Commentary

Revisiting Portland Press Herald’s relationship with S. Donald Sussman

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Billionaire S. Donald Sussman and wife Congresswoman Chellie Pingree own the Portland Press Herald.

Billionaire S. Donald Sussman and wife Congresswoman Chellie Pingree own the Portland Press Herald.

It has become cliché to note that the Portland Press Herald newspaper is owned by a very wealthy Democratic donor. In light of recent events, however, a refresher seems appropriate.

S. Donald Sussman, majority owner of MaineToday Media, is a billionaire hedge fund manager who happens to be married to U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat.

Mr. Sussman is also a member of the secretive Democracy Alliance, an elite club of millionaires and billionaires who spend mindboggling sums influencing elections and culture. He has contributed a small fortune to liberal Democrat candidates, liberal super PACs and liberal activists. He also happens to be the single largest individual donor to the Maine Democratic Party.

[RELATED: Maine political players attend conference for shadowy Democracy Alliance...]

Regarding Mr. Sussman’s role in the Democracy Alliance, the New York Times, in January, wrote, “In Maine, a consortium of progressive groups financed by the hedge fund billionaire S. Donald Sussman, an alliance member, is looking to unseat Gov. Paul R. LePage this year and put both the governor’s office and the Legislature under Democratic control.”

That “consortium” of progressive interest groups includes several organizations that regularly find themselves in the news attacking conservatives.

Maine Equal Justice Partners, a non-profit that attacks the governor anytime he suggests a change to Maine’s welfare policy, gets money from Sussman. MEJP is currently suing the LePage administration because it has stopped the illegal flow of welfare to undocumented immigrants.

Sussman also funds the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a liberal think tank that attacks the governor’s economic policies and has lately taken to arguing that Maine’s falling unemployment rate is not actually a good thing.

And he’s also a donor to the Maine People’s Alliance, a controversial “dark money” group whose mission, it seems, is to disparage people who don’t agree with them, by hook or by crook.

There’s probably more, of course. We’ll never really know the full extent of his, er … philanthropy.

But the question I have for you, dear reader, is whether the Press Herald should be considered part of this progressive consortium looking to unseat Governor LePage?

Disclosure: I write a biweekly column for the Press Herald.

Let’s review some recent stories.

On Thursday, Kevin Miller reported on a lawsuit MEJP was filing against the LePage administration.

Put differently, a Sussman-funded newspaper wrote about a Sussman-funded group’s legal attack on Sussman’s enemy. Miller’s story failed to include a publicly available memo from Assistant Attorney General Tom Quinn providing the rationale for why LePage’s decision to enforce federal law is “probably legal.” The story included no disclosure about Sussman’s donations to MEJP.

Last month, Press Herald reporters wrote eagerly and at length about MPA blogger Mike Tipping’s incendiary political attacks on the governor. Reporter Steve Mistler uncritically reproduced the activist’s allegations and made no disclosure about funding ties. Translation: A Sussman-funded activist smeared Sussman’s avowed political enemy and a Sussman-funded newspaper splashed the story across the front page with nary a word of disclosure or skepticism.

My intrepid editor, Greg Kesich, even did an interview with Tipping which also failed to disclose that the pair are paid from the same hand.

The dust-up over social security was a real whopper, too. Acting like an arm of Congressman Mike Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign, the Press Herald leaped on a poorly phrased sentence in a press release LePage never saw (he was in China at the time) to conclude that LePage thinks social security is welfare.

They knew that probably wasn’t the case but printed it anyways. Who cares about the truth when we can cause LePage some headache, right? That’s the kind of thinking you might expect from a group that considers itself part of its owner’s anti-LePage consortium.

The list hit pieces goes on and on. But the stories the Press Herald doesn’t tell reveal more than the ones they do.

Typically, when the governor does something objectively good or kind, the Press Herald will run a short Associated Press blip; staff time is only expended when there is a negative angle.

And when was the last investigative report into Congresswoman Pingree or, for that matter, any Democratic politician?

[RELATED: National media chimes in on Sussman-Pingree media conflict...]

In fact, although Press Herald reporters have submitted countless Freedom of Access Act requests to LePage and GOP lawmakers, they have not submitted a single one to Democratic lawmakers.

(Steve Mistler disputes this claim. Mistler said on Twitter today he “FOAA’d” “Alfond’s staff” “for LePage-dinner invite story” — which presumably is this groundbreaking investigative report. But regardless, he added, comparing requests to lawmakers with requests to the governor is a “phony equivalence b/c lawmakers’ working papers shielded.” He’s referring to the statutory exemption for lawmakers “working papers,” i.e. documents or emails related to pending legislative matters. He’s right about the exemption, but this doesn’t mean requests cannot be submitted when the exemption no longer applies, as The Maine Wire been done numerous times. Obviously this column has struck a nerve. I’ve filed a FOAA of my own with Senate President Justin Alfond and House Speaker Mark Eves to obtain any other requests Mistler has submitted to Democratic leaders.)

Far be it from me to tell the capitalists over at One City Center how best to get clicks and subscriptions, but I would hope the paper aspires to be more than a Democratic advocacy group or a sensationalist click hole.

There may come a time when the people of Maine need a strong 4th estate to hold a Democratic elected official accountable. When that time comes, let’s hope the Press Herald puts away its pom poms.

Note: A version of this column originally appeared in the Portland Daily Sun newspaper.

Steve Robinson
Editor, Maine Wire

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson the editor of The Maine Wire. A native of Dexter, Maine, Robinson is a graduate of Bowdoin College.

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