Down East 2013 ©
Offensive explanation: Let me give Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram executive editor Scott Wasser credit for being forthright in his Jan. 17 column  dealing with an issue of some concern to his newspapers’ readers.
Unlike similar columns by Wasser’s boss, MaineToday Media editor/publisher Richard Connor , or former editor Jeannine Guttman, this piece seems to be an honest attempt to answer questions, in this case questions raised by critics  about the newspapers’ coverage of the manslaughter trial  of Bruce Lavallee-Davidson.
The trial was filled with lurid details of the gunshot death of Fred Wilson of South Portland during a weekend-long party involving recreational drugs, multi-partner sex, bondage and pistols. But few details found their way into the Press Herald’s coverage.
“We’re not in the habit of holding things back from our readers,” Wasser wrote, “but we’re also not in the habit of offending them.”
The anti-offensive solution developed by the editorial team headed by Wasser: “[W]e cautioned [staff writer Trevor Maxwell] not to get too graphic in his accounts of witness testimony.” What that appears to mean is the parts of the trial that dealt with sex and drugs were toned down or intentionally deleted in the papers’ stories.
Normally, such a decision would have elicited plenty of comment and criticism from the Press Herald’s online readers, but Wasser’s team dealt with that issue, as well, by not allowing any online comments.
“We decided there was little to be gained by providing a public forum for people to comment on this story,” he wrote. “We decided that although we might get a few thoughtful, insightful and well-reasoned comments, the vast majority would be offensive to most of our readers.”
Wasser also explained why the Press Herald didn’t post important trial documents online, such as the complete transcript of Lavallee-Davidson’s interview with police, a key piece of prosecution evidence.
“After reading the transcript,” he said, “we decided running it verbatim would be as irresponsible as allowing comments on the story.”
He’s probably right there, although for exactly the wrong reasons.
While I appreciate the insights Wasser has given readers into the editorial thought process in this case, I’m more than a little concerned by the basic reasoning behind this decision.
Sanitizing the news to avoid offending the public sets a dangerous precedent. Nearly everything is offensive to somebody, so who’ll decide when a particular story reaches the threshold that requires censoring some of the facts? What unproven assumptions will trigger stifling all public comment? What’s to prevent Wasser and company from making an editorial decision that an entire news story is too spicy for their readers’ tender palates, and 86ing the whole thing?
What’s also disturbing here is the Press Herald’s effort to avoid having its trial coverage become a flashpoint for opponents of same-sex marriage. Lavallee-Davidson and his partner (who wasn’t involved in the party that lead to Wilson’ s death) testified at a public hearing in favor of legalizing gay marriage a few day after the shooting. Conservative groups have since claimed the “mainstream media” (mostly the Press Herald) were deliberately suppressing the story  because they didn’t want it to influence last November’s vote in which voters repealed the law allowing same-sex couples to wed.
Wasser’s revelation that coverage was tailored to avoid offending the public will almost certainly add weight to what ought to have been a baseless argument.
There’s enough distance between responsible, comprehensive coverage of controversial material and sensationalized sleaze that Wasser should have been able to develop a less restrictive policy, one that would have provided a clearer picture of what happened – even at the risk of offending some people – without pandering to tabloid sensibilities. We don’t need every detail (something that’s true of even of the least scandalous stories), but we do deserve enough of the facts to understand the situation.
In the end, it appears the Press Herald simply decided to ignore as much of an unpleasant reality as it could get away with.
This doesn’t bode well.
Earthquake non-relief: I hope Wasser or somebody writes a column next week explaining why the financially beleaguered (see below) MaineToday Media papers decided to send a reporter and photographer to Haiti. 
According to the brief explanation published in the Jan. 17 Sunday Telegram, staff writer Matt Wickenheiser and photographer Gregory Rec will be reporting on “what it’s like to be there and what it means to help strangers in desperate need of assistance.”
In fact, Wickenheiser and Rec were headed for a part of Haiti that wasn’t hit by the quake. In their first days of filing material from the Caribbean, they did a piece on a Portland-based charity  that could have been covered from Maine, since the subjects hadn’t yet traveled to the disaster area.
