Down East 2013 ©
Claims and disclaimers: In an earlier posting , I praised the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting for its coverage of Republican gubernatorial candidate Les Otten’s business dealings  and its promise to do similar in-depth inquiries into the backgrounds of all the major Blaine House contenders.
I’ve since had e-mails from a couple of journalists who were less enthralled with the center’s efforts than I was. Both requested anonymity, and, although I can’t see how using their names would cause them any harm, I’ll respect their wishes, since the points they raise merit discussion.
“I think [the center's] Otten piece is a nice regurgitation of facts already known to most people who have any inkling about what's going on in the state,” a reporter wrote. “In fact, much of what [MCPIR Executive Director John] Christie ‘dug up’ was already in the Portland Press Herald nine years ago.”
It’s true that most of the information isn’t new. Many of the essential points were reported in the Press Herald on March 25, 2001, in a story by staff writer Edward Murphy .
An argument could be made that Christie should have given Murphy credit in his piece, since he clearly used that article as source material. But that hardly negates the value of the center’s story, which is far more comprehensive than the earlier piece. It’s also likely that, outside of political junkies and investors in the skiing industry, few voters remember the details of the collapse of Otten’s American Skiing Co.
While there’s always the potential for uncovering new facts when exploring a candidate’s past, there’s also value in putting the old material in the context of the current campaign. Christie’s piece did a fine job of that.
A more serious issue involving the center concerns a story by Christie published in early January about the role of paid signature gatherers  in petition drives.
While the article points out the problems associated with the practice, it fails to mention an associated phenomenon: paying people to discourage voters from signing petitions.
There’s nothing illegal about either activity, but there is something unethical about the way Christie skirted around the involvement of Naomi Schalit – his associate at the center and his partner – with the Democratic Party in attempting to stop a petition drive dealing with a tax-reform measure.
According to a column by Maine Public Broadcasting Network’s A.J. Higgins , Schalit was paid over $1,100 by the Democrats last year for her anti-referendum efforts.
That information should, at the least, have been disclosed in Christie’s story. Given the relationship between Christie and Schalit, both professionally and personally, it calls into question whether he has such an appearance of conflict of interest as to be disqualified from covering this issue at all.
As for Schalit, there are going to be questions in the future any time she covers an issue with partisan implications (such as gubernatorial candidates). As a veteran journalist wrote in an e-mail:
“I don't see how any reporter can take money from a political party and still expect to retain his or her credibility with the public …. Taking money from the Ds or Rs is a line that I wouldn't cross – or if I did, I sure wouldn't expect to come back into any aspect of the business that requires the perception of objective reporting.”
This problem has arisen before in Maine, most notably in the case of former Bangor Daily News executive editor Mark Woodward, who served briefly as press secretary for Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and whose wife worked for Collins  in her Bangor office.
In 2007, Woodward, responding to criticism of the paper’s coverage of Collins’ re-election campaign, removed himself from all editorial decision-making about that issue. In spite of that move, there were periodic claims of bias made against the Bangor paper, criticisms that came to an end only with Woodward’s retirement at the end of 2009 .
Christie and Schalit need to be wary that similar allegations don’t cripple the fledgling center by damaging its credibility. The best way to do that would be to address the issue directly, deal with the lack of a disclaimer on the referendum story, and explain how conflicts will be avoided in the future.
Praise raised: Another e-mail, this one concerning my recent criticism of Susan Cover , MaineToday Media’s State House reporter, for failing to put a story on a bond proposal in perspective.
I took Cover (and others) to task on March 3 for not mentioning how much bonded debt the state currently has and how much is being retired this year, both facts that would help readers evaluate the wisdom of additional borrowing.
Another week, another bond plan , this one from Gov. John Baldacci.
This time, Cover included the pertinent information.
“Are you going to mention that fact?” asks an anonymous e-mailer. “Or do you only do attacks and criticisms?”
Well, I wasn’t going to bring it up, but since the issue has been raised, here’s my position:
I’m not at all adverse to praising exceptional work. I just don’t see much of it in Maine journalism. But I’m not going to go out of my way to gush about every competent story that gets published, posted, or aired. Since complete, accurate coverage ought to be the norm, there’s no reason to treat it as if it’s unusual.
Even though it is.
Spell dreck: On the front page of the March 11 sports section of the Lewiston Sun Journal, Justin Pelletier, the assistant sports editor for online, had two stories, one on the early golf season  and the other on the Lewiston Maineiacs game .
In his byline on both articles in the print edition, his title is given as “Assictant Sports Editor, Online.”
A “C” for spelling? Even though the Web version of the Maineiacs story is correct, I think that grade is too high.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org