Down East 2013 ©
In the rough: Newspaper publishers have to walk a fine line. They’re required to schmooze with area movers and shakers in order to generate good will and advertising sales. But they have to be careful about becoming so chummy with the local elite that it appears they have conflicts of interest whenever their papers report on those people.
It’s a tough call to say exactly when a little backslapping with business and political types or figurehead positions on charity boards creates an ethical dilemma for a publisher. Such activities are generally accepted as part of the job, and so long as nothing in print indicates anybody is getting special treatment just because they shared a table with a newspaper big shot, it’s usually not a matter of concern.
But there’s still such a thing as going too far. Richard Connor,  the CEO of MaineToday Media (publisher of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, and Morning Sentinel), recently joined the Portland Country Club in Falmouth. To gain entrance to that exclusive organization, one must be proposed for membership by a current member, with most applicants being backed by both a primary and secondary sponsor.
According to multiple sources, Connor’s primary sponsor was lawyer, lobbyist, and longtime Democratic Party activist Harold Pachios  of Cape Elizabeth.
His secondary sponsor was former Republican Gov. John “Jock” McKernan.  While the Pachios connection certainly has the potential for journalistic conflicts, there hasn’t been anything in Connor’s papers recently that indicated any obvious bias in that regard. But the publisher’s association with McKernan is a different matter.
In May, the MTM papers ran a spirited – and inaccurate – editorial defending the ex-governor  and his wife, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, against charges of impropriety raised by one of Snowe’s political rivals. The vehemence with which the opinion piece attacked Scott D’Amboise,  who’s announced he’s running against Snowe in next year’s GOP primary, was unusual given the normally restrained tone of Connor’s editorial pages. And the facts asserted were spun to put McKernan and Snowe in the best possible light.
Payback for the country club membership? Jonathan Piper,  a prominent Portland lawyer who often represents the Press Herald and is one of Pachios’ law partners, doesn’t think so. Piper also sits on the country club’s membership committee and said it was only natural for McKernan to sponsor Connor, since the two had known each other since their school days in Bangor.
“I suspect the reason Richard Connor is supportive of Jock McKernan is because he’s a lifelong friend,” he said.
As for the ethical problem, Piper said it might be unavoidable. “Probably anybody who nominated the publisher of a newspaper – whether they’re in business, politics or some other field – could have a conflict,” he said.
Of course, full disclosure of those sorts of associations would go a long way toward clearing any ethical fog. That might be a good subject for Connor’s next Sunday column.
Editorial excellence: No media outlet in the state is as vigilant about preserving the public’s right to know as the Lewiston Sun Journal. Executive editor Rex Rhoades and managing editor Judith Meyer have built a solid reputation over the years for opposing efforts by government at all levels to keep their activities secret.
For a shining example of their work (I’m not sure which of them wrote this piece), check out the June 3 editorial  on a bill before the Legislature that would make much of the information in vehicle accident reports confidential.
I haven’t seen any reporting on this measure anywhere else, and I certainly haven’t had its negative consequences, both for reporters and the general public, explained to me in such pointed detail.
Here’s hoping this fine work results in legislators coming to their senses and killing this bill. And maybe it will even inspire the State House press corps to pay closer attention to seemingly innocuous legislation.
Editorial improvement: I’m not sure how long it’s been since I’ve seen a local editorial in the Morning Sentinel. For many months, the paper has relied on opinion pieces generated by its sister paper, the Portland Press Herald, often running them a day or two late for no apparent reason. Issues of concern primarily to the Waterville area and central Maine rarely rated any ink.
So, I’m pleased the Sentinel weighed in on June 3  on issues surrounding the FirstPark development (or lack thereof) in Oakland. The paper recently did some excellent reporting  on whether FirstPark is worth the taxpayer dollars being poured into it, and this editorial gushing about its benefits reads like a sop to the chamber-of-commerce types who back the business park. But any local opinion is better than none, so let’s hope the Sentinel (and its other sister, the Kennebec Journal) have at it more frequently in the future.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org .