The hallmark of Portland Press Herald columnist Bill Nemitz, for years, has been what used to be referred to as ‘sob sister’ journalism. Primarily practiced by female writers in the early 20th century, ‘sob sisters’ were writers who tugged on the heartstrings of readers with over-the-top emotional appeals, often pertaining to illness or affliction, in order to make a point to further an advocacy angle.
Nemitz found a cozy home at the PPH with this kind of writing. His pieces traditionally sought to shine light on the underprivileged, with a strong undercurrent of liberal politics running through the moral of his stories. But some time last year, Nemitz’s sob sister niche morphed into something a little more sinister.
In the summer of 2010, I sat in a Portland coffee shop with now-former MaineToday Media President Dale Duncan, discussing his role in guiding political coverage for the papers. We shared a mutual chuckle over Nemitz’s oeuvre, and conservative reaction to it, but Duncan noted an imminent change in the columnist’s role. He told me he sat down with Nemitz and gave him a green light to get more political, to essentially let it fly. I took Duncan’s motive to be a more entertaining, confrontational style for his papers’ political coverage, something sorely needed in this state. Unfortunately, the ‘New Nemitz’ has badly missed the mark.
Rather than elevate and invigorate the political dialogue in Maine, Duncan’s prodding has instead resulted in Nemitz practicing a perverted hybrid of writing, a kind of sob-sister-meets-character-assassin style that has ruthlessly targeted conservatives, often with a disregard for the facts. A prime example came on Christmas Eve of 2011, when Nemitz published a ‘Night Before Christmas’-style poem that, aside from being a travesty of the literary art, personally maligned the current governor, citing his childhood experience with domestic abuse as a possible reason LePage opted to throw Alzheimer’s patients and the mentally ill ‘under the bus’.
Nemitz ran into trouble with another foray into politics this fall, when his column advocating for the Yes on 1 campaign was found to be predicated on a factual inaccuracy. Nemitz proclaimed that a computer meltdown in the voting system, as had occurred in a previous Portland election, would mean disenfranchisement of voters under the new GOP-authored law. This was demonstrably untrue; the new law addressed this contingency specifically, and provided assurance that such a circumstance would not impede anyone’s voting rights. Nemitz apparently failed to read the law, or fact-check his friends at the Democratic Party, and was eventually forced to retract his false statements.
This weekend, Bill Nemitz again put political zeal ahead of accuracy in his ongoing attempt to malign State Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, and will most likely be forced to retract again. Nemitz’s column focused on a recent board meeting of the Maine State Housing Authority, and the board’s efforts to hold staff and management accountable for an egregious breakdown in the affordable housing inspection process that led to tenants with sewage bubbling up in their sinks, apartments without doors, and a whole slew of other abominable conditions.
Rather than take the side of his traditional ‘sob sister’ sentimentality and advocate for the victims of the failed inspections, Nemitz followed his anti-conservative inclinations. Nemitz has taken the side of longtime Democrat operative Dale McCormick, the authority’s embattled director. McCormick is under fire from the board for failing to act when revelations of these unlivable conditions were revealed. Nemitz isn’t having any of this, stating in his column:
“In a press release issued just over a week ago, State Treasurer Poliquin claimed that MaineHousing’s staff revealed at a recent board meeting that they “had known about these squalid conditions for at least two years.”
I attended that meeting and never heard any such thing.”
Nemitz did in fact attend this meeting, and a video released today by The Maine Wire shows him attentively scribbling notes during the discussion. What the video also shows is that Nemitz was not particularly forthcoming in his column. Here’s the exact dialog between Poliquin and MSHA staffer Linda Grotton, who is the author of the report on the Norway housing debacle:
Poliquin: What I heard you say a short time ago Linda, is that we started to receive reports a couple years ago here that these inspections were failing with our spot checking but the dots weren’t connected, your words not mine, is that correct?
Grotton: I would say yes.
Nemitz was at the meeting, as the tape reveals, sitting about five feet behind Poliquin. Unless he suffered from temporary hearing loss, he undoubtedly witnessed this exchange. Nemitz has also read the recent report released by MSHA, so he knows that MSHA was actually aware of failures in these inspections for four years, by their own admission. Yet his column claims that he ‘never heard any such thing,’ and that Poliquin was on a ‘facts-be-damned riff.’ Calling someone a liar in print is something that should not be done without deliberation, but Nemitz’s rush to malign continues unfettered by such considerations.
For a guy that has been caught making things up several times in the last few months, Bill Nemitz has had a lot to say lately about the responsibility of news organizations and their staff. Self-reflection is a process that is generally good for everyone, and a healthy dose of it wouldn’t hurt the opinion page of the Press Herald either. On the eve of new management at MaineToday Media, perhaps the ‘New Nemitz’ can be a topic of discussion as the ailing paper seeks to regain its footing.
Lance Dutson is the chief executive officer of The Maine Heritage Policy Center,the parent organization of The Maine Wire, and can be reached at email@example.com.