Down East 2013 ©
Sticker shock: It could be argued that MaineToday Media executive editor Scott Wasser’s weekly car column  isn’t really journalism. Wasser’s pieces tend toward the gushy when he likes the car and the exceedingly gentle when he doesn’t. It appears he’s more concerned with not annoying large advertisers than he is with informing readers of the merits of any particular automobile.
In another departure from common journalistic standards, Wasser doesn’t bother to include a disclaimer indicating what company lent him the vehicles he test drives. Nor does he state how long he gets to keep the car or who pays for gas and any maintenance.
Also, Wasser’s pieces don’t run on the news pages, but in the “Wheels” advertising supplement. So, maybe, in some magic way, that makes the appearance of conflict of interest go away.
Even with those caveats, it’s still difficult to accept the article Wasser wrote for the April 22 edition of the Portland Press Herald headlined “Berlin City dealers offer free inspections.”  Berlin City – with car dealerships in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont – is a major advertiser in the Press Herald. On the day Wasser’s column ran, the company had a banner ad across the bottom of the paper’s front page. But that’s nothing compared to the sale pitch in Wasser’s piece.
“It may be true, as the old saying goes, that there is no such thing as a free lunch,” he began, “but thanks to a new program by the Berlin City Auto Group there definitely are free snacks and automotive state safety inspections.”
After some self-serving quotes from company executives, Wasser adds this:
“A skeptic might think the free inspections are a ploy to lure vehicle owners into Berlin City's service shops to charge them for other maintenance or repairs, or even try to sell them a new car.
“Malinovskii [the company's vice president] insists that's not the case. Berlin City does have one goal besides the obvious one of contributing to safer roads. He said the free inspection program is a great way to introduce vehicle owners to Berlin City's auto services.”
Wasser then includes more questionable quotes (“I get 10 to 15 letters a day raving about our service”), followed by a detailed description of his wife’s experience in getting her car inspected (“Ronda was treated like a VIP”).
In a real news story – or even in a column written by someone with real ethical standards – the author would have checked with other car dealers to see if they offered similar deals. He might have gotten reaction from state transportation officials and consumer advocates. He could have checked to see what kind of record Berlin City has with watchdog agencies.
But like I said, maybe this stuff isn’t intended to be journalism.
Even if Wasser is the executive editor of the biggest news organization in the state.
Demeritt demerit: Lewiston Sun Journal staff writer Steve Mistler has a fascinating column  in the April 25 paper on the details behind the departure of Dan Demeritt, Gov. Paul LePage’s communications director. Among Mistler’s revelations is that much of the news media knew Demeritt was facing foreclosure on many of his properties for a month before that information ever made it into a story.
So, why the long delay in reporting it?
“It's unclear why others chose not to run the story,” Mistler wrote, “but the Sun Journal's review of the foreclosure documents showed an individual who had overextended, yet was working to pay back the debts. Demeritt, as the Bangor Daily News recently reported, was not much different from other business people who had run into trouble during the economic downturn.
“From our editors' perspective, Demeritt's troubles would only have been news if he'd been an elected official or if he was running for office.”
Mistler also said there were questions about the motives of the anonymous person who leaked the information.
Neither excuse seems valid.
Taking the latter one first, the leaker’s motives are of minimal importance if the information could be independently confirmed. Since there were public documents readily available, that wouldn’t seem to be a problem.
As for the idea that only elected officials and candidates for office are subject to having their personal problems exposed, get real. News outlets regularly report on the financial difficulties of businesspeople, celebrities, and political figures of far less significance than Demeritt, who was the public face of an administration heavily involved in economic issues. To devise some convoluted rule to exempt him from scrutiny opens the door to keeping all manner of unpleasant information from the public. It also appears to rule out aggressive coverage of the private dealings of the governor’s cabinet, most state regulators, and legislative staff.
If editors are going to err on public disclosure, it should be on the side of more, rather than less. Whatever small harm might be done to an individual by telling the complete truth is nothing compared to what could occur if too much valid information is limited to gossip at cocktail hour.
Irregular editing: Like too many small weekly papers, the Original Irregular in Kingfield is haphazardly edited. For example, the April 20 edition contained a story by contributor Laura Dunham  about the burning of the watch tower on Bigelow Mountain in western Maine. Dunham doesn’t bother to explain how the burning occurred. Arson? A forest fire? Or on purpose by the owner? She just focuses on recollections of the tower by a couple of old timers.
When I read it, I sighed and figured the omission of this important piece of information was par for the course for the Irregular.
The next day, the same story,  in shorter form, showed up in the Sun Journal. Still no explanation of how the fire occurred, at least in the print edition, which carried the provocative headlined “Bigelow Mountain tower torched.” Online, the headline read, “Maine Forest Service razes old tower on Bigelow Mountain,” which carries a significantly different implication.
As with the Irregular version, neither print nor e-story actually explained what happened. Probably, the editors were too busy suppressing the Dan Demeritt story to notice that problem.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org .