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Personal Destruction Journalism: Defending a Decent Man

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By Walter J. Eno – It is difficult to imagine that the governor of a state of this nation could be subjected to greater contempt, criticism and ridicule than that directed against Maine Gov. Paul LePage by the Portland Press Herald and its affiliates. When the governor took the oath of office, he did not surrender his sacred and invaluable right of character and reputation.

The most obvious reason that LePage has been a convenient punching bag is that he is a Republican, and a conservative to boot. But party differences about goals and political strategy don’t tell the whole story as to why this particular governor has been singled out for such scrutiny and obloquy by the almighty privileged press.

Mudslinging Mainstream Media

If the last presidential election proved anything it’s that political rhetoric has sunk to a new low. Is Mitt Romney really a murderer, a tax cheat, a racist or an animal abuser? When political rivals sling mud at each other, the media merely report it. But when the PPH initiates the mudslinging, that’s a disturbing departure from responsible journalism. And the PPH has slung buckets of mud at one Maine man.

Another reason, prominently highlighted by the PPH and the holier-than-thou crowd, is LePage’s propensity to occasionally utter verbal blunders at inopportune moments. The PPH has elevated these breaches of social decorum to the virtual status of criminal acts, and would have him hanged, drawn and quartered or exiled to Siberia. They keep nipping at his heels to deflect attention from his successes. Has anybody noticed that his personal life is above reproach and his administration is scandal-free? By what rational standard are LePage’s gaffes condemned – he broke no law of God or man – while Bill Clinton’s lies and multiple felonies are rewarded?

LePage is the first popularly elected governor of Franco-American heritage in Maine’s history. Is the verbal abuse and critical pissiness aimed at him fueled by ethnic disdain or the pride of snobs because he was educated in the school of hard knocks, sometimes talks like a longshoreman, stands his ground and thumbs his nose at the press? The PPH depict LePage as a buffoon, a cartoon-like character, rather than with the respect and dignity customarily accorded the state’s chief executive. Has any previous Maine governor ever encountered such sneering opposition, been treated as shabbily or judged so severely?

LePage Derangement Syndrome      

Some years ago the brilliant Washington Post columnist/psychiatrist, Charles Krauthammer, originated the term Bush Derangement Syndrome to describe the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the presidency of George W. Bush. The editors and certain journalists at the PPH seem to exhibit the symptoms of a particularly virulent strain of the same mental disorder, sometimes babbling incoherently and muttering to themselves at the mere mention of LePage’s name, let alone his existence. Maybe it’s something in the Portland drinking water. Or is it just because that’s the way it is in this age of political blood-sport?

We must not forget that a free press cannot be free unless it is independent, for freedom is the opposite of dependency. Press dependency goes hand-in-hand with money, politics and power, each of which can have a harmful effect on how the news is reported. While editors and reporters may strive to be accurate and fair in reporting the news, they are not immune to those insidious influences. And they know on which side their bread is buttered.

And it’s well to remember that journalism is a commercial activity – but it’s not in the decency business. It is also a noble profession whose practitioners are predominantly honest and sincere. But they are no different from the rest of us who have to earn a living – they are there for the money, not to serve the public interest. Journalists are elected by nobody and are accountable to no one except Daddy Moneybags. Their judgments are no wiser than those of the average citizen selected at random from the telephone directory. And they have an increasing tendency to make the news or to distort it beyond recognition, rather than simply to report it. They sit above the battle, hurl grenades and slay the wounded.

LePage’s Accomplishments Get Short Shrift

Despite the tons of sticky dirt dumped on him, LePage has largely remained above the fray, taking it in stride, without rancor or responding in kind, except to question why he would read a newspaper that tells lies about him or joking that he would like to drop a bomb on the PPH offices. He would be inhuman if he didn’t react to the constant personal attacks. But the PPH is too full of itself to cut him a little slack and crack a smile.

By any objective standards LePage is a decent man and an effective, productive governor – even if you don’t agree with his politics. He has legitimate bragging rights to significant  accomplishments: paid off a massive Medicaid debt to the state’s hospitals (an admirable  achievement for Maine and LePage); led the effort to enact the largest tax cut in Maine’s history, including the elimination of any state income taxes for 27,000 low-income Mainers; eliminated a $1.7 billion shortfall in Maine’s pension fund; lowered the unemployment rate; emphasized and funded domestic violence prevention programs; introduced charter schools and implemented educational reforms; practiced fiscal responsibility and improved the business climate by cutting down on red tape. Above all, he has kept his promises, a breath of fresh air in our time of unprincipled political hacks. You can say a lot of things about LePage but not that he floats with the tide.

