The Maine media remind me of dogs - big, goofy, sloppy, rambunctious, not-too-bright dogs.
The enthusiastic pooches of the state's daily and weekly newspapers, television and radio stations, Web sites, blogs and podcasts regularly blunder into places they're ill-equipped to explore, return with mouthfuls of distasteful material, splatterings of mud and undiminished confidence in their ability to convey what they've discovered to the rest of us, even though they don't understand it themselves.
"Look!" they cry, wagging their tails. "I found a skunk!"
Sure, there are occasional examples of quality journalism. Mal Leary of the Capitol News Service does a fine job dissecting the intricacies of the state budget. John Frary writes a biweekly column full of wit, insight and erudition for the Franklin Journal. Steve Meyers' political cartoons in the Portland Press Herald use humor to cut to the core of complex issues. Lance Tapley deserves a Pulitzer for his investigative work inside Maine's prisons. And I'm sure sometime, someplace, somebody in TV news has conveyed something important clearly, concisely and correctly. Although it's never happened while I was watching.
But most of what fills the news hole every day is just that, filler. Rehashed stuff from wire services. Reports on social trends that are already over. Overblown expos`s that appear to be motivated less by a desire to inform the community and more by a lust to win awards. And columns and commentary weighed down with conclusions so obvious even a journalist could make them.
What about the aforementioned rabies? It's mostly in remission. The Maine press only manages to work itself up into a mouth-frothing, fang-baring fit when it feels threatened. Since the demise of media criticism in such outspoken outlets as Maine Times, Casco Bay Weekly and Maine Public TV's "Media Watch" (in the interest of full disclosure, I was a panelist on "Media Watch" and edited CBW's various media columnists), there's been little incentive to go to all that trouble. Aside from an occasional piece in the Portland Phoenix (for which I write a political column), a rant on Web sites like "As Maine Goes" (finally, something I don't have to disclaim) or a kick in the head from the on-line agitators at The Bollard, there's been nothing to provoke the media's latent tendency to react to even the mildest expression of disapproval with hydrophobic fury.
Nevertheless, that tendency toward overreaction is ingrained. Reporters, commentators, editors and publishers don't like to be criticized. In that, they're not so different from politicians, businesspeople, entertainers, artists, athletes and even regular folks. Nobody likes to be judged and found wanting. But almost everybody outside the media figures it's going to happen sometime, and they'll just have to suck it up. Actors, musicians and painters beg to be reviewed. Right fielders, receivers and race car drivers can't be surprised to hear their blunders discussed on sports reports. Company CEOs aren't hiring public relations people because they expect to be ignored. And, as reality TV has shown, ordinary people don't mind humiliating themselves in front of millions of viewers if it gets them some national exposure.
But the Fourth Estate seems to think it's above all that.
While some big city news organizations employ trained professionals to mediate disputes between the public and the press - this position is called an "ombudsman" from the Latin terms for "one whose job will cease to exist the first time he or she criticizes the publisher, the publisher's spouse, the publisher's friends or the publisher's dog" - no newspaper or TV station in Maine has anything of the kind. That leaves the responsibility to people who know better than to complain.
Let politicians criticize reporters' work, and they can expect backlash that includes being labeled enemies of the First Amendment. If crime victims don't like the slant of the story, they're informed they're ignoring the press's responsibility to present the whole picture. If celebrities complain about invasions of privacy, they're reminded that they asked to be in the spotlight in the first place. And if average schmoes have the nerve to say they find the coverage to be condescending, demeaning, inaccurate or misleading, they're just displaying their ignorance of the inner workings of journalism.
Instead of asking those poor souls to absorb all that abuse, I'm taking on the job of, as our logo indicates, biting the media in the A. If past experience is any indication, I expect to be attacked, both personally and professionally. I can handle that blowback, mostly because I have thick skin. Also, I don't plan to be one of those critics who depends only on caustic comments and gratuitous insult. If something's wrong, I going to suggest how it can be fixed. Right after the caustic comments and gratuitous insults. And finally, I can hang tough because I have the full support of Down East (the official magazine of the National Association Of Old Men Who Wear Their Pants Belted Across Their Nipples and Old Women Who Splash On Enough Scent To Gag A Hummingbird). At least, I used to have its full support.
Nothing in the preceding paragraph is meant to imply that this column will be limited to discussing just the negative aspects of the Maine media. If somebody is doing something right, he or she deserves credit. So, there'll be plenty of space for positive comments. Lots of room. Really. Acres.
This feature is also interactive. (That's one of those buzz words that means you can post your comments on this site. It just looks more impressive if I write "interactive.") I hope you'll avail yourselves of that option and join the discussion in order to challenge my assumptions, broaden my focus, heighten my awareness and take some of the heat off me.
I promise not to bite you.
Much.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. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org . If you write, maybe you can explain to him why these taglines are always in the third person. Is there a rule or something?