richardson included a survey of who got the cash and what their roles might be in the process. He provided real insight into the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering. And he offered something besides another rehash of the slogans from the posters and proclamations at the hearing to read over Sunday brunch.
Nice job. Too bad the Telegram didn't have the sense to run the sidebar on the front page and bury coverage of the public hearing someplace groggy readers would be unlikely to inadvertently stumble on it.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.