The less-than-stunning photo that accompanied this story showed two people talking at Kennedy Airport in New York.
The Jan. 18 articles included a profile of four Maine women who hoped to help out. They hadn’t helped yet, because they were still in the Dominican Republic when the piece was filed, but it did include a photo of them sorting their luggage in a Haitian airport.
Another story from the same day  discussed the first earthquake victims to arrive at a hospital in northern Haiti and how unprepared that facility is to deal with them.
It was distinguished from dozens of other similar stories filed by experienced international reporters by being accompanied by a photo of a guy from Maine talking to a guy from the hospital.
Contrast that with the locally produced pieces in the Jan. 18 Morning Sentinel  and Bangor Daily News  on the frightening ordeal of an Eddington woman, a student at Colby College in Waterville, who was in Haiti when the quake struck and managed to escape the devastation. Her first-hand observations were far more compelling reading than anything the Press Herald team has filed from the scene to date.
Financial non-relief: In spite of junkets to Haiti and optimistic statements from Connor about the fiscal situation at the MaineToday papers, reliable sources indicate another round of layoffs may not be far off. The reason: While online advertising revenues have shown a slight increase in recent months, print ads are still slumping.
The company has also decided to move the Press Herald news and advertising staffs to rented space  on different floors at Portland’s One City Center, as MTM empties out its recently sold headquarters on Congress Street.
Charitable non-aid: The Jan. 18 story  in the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal on the negative effect Planet Aid collection boxes may be having on donations of used clothing to a central Maine non-profit organization might be a good example of MaineToday Media’s professed desire to avoid offending anyone. The piece by staff writer Doug Harlow is one of the limpest pieces of journalism these papers have published in months.
Harlow reports on claims by officials at Skills, Inc. in Winslow that Planet Aid, an international organization, is draining away donations that used to go to the local charity. But he includes no statistics to back up that claim, such as how much less clothing Skills is getting. He also neglected to ask other nonprofits that take clothing donations, such as Goodwill, whether they had experienced a similar decline.
Given the research other reporters have already done, it wouldn’t have been difficult to turn this piece into real news.
Although who knows who that might offend.
Shocking development: P. James Dowe, president of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, was named last week to the board of directors of Bangor Hydro Electric Co. 
I trust public radio and TV will be disclosing that fact each and every time they do stories on Bangor Hydro or related energy issues.
Updates: Recently dismissed Bar Harbor Times editor Greg Fish  didn’t take long to find another job. According to the Bangor Daily News , Fish has been hired as the editor of the Penobscot Times in Old Town. He starts on Jan. 19.
The Bangor Daily also reports construction is proceeding on a new headquarters for the Lincoln News , replacing the building lost in a fire of undetermined origin in November. The weekly paper expects to start publishing from the new site in April.
Radio waves: Blueberry Broadcasting has dumped programming from Boston-based WEEI at its two Bangor stations , WAEI (97.1 FM) and WABI (910 AM).
Blueberry CEO and vice president Bruce Biette told the Bangor Daily News that WEEI had “breached their contractual agreement with us” and had refused to remedy the problem in a timely fashion. Biette would not say what the breach entailed. The two stations are now carrying programming from Fox Sports Radio Network.
A WEEI official said the network hoped to find another Bangor station. North East Radio Watch speculates the matter could end up in court.
Meanwhile, Portland-based WBAE  (1400 and 1490 AM) has dumped its “Music of Your Life” format for the “Advice for Life” talk format. According to a press release, the station will continue to carry Boston Bruins and Portland Sea Dogs games.
The change gives parent Saga Communications three Portland area stations devoted to talk formats, with WBAE joining WGAN (560 AM) and WZAN (970 AM).
Time flies: From a story by staff writer David Hart in the Jan. 13 issue of the Original Irregular, a weekly newspaper published in Kingfield:
“The town is going from a calendar fiscal year to one that starts on June 30 and ends on July 1.”
Which should save a lot of money.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org