The journalism community in Philadelphia is in an uproar right now. Hundreds of past and present editors and reporters from the city’s papers have joined together in solidarity to fight what they perceive to be an untenable situation – the purchase of a newspaper chain by a lifelong political figure – former mayor and DNC chair Ed Rendell.
Journalism purists and scholars across the country are expressing concern about the purchase. Brian Goldman from the Daily Pennsylvanian expressed what many others are feeling:
“To allow The Inquirer and the Daily News to be gobbled up by the very people that should be kept under a newspaper’s microscope is an injustice of the first order.”
The pressure on Rendell to stay away from the newsroom has gotten intense. Reporters and editors for the papers are fighting hard to make sure their work doesn’t get written off as biased before it even goes to print. Even the current governor of Pennsylvania has weighed in, saying it was a “bad idea” for Rendell to purchase the papers, and that it would put their objectivity into question.
Any of this sound familiar? Well, maybe the first half – Maine’s largest political donor and the husband of our U.S. Congresswoman has bought a $4 million stake in the state’s largest newspaper chain. The biggest liberal Democrat activist the state has ever seen has a seat on the board of directors of the paper of record in his wife’s district. That’s the familiar part.
The unfamiliar part is the outcry from the journalism community. In Philadelphia, the writers and editors from the papers in question fear their integrity will be questioned with such an ownership situation. Not so much in Maine.
The silence is deafening from the staff at the Portland Press Herald, Morning Sentinel, and Kennebec Journal. We’ve heard from a few reporters at competitor papers, but so far none of the editorial pages have weighed in on what is clearly the most blatant conflict of interest in Maine press history. So why is this?
First, the editorial page writers at the competitor papers love Donald Sussman and Chellie Pingree. The more they influence the news, the closer we get to the socialist utopia the Bangor Daily News editorial board has been dreaming of for years. But that’s not the prime reason for the silence.
The difference between Maine and Pennsylvania is that Pingree and Sussman bought the papers at the request of the employee union, which includes the reporting staff. It’s common knowledge that the prime financial problem at Maine Today Media is the unsustainable labor agreement. So when a bid was on the table that would have saved the papers but forced union concessions, the newspapers’ union went looking for a sugar daddy.
Donald Sussman was reportedly approached by the labor union, and his investment has allowed the unsustainable situation to sustain itself a little longer. In essence, the reporters for the paper that are supposed to be objective sought out a benefactor to save their jobs.
The situation in Maine is way more distressing than the one in Philadelphia. Rendell’s bid has been met with appropriate skepticism. But Sussman’s bid was basically the result of a reporting staff that approached him on their knees. In Philadelphia, there will always be the concern that the boss will have undue influence in the newsroom. In Maine, it is virtually guaranteed.
Donald Sussman is involved now in a massive, $20 million development project in Portland. He is the largest benefactor to the gay marriage initiative that will be on the ballot this fall. He is the husband and largest donor to the campaign of his wife, Chellie Pingree, also seeking reelection this fall. And he funds the campaigns of Democrats in the legislature. All of these issues will be reported on by the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, and Morning Sentinel – the papers he is now an owner of.
Sussman claims he made the purchase as a “civic minded” gesture. This, incidentally, is the exact phrase Rendell used. Nothing could be further from the truth. A “civic minded” act of philanthropy wouldn’t require an ownership share or a seat on the board of directors. And no wealthy businessman in their right mind would purchase these papers without concessions from the union.
Donald Sussman and Chellie Pingree bought these papers for one reason – to influence the coverage they receive. And the silence from their newly-purchased reporting and editorial staff makes it clear they got what they paid for.