Down East 2013 ©
The Maine Sunday Telegram seems to spiraling out of control.
On March 14, the paper offered up an odd assortment of editorially questionable decisions, any of which would have been troubling by itself. But taken together, they seem to indicate that whatever thinking is going on in the executive offices of MaineToday Media, the Telegram’s owner, it has little to do with producing quality journalism.
Let’s start with the front page.
Staff writer Tom Bell does an extensive job of reporting on places in rural western Maine that offer nude dancing , but neglects to tell readers why that’s important. This form of entertainment has been available in remote corners of the state for years (decades, in some cases) without causing undue concerns among the locals. If there’s been a sudden increase (or even a gradual one) in the number of locations where women take off their clothes for money, it’s not apparent from this article. A spike in the crime rate? No mention of that. A decline in public morality? Nobody makes that claim. A need for legislative action? Nothing specific mentioned.
So, other than the obvious prurient interest, who cares?
There have to be plenty of more important issues to cover.
By which I don’t mean more stories about the Sea Hunter, the ill-fated boat from Maine that spent weeks trying to deliver rescue supplies to Haiti.
The Telegram devoted a huge chunk of its editorial space to a piece that blamed the many delays that confronted the mission on the Obama administration .
“President Obama is renowned for involving himself in everything from local law enforcement issues to college football rankings,” the editorial reads, “all part of his portfolio as president, he believes – so couldn’t he have picked up the phone and let the Haitians know that he was not happy about their treatment of [the Sea Hunter]?”
And while he’s making calls, could he settle the Lindsay Lohan lawsuit against the E-Trade baby?
The basic assertion behind this piece so absurd, it calls into question the editorial board’s agenda.
Is the newspaper trying to divert attention from claims the ship’s voyage was poorly planned or ineptly managed by an inexperienced captain and crew? Or is the Telegram trying to justify the amount of time and space it devoted to a story that appears to be lacking in relevance to its readers?
It makes me wonder, given the glowing coverage offered up by Telegram columnist Bill Nemitz, who traveled on the ship. “Expertly chronicled” is the way the editorial described Nemitz’s work. If so, where were the reports on the skipper’s use of gunfire to fend off pirates ?
That tale surfaced in television reports after Captain Greg Brooks returned to Portland, but seems to be missing from Nemitz’s expert chronicle.
Maybe he’ll get around to it after he rests up.
As for getting around to important matters, there’s the gubernatorial race, to which the Telegram has devoted a fraction of the effort it did to covering the Sea Hunter. But that may be changing. The past two weeks have seen stories on the campaign in the paper. On March 7, staff writer Matt Wickenheiser wrote about how changes in the Maine Clean Election Act  are affecting candidates, and on March 14, staff writer Susan Cover examined  whether the Clean Election law was a good idea for gubernatorial contests or a waste of money.
Cover’s piece contained no information that hadn’t been reported elsewhere (including the previous week’s Telegram).
There must be some other issues to report on. The economy. Jobs. The state budget. Education. Government restructuring. Taxes. Health care.
Or maybe ask the Blaine House hopefuls where they stand on nude dancing in rural areas.
At least that would be fresh material.
Finally, there’s the issue of the letters to the editor written by students in a science class at Waynflete School, a private institution in Portland, about a controversial wind-farm proposal .
The letters, which supported the project planned for Somerset County, elicited numerous responses from online readers , some of whom were less than polite in suggesting the students didn’t know what they were talking about.
This mini-controversy somehow merited a front-page story by staff writer Kelley Bouchard , in which she quotes the Waynfleters about how upset they were by the negative reactions, but fails to include a single reaction from any of the authors of those pointed remarks (most of whom don’t appear to have posted under their real names, but shouldn’t have been all that difficult to contact).
The story also doesn’t bother to mention a previous instance of the MaineToday papers dealing with the possibility of negative online comments by banning all such postings .
This lack of any depth in what was a pretty shallow story to begin with may have been the result of sloppy journalism. Or it could have been because Telegram owner Richard Connor wouldn’t have been happy with an article that contained sentiments contrary to his own.
Connor made his opinion on the Waynflete-letters scandal known in his March 14 column , lambasting what he views as “petty, juvenile and downright cruel” comments posted by the paper’s readers.
“Our fear,” he writes, “was that [the Waynflete students] would be stung by the criticism.”
As a person who has often been so stung, I can testify to the impact such remarks can have. But if the weekly barrage hasn’t ruined my life, it seems unlikely a one-time smack-down on the Web will warp youthful minds in any lasting manner.
And since when is it a newspaper’s goal to put a damper on debate, anyway? Even an impolite discussion of an important public issue is better than no discussion at all.
The March 14 Telegram wasn’t a total loss. Sports writer Kevin Thomas had an interesting column on some of the top prospects of the Boston Red Sox , many of whom will play for the Portland Sea Dogs this year.
And I always enjoy Portland resident Lincoln Peirce’s comic strip, “Big Nate .”
Still, that’s not much to justify spending two bucks. If the people running the Telegram aren’t concerned about the quality of the journalism they produce, they should at least be concerned about that.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com .