The economy is weak and getting weaker.
The budget is tight and getting tighter.
The bottom line is dismal and getting more so.
Those ominous statements were already echoing through nearly every newsroom in Maine, when, on April 8, the volume got turned up. That was the day Hannaford Bros. supermarkets let it be known there would be serious financial consequences for any media outlet that got too "aggressive" in pursuing the story of the security breach that allowed hackers to steal credit and debit card numbers from over 4 million of the company's customers.
Hannaford is one of the biggest advertisers in the state, both in print and on the airwaves. As such, it's been treated with unusual respect and considerable care by reporters from newspapers and TV stations, ever since word of the data theft was announced in mid-March. There were no loud voices demanding to know why the company waited more than two weeks to inform its customers their accounts were in danger. There were few follow-up questions when Hannaford spokespeople answered inquiries about who would bear the costs of the crime by reading unresponsive prepared statements. There was little outrage when Hannaford waited an additional two weeks to issue a tepid apology.
One of the few exceptions was WGME-TV, Channel 13 in Portland. Reporter Diana Ichton distinguished herself, on occasion, by refusing to be deflected by all that corporate-speak. If Ichton didn't think the company's front-person had answered her questions, she asked them again. And again. And again.
This strategy didn't necessarily result in Ichton getting better information, but at least she tried. That's more than can be said for most of her competitors.
Hannaford noticed the difference. The company, which had temporarily cancelled its advertising everywhere immediately after the story broke, announced this week that it was resuming normal media buys. With one exception:
When the station asked for a reason, inquiring as to whether there had been errors or inaccuracies in its reporting, Hannaford would only say that Channel 13's coverage had been too "aggressive."
Not wrong. Not sensational. Just "aggressive."
Usually, when somebody says that about news coverage, it's a compliment.
This time, whether intentional or not, it served as a warning to the entire Maine media: Take what we give you. Don't push for more. If you do, you'll pay a price.
WGME's management reacted with the standard line in such cases. "Although we respect Hannaford's right to spend its advertising dollars where it wishes," said general manager Terry Cole in a prepared statement of his own, "we make all editorial decisions relating to news coverage independently of our sales efforts."
WGME is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a corporation with a well-deserved reputation for paying attention to its bottom line. Whether Sinclair stands firm in the long term, figuring the benefits of being seen as "aggressive" outweigh the financial consequences, or whether it quietly makes concessions to a major sponsor, remains to be seen.
In the same category: whether the rest of the media reacts by treating Hannaford more like they would if the company were an errant politician, a bungling bureaucrat or a ruthless speculator, or whether they continue to accept the supermarket chain's non-responses - and its money.- Filed April 9, 2008
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.