Down East 2013 ©
Cutler gets the coverage: Those who still harbored doubts the Portland Press Herald is using its news pages to back the Independent gubernatorial candidacy  of Cape Elizabeth resident Eliot Cutler may have found some resolution for their unsettled state of mind in the July 13 edition of the paper. The Press Herald’s local section could have been mistaken for a Cutler campaign brochure.
In recent months, the Portland paper has devoted more resources and space to covering Afghanistan, Haiti, the gulf oil spill, and convicted murderer Dennis Dechaine than it has to the race for governor, but on this day, it set aside its usual reticence toward state politics to report on two of Cutler’s press releases.
On the section’s front page, it ran a story on an upcoming fundraiser featuring the “Barefoot Contessa,”  a celebrity chef from TV’s Food Network.
On the next page, the Press Herald carried a piece on endorsements Cutler had received  from some Republicans.
I’m not suggesting that these two tidbits weren’t worthy of notice. In the past, when celebrities have shown up in Maine to help candidates, the paper has run mentions in its political column or as briefs. Less star-studded fundraisers were generally ignored. A full article with prominent placement was unheard of.
As for endorsements, they, too, have usually been handled in columns or briefs, although they’ve also been included in longer pieces analyzing campaign strategies. This story, by staff writer Matt Wickenheiser, does little more than list the names (none of them particularly prominent) and add in a little griping from the chairman of the Maine Republican Party.
Devoting space to the GOP endorsements of Cutler could have been justified if the piece included some perspective on how this affects the political balance in the race. Pine Tree Politics’ Matthew Gagnon did just that  in his excellent overview of Cutler’s tenuous claims to Republican support.
The Press Herald might have gotten away with its skewed coverage if it had done something similar.
Any claims of newsworthiness for the two stories can be discounted by the fact that the rest of the Maine media – with the exception of the Press Herald’s sister papers, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel – ignored both releases or ran them as briefs.
As noted previously, Cutler grew up in Bangor with Richard Connor, CEO of MaineToday Media (the company that owns the Press Herald). Cutler’s campaign treasurer is Robert C.S. Monks, an investor in MTM and a member of its board. These sorts of connections ought to prompt an ethical news organization to take steps to ensure that no bias creeps into its coverage and that all appearances of conflict of interest are prominently disclosed.
The Portland paper falls short on both counts.
Unrestrained quality: A good reporter doesn’t just rewrite press releases. A good reporter doesn’t merely react to events. A good reporter uncovers the facts before they boil over into public controversy and points the way toward dealing with the issue.
By that measure, Maine has precious few good reporters.
One journalist to watch in that regard is Emily Parkhurst of the Forecaster weeklies. Parkhurst’s in-depth investigation into the use of therapeutic restraints in public schools  is first-rate stuff. She exposes a pattern of abuse and potential for abuse, as well as calling out the local and state administrators who seem to be unwilling or unable to address the problem.
This is a powerful and chilling piece of work. Here’s hoping Parkhurst is given the time to follow up on what reforms, if any, are instituted. And here’s hoping she’ll be allowed the opportunity to do similar digging in other under-reported areas in the future.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org