Ethically challenged? No problem
By Al Diamon
Created Oct 11 2007 - 9:14am
Inviting pollster and Bowdoin College government professor Christian Potholm to deliver the keynote address to a convention of newspaper people is a little like asking U.S. Sen. Larry Craig to give a speech at a gay rights rally.
Craig could explain why he isn't gay.
Potholm could explain why he isn't bound by standard journalistic ethics.
Both speeches would be interesting, although neither would likely be enlightening.
The world will have to wait for the Craig oration, but the Potholm pitch is scheduled for Friday, October 12, at the Maine Press Association's fall conference at the Samoset Resort in Rockport.
Potholm became an unlikely choice for any media organization's after-dinner entertainment in July of 2006, when he wrote an op-ed piece for the Times Record in Brunswick attacking Republican gubernatorial nominee Chandler Woodcock. In the article, Potholm called a Woodcock victory at the polls "a truly frightening prospect" and accused the candidate of being far to the right of the GOP mainstream.
What Potholm didn't disclose was that he was a paid consultant for the campaign of Woodcock's Democratic opponent, Gov. John Baldacci. Woodcock supporters were quick to bring that affiliation to the public's attention, leaving the Times Record in an embarrassing position.
"The fact he didn't reveal [his connection to the Baldacci campaign], frankly, has created a problem for us, has created a problem for him and certainly has raised some questions," Times Record managing editor James McCarthy told the Portland Press Herald at the time. McCarthy said some readers had accused the newspaper of having "the worst motives" in publishing the piece.
A few days after his conflict of interest became public, Potholm apologized. Sorta. What he said to the Press Herald was, "I thought my opinion was more important than a campaign or candidate." In the Bangor Daily News, he was quoted as saying, "It is not in my nature to apologize, but my wife said, `I live in this town; let me give you some political advice: Apologize to the paper.' I said, `It's going to kill me, but I'll do it.'"
But when asked why he didn't disclose his connection to the Baldacci campaign in the first place, Potholm told the BDN, "I've been doing this for 30 years. Candidates come and go, causes come and go, but a professor who has written four books on politics knows more than the day-to-day stuff. A candidate is not as important as the history of Maine. I guess that's the way I should have put it. My knowledge of the history of Maine is significantly larger than a lot of people who think they know a lot about Maine."
Asked what he thought of the MPA's invitation to Potholm, McCarthy said he wished journalists spent more time listening to real people, rather than political operatives. But he said he wouldn't urge the group to rescind the offer.
"If we can have Columbia inviting the president of Iran, why not Chris Potholm at the MPA," McCarthy said. "Not that I'm equating the two."
Until 2006, Potholm also wrote a monthly column on politics for the Lewiston Sun Journal, but it was discontinued shortly before the Times Record incident. Sun Journal executive editor Rex Rhoades told me at the time that the reason the paper dropped Potholm was also connected to possible conflicts of interest.
"We just had a difference of opinion about how much attribution was needed as to who he was employed by," said Rhoades. "This came up two or three times, and it became uncomfortable to continue.
"He just never saw conflict of interest the same way newspaper people see it. He just had a blind spot."
The Maine Press Association seemed unconcerned about Potholm's faulty vision. "I haven't heard about any ethical issue," said MPA executive director Jeff Ham. "I think he's going to be an interesting speaker."
Bob Caswell, the MPA associate board member who arranged for Potholm to speak, said he didn't recall the stories about his keynoter's ethical problems until I called and reminded him. "Would we not have extended the invitation if we'd remembered? I don't know," said Caswell, who is the chief spokesperson for the University of Southern Maine. "It certainly would have figured into the consideration of him as a speaker."
Earl Brechlin, editor of the Mount Desert Islander and a past president of the MPA, said he was unaware of the controversy surrounding Potholm, but still thought his speech might be worthwhile. "Sometimes you learn as much from the rogues and scalawags as you do from the white knights," Brechlin said.
Next year's convention speaker: Larry Craig?
Disclosure: Lorie Costigan, editor of Down East's Web site, is an outgoing board member of the Maine Press Association. Because of that conflict, Costigan did not edit or read this piece before it was posted.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com.