Down East 2013 ©
Lamer disclaimer: Maine newspapers are generally careful to explain who writes the op-ed columns they publish. Most news organizations in the state clearly reveal the affiliations of people mentioned and quoted in their stories. Some, such as the Lewiston Sun Journal, go to great lengths to verify the identities of posters on their Web sites.
But when it comes to the letters page, disclosure requirements seem to be mostly ignored.
A member of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration brought this example to my attention.
On March 12, the Morning Sentinel published a letter from someone identified only as Peter Wohl of Hallowell , criticizing LePage’s budget proposal to divert money from the Fund for a Healthy Maine to other areas. Wohl claimed that move “makes as much sense as stopping regular oil changes on our vehicles to help our budget.”
Wohl is anything but a disinterested observer. He’s the director of outpatient services for Crisis & Counseling , a non-profit organization that benefits from the money that LePage wants to take away.
Seems as if that would be something readers would want to know, so they can accurately assess his arguments.
But such disclosure isn’t the policy at the Sentinel. Editor/publisher Tony Ronzio e-mailed the complainant to explain:
“My policy has been to publish professional affiliations of letter-writers if they're writing on behalf of the organization,” Ronzio wrote. “Otherwise, we could convey the incorrect impression that someone is speaking for a group, when they are really speaking for themselves. Letters are foremost the opinions of individuals, after all.”
At first glance, that standard doesn’t seem unreasonable. Until reality intrudes.
If the LePage aide who complained about the lack of disclosure on Wohl wrote a letter supporting the budget cuts, would the Sentinel add a disclaimer identifying him as being on the governor’s payroll?
Ronzio’s reply to the complaint: “In your example, yes, your job likely would be noted. But I'm presuming you'd be writing to defend the budget in your capacity as a member of the governor's staff.”
No similar presumption for Wohl, though.
In general, Maine newspapers do an uneven job of identifying letter writers with a stake in the matters they’re writing about. The Sun Journal appears to put the most effort into placing clear disclaimers on letters , while the Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News only rarely make the effort.
Readers would be better served by more attention being paid to this matter.
Least accurate headline of the week: From the March 11 Bangor Daily News:
“MCLU sues county court over ‘Cutler Files’ ruling”
The Maine Civil Liberties Union did file a lawsuit, but not against any “county court.” Instead, as accurately reflected in the online version of the piece , the MCLU was challenging state rules enforced by the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
Probably should have done a little reading before writing.
CJR on PPH: The Portland Press Herald’s donation of advertising space to a group supporting a referendum to create an elected mayor in Portland gets scorched by Columbia Journalism Review  this month in its “Darts and Laurels” feature.
While the full item isn’t available online, the teaser says the paper “blurred an important line” by quietly helping a political campaign without revealing this activity to readers.
How likely is it this reprimand from so distinguished a source will shame the Press Herald into changing its policies on such donations?
Zero to something less than that.
As the paper’s owner, MaineToday Media CEO Richard Connor, told a radio show last year, “I really don’t care about what the journalism community at large thinks about me.”
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at email@example.com .