Down East 2013 ©
Mistrial: It’s a sad commentary on this state’s journalists when they do a better job informing the public about a spelling bee winner than they do reporting on nominations to the federal bench.
After reading the Portland Press Herald’s June 1 story by Washington bureau chief Jonathan “National Treasure” Riskind, I now know more about Lily Jordan,  an eighth-grader from Cape Elizabeth and Maine’s entrant in the National Spelling Bee, than I do about Nancy Torresen, who’s on the verge of becoming the state’s next U.S. District Court judge.
That’s not because Riskind hasn’t written about Torresen. He did a story in March,  when she was nominated for the post, neglecting to explain what happened to the previous nominee and providing only a bare minimum of information on Torresen (she’s currently an assistant U.S. attorney). He did another piece in April announcing a hearing on her nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He followed up with a couple of articles  indicating Maine’s two senators planned to support her. In May, he reported  that the committee had questioned Torresen, unanimously endorsed her and forwarded her nomination to the full Senate.
All that, and all the average reader of the paper would learn from Riskind’s superficial reporting is that the judge-to-be is married to a former U.S. attorney, and the previous nominee had to withdraw due to “health issues.” Thanks to questions from a couple of senators, there were also a few hints about Torresen’s political views (she’s probably pro-choice and pro-gay rights), but Riskind made no effort to follow up on any of that messy stuff.
Finally, over the Memorial Day weekend, Press Herald staff writer Ann S. Kim attempted to do a profile of Torresen.  Kim talked to seven lawyers, all of whom confirmed the nominee was “a hard-working jurist who’s tough but also fair and compassionate.” Kim didn’t mention that it’s tough to find an attorney who practices in Maine who’d have the courage to say something negative about someone who’s about to win a lifetime appointment to a post from which that person could make life miserable for a critic. She also didn’t pursue the abortion or gay-rights angles or check for other signs of activism.
Torresen lived and worked in the Bangor area for most of her career, but the Bangor Daily News made even less of an effort to cover this story than the Press Herald. Aside from pieces by staff writer Judy Harrison on the nomination,  the hearing, and the endorsement,  the paper acted as if the state’s next federal judge was no big deal.
Which was also the case with the rest of the news media, content to rely on Associated Press coverage even more superficial than that in the Portland and Bangor papers.
Now, the whole process is beginning again. On May 27, Maine’s two Democratic U.S. representatives forwarded two names to the White House for consideration to fill a vacancy of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation’s second-highest court. Riskind had a story  on the choices, Jon Levy and William Kayatta Jr. He told us Levy is a member of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and Kayatta is “a nationally prominent trial lawyer.”
Apparently, that was all he had time to find out. After all, there was a spelling bee to cover.
Stuff I liked: Not everybody phones it in. There are still a few reporters in the state who do some digging. For example:
The Morning Sentinel’s Scott Monroe did fine work in his May 29 story  uncovering the large costs and small benefits of a publicly funded business park in Oakland. Monroe seems to have explored every imaginable angle in demonstrating FirstPark’s hefty impact on municipal budgets and minimal effect on job creation. The article should be of value not only to local property taxpayers, but also to anyone involved in economic development statewide.
At the Lewiston Sun Journal, Lindsay Tice turned in another exceptional piece of reporting  on May 29 with a clear, concise, and thorough examination of what’s at stake if Maine legalizes charter schools. Tice sifts through the experiences of other states and lays out the case, both advantages and pitfalls, for this alternative educational approach. Even though I’ve occasionally covered this issue in the past, I never realized how little I knew about it until I read Tice’s comprehensive work.
Stuff I don’t like: I accept the fact that TV news is superficial by its very nature, but that doesn’t mean it has to be misleading.
WLBZ-TV’s coverage of the murder trial of Nathaneal Nightingale produced some adequate stories. Unfortunately for viewers, when those stories were cut up into smaller pieces for use in later newscasts on both Channel 2 in Bangor and sister station WCSH-TV, Channel 6 in Portland, a crucial element was omitted. Both stations used comments from Matthew Miller that were sharply critical of Nightingale without making it clear (as the original piece did) that Miller had been accused by Nightingale’s lawyer of committing the killings and that Miller had invoked his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination when called to testify by the defense.
To give Miller’s attacks airtime without qualification constitutes journalistic malpractice.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org .