Last Wednesday, US News & World Report ran an opinion piece by Peter Roff describing the conflict of interest in the Portland Press Herald’s coverage of Republican Governor Paul LePage. The Press Herald, which abstains from no opportunity to lambaste LePage, is owned by S. Donald Sussman—the same Donald Sussman who is married to Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree.
Roff’s opinion piece introduces readers to Sussman, whose substantial political donations (the most lavish in Maine) were first brought to light by reporting from The Maine Wire and a report issued by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan government accountability Reporting Group. Sussman is no stranger to the world of wealthy liberal billfolds. In 2010, he attended a function of the Democracy Alliance in Washington, where he rubbed elbows with what Politico called “wealthy, politically active liberals” at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. There, “off-duty police officers and other security patrolled the halls looking for reporters and other uninvited guests.”
LePage may not be on the Mandarin Oriental’s guest list, but that does not stop him from being the life of the party. As Roff details, Sussman’s newspaper makes a habit of blasting LePage, even when to do so requires breathtaking disingenuousness. Roff raises two examples in particular. The first is of LePage’s attempt to exempt Maine from the Ozone Transport Region created by the Clean Air Act of 1990. The Press Herald capitalized on the opportunity to depict LePage as an opponent of environmental protection and an advocate for smog. In reality, Maine had undershot the goals of the Ozone Transport Region for so long that LePage sought exemptions for new businesses, an approach approved by both Govs. King and Baldacci.
More recently, the Press Herald ran a story wherein it claimed that LePage believed President Obama hates white people. The Governor’s office immediately denied the claim, as did Republican Reps. Alex Willette (R-Mapelton) and Larry Dunphy (R-Embden). For evidence, the Press Herald offered only two anonymous “lawmakers,” and underwhelming quotes such as “Yeah, he said it.”
But these are just the most recent examples of MaineToday Media (MTM)—the company which owns the Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, and the Waterville Morning Sentinel—conducting political hatchet jobs under the pretense of critical journalism.
During the flap overall LePage’s push to ensure U.S. military recruiters have full access to Maine’s high schools, MTM ran several stories smearing LePage and implying that he was lying about the issue. However, the paper dedicated zero words to Senate President Justin Alfond’s (D-Portland) statement agreeing with the governor. Such inconsistencies raise questions as to whether MTM was gunning for LePage because of his policies, or because of his party.
The MTM papers also make a habit of studiously avoiding anything resembling critical reporting on Pingree. MTM archives are bereft of stories about the congresswoman that do not tout her success or her commitment to the Maine people. Rather than the typical relationship between news reporters and politicians, wherein reporters serve as vigilant watchdogs of political corruption, malfeasance and incompetence, the relationship between Pingree and her newspapers is one of cooperation against political opponents.
The MTM papers also have a nasty habit of forgetting to disclose conflicts of interest. More and more, stories bearing on Pingree’s political conduct do not include the standard disclosure that she, or at least her husband, pays the writer’s salary. And last June, in a scurrilous piece assailing two public charter school applicants, MTM did not reveal that the wife of the reporter who authored the story sits on the board of a then-competing applicant. In this instance, it appears that MTM’s philosophy regarding openness about conflicts of interest extends beyond its owners, down to its employees.
New media’s role in society is to provide critical reporting. When media and political power unite, they can create a dangerous combination. Many of MTM’s problems could be dealt with by more thoroughly disclosing such conflicts. But until it has new owners, its fundamental conflict of interest will remain the elephant in the room of Maine politics.
MaineWire Staff Writer