By Rep. Phil Curtis
Maine House Majority Leader Phil Curtis originally submitted this piece to the Maine Today Media for publication. The papers refused to run it based on its criticism of the paper’s owner and his spouse. This is an amazing act of political censorship, and ironically reinforces the concerns Rep. Curtis outlines in this piece. The entire, unedited column is featured below.
What do you get for the congresswoman who has everything? Southern Maine’s Democratic congresswoman, Chellie Pingree, recently received the gift of a lifetime from her husband, hedge fund mogul Donald Sussman.
It wasn’t diamonds or pearls. It wasn’t a new jet, a yacht or any other favorite trinket of the “one percenters.” It wasn’t pretty, fun or even profitable, but it definitely helped her career.
It was her very own chain of newspapers.
Donald Sussman recently bought a 75-percent ownership stake in Maine Today Media, the company that owns the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal (Augusta) and the Morning Sentinel (Waterville). These are three of the five largest newspapers in the state.
Democrats routinely decry the influence that big corporations and big money hold over our political process. How hypocritical it is to see two of their standard-bearers—the congresswoman who is a leader in the “progressive caucus” and her husband who is one of the largest patrons of Democratic causes in the country—use their money to infiltrate the institutions that give Maine people their news.
Sussman pledges to stay out of any editorial decisions the newspapers make. I have news for Donald: buying a newspaper is an editorial decision. No matter how much Donald says outwardly that he wants his new media outlets to be unbiased, bias will be inherent and intractable. Journalism ethics expert Bob Steele called Sussman’s ownership a legitimate concern.
Whenever negative news about Congresswoman Pingree or the legion of liberal activist groups that Sussman bankrolls comes out, the editorial staff at Maine Today Media will undoubtedly ponder—even if only for a moment—the reception their reporting will receive when it reaches Sussman’s doorstep or his laptop screen.
In the 2010 election cycle, the Portland Press Herald endorsed Dean Scontras for Congress, the Republican challenger to Pingree. What would the result have been if Pingree and her husband owned 75 percent of the newspaper? A disclaimer would not have sufficed.
In recent news stories, the Maine Today papers have been sheepishly disclosing their new ownership. Instead of the customary disclaimer at the end of a story whenever a conflict exists, the writers have been surreptitiously slipping the fact that Sussman controls the paper into the body of the story. The “disclaimers” stand out as patchwork solutions to the massive conflict that can never go away as long as Sussman and Pingree own the newspapers. They are mere Band-Aids on the severed artery of honest reporting in Maine.
Furthermore, what does Sussman see in the ailing newspapers? Everyone knows that newspapers are a dying breed and that the Internet is quickly rendering them obsolete. Their stock, consequently, is going nowhere but down. In 1998, the Gannett family, longtime owners of the newspapers, sold them to the company that owns The Seattle Times for $213 million. Ten years later, they were sold to Maine Today Media for an undisclosed price. Sussman picked up his 75 percent stake for only $3.3 million, giving the chain a value of $4.4 million.
Maybe he sees something in the papers. But Sussman is not a Warren Buffett-style investor. He doesn’t follow a model of buying fundamentally sound companies at good bargains and turning them around over time. His style has been to earn fast money through complex financial deals, similar to the kind of seat-of-your-pants investing that crashed the housing market.
So maybe he wants to finally settle down in Maine and build something for a change. Why then would he not want to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the business?
One thing I know about Mainers is that you won’t pull wool over their eyes. They know a shady deal when they see one, and this, ladies and gentlemen, is a shady deal if I ever saw one.
Representative Phil Curtis (R-Madison) is the Majority Leader in the Maine House of Representatives.