In the fall of 2010, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree was facing political extinction.
After raging from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives about ‘fat cat’ billionaires who flew around on private jets, rumors started swirling that she may, herself, fly around in private jets. Specifically, the $25 million private jet owned by her own fat cat boyfriend, billionaire hedge fund baron Donald Sussman.
Pingree’s spokesman Willie Ritch emphatically denied that Pingree took trips on the plane, just days before an enterprising videographer snapped a Zapruder-esque film of the first-term congresswoman exiting the French-made luxury jet, walking down the stairs and onto a red carpet on the tarmac at the Portland Jetport.
Pingree’s spokesman told the Portland Press Herald straight out that she didn’t fly on the plane, but the film, and subsequent documentation of the plane’s flight plans, proved they had been lied to. So how did the paper-of-record for Pingree’s congressional district react to the revelation?
They attacked the messenger.
Instead of calling Pingree’s jetset exploits for what they were- hypocrisy of the highest order – the Press Herald team began investigating the background of the blogger that reported the story. Who was he paid by? Did the Koch Brothers plan this? In fact, here’s the headline from the story that ran after Pingree was busted:
“Website faulted for half-reporting Pingree story”
What followed was about a month of gratuitous cover-up of a major-league scandal, not by Pingree, but by the Press Herald. The paper did no independent reporting on the jet, the potential campaign finance abuses, or House ethics violations. They simply patched together GOP claims against Pingree’s defense, and tilted the story wildly to one side. And when reports of Securities and Exchange Commission investigations of Sussman popped up, the Press Herald did its best to bury that story, as well as reports that Pingree’s boyfriend was hiding millions in profits in an offshore tax haven in the U.S. Virgin Islands. And to make sure no actual reporting of the scandal took place, the paper assigned one of their sports reporters with no prior political reporting experience to cover the race.
Not only did the Press Herald go all-out to protect Pingree, but they set up shop as a full-blown PR company for Donald Sussman. At the height of the controversy, the Local section featured a full-page tribute to Sussman and his various philanthropic efforts in the Portland area.
To put it mildly, the fix was in.
So when I got a call from a reporter Friday night asking for comment on the news that Sussman had traded a $3 million loan to Maine Today Media for a seat on their Board of Directors, it didn’t surprise me at all. In a normal media market, where the paper-of-record wasn’t perched on the ledge of bankruptcy and where the editorial staff wasn’t housed in a tent in the middle of the Occupy movement, it might be a bit too much for a congresswoman to be part-owner of the major paper in her district.
But not here.
The Maine Today Media papers are a mess, and if we documented each instance of bias or flat-out yellow journalism, it would be a full-time job. Last week we showed how the editorial page was running falsehoods. A few weeks before that, we caught their trophy columnist Bill Nemitz in a lie on video. The plain truth is that the editorial staff couldn’t care less if it was perceived as an agenda-driven publication. And that’s why taking millions from a politician to keep the bills paid doesn’t make them blush in the slightest.
Mr. Sussman has once again used his millions to boost the career of Ms. Pingree, but he’s also revealed the institutional proclivities of the state’s biggest papers. The silver lining to Pingree’s takeover of Maine Today Media is that the centrists of the world can stop pretending the papers are making an earnest effort to be fair. Sussman’s ownership will likely further marginalize the papers, the bias is now more clear than ever, and we can only hope this brings us one step closer to the end of the myth of an impartial media.