A fair-minded observer might conclude that the average Mainer is better off and can look forward to a brighter future since LePage took office. And in most precincts he would be a shoo-in for re-election. But not with his detractors who have reflexively opposed every initiative he has offered or tried to water them down. They are more interested in discrediting him than in being receptive to alternative solutions to persistent problems. Dare to think outside the box and we will come after you. If LePage found a cure for cancer, they would fault him for neglecting Alzheimer’s.

The PPH had its long knives out for LePage even before he took office. During the last gubernatorial race Bill Nemesis, oops, Nemitz, composed several scare-talk rants about LePage based on half-truths and gossip, that LePage would advocate the teaching of creationism in public schools if elected. Not surprisingly, that fib had no legs and died a natural death.

Two weeks later that same reporter, under the heading of “Local News,” branded LePage as a “liar.” That smear relied upon a casual conversation between LePage and a Boston radio talk- show host in which he and LePage exchanged views on a range of topics including the coming election. LePage was not testifying under oath to a grand jury.

In October 2010 I lodged a complaint against Nemitz with the Maine State Commission for Governmental Ethics and Elections for “express advocacy,” defined in the law as “working for the defeat or election of a candidate for public office.”  After investigation the commission decided to take no action “because of the exemption in the law for newspaper commentaries.” (I had not filed a libel complaint.)

Afterwards, Nemitz wrote in the PPH inviting me to meet with him “and see if we can talk this thing out.” I replied that I would be pleased to accept his offer after he apologized to LePage. I’m still waiting. Working for the PPH means that you never have to say you’re sorry or retract false information.

(I believe that the current election law effectively legitimates that a biased and hostile reporter can destroy the reputation of a candidate for public office. That situation should serve as a warning to any good man or woman planning to run for public office, especially if you belong to the “wrong” party. I have written to the editors of the PPH complaining about Nemitz’s poison- pen pieces. Those letters were dead on arrival. Some reputable newspapers employ an ombudsman to look into such matters. I made that suggestion to the editor/publisher in 2009.)

By my rough estimate Nemitz has published at least one derogatory column per month about

LePage over the past four years. When can we expect the next hilarious episode of The Big Guy in the Blaine House Sucks? That’s the way he thinks, if at all. His opinions suffer not from lack of hubris nor his prose from constipation. Contempt begets contempt.

Under the failed and discredited management of former editor and publisher, Richard L. Connor, the PPH in May 2010 launched a vicious attack on LePage barely 100 days into his administration. A lengthy editorial used these charming words to describe him: “moronic,” “in over his head,” egotistical,” “arrogant,” etc. What was LePage’s offense? He had fired two recently appointed cabinet members who had not been properly vetted. But that was just the opening salvo.

Does anyone remember the world-is-coming-to-an-end predictions and protests – cheered on by the PPH – when LePage removed labor murals from a state building? That melodrama, starring LePage as the villain, played out in the pages of the PPH for months. Don’t expect the PPH to remind its readers in this election year that LePage won that battle in court.

Persistent, Deliberate Bias Deserves Explanation

Since moving to Maine in 2009 I have been a fairly consistent reader of the PPH. (It’s the only game in town.) During that span of time I can’t recall reading a single positive article or editorial about LePage or any member or facet of his administration other than an occasional token letter from a reader. It’s been an incessant barrage of mean-spirited criticism, manufactured crises, false alarms, the blame game, nit-picking, sneaky disparagement, second-guessing, sour grapes, unflattering photos, and assorted cheap shots that continue to the present day. But never a kind word, a hint of deference to the office or a gesture of common humanity. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Why is the PPH rooting so hard for Maine’s up-from-poverty native son to fail? An ancient Roman might add: Cui bono? To whose benefit?

Also troubling is that by innuendo and tone the PPH creates the impression that LePage is two-faced, that despite his humble beginnings, he secretly loathes the poor and kicks dogs when no one is looking. Although LePage supports funding a safety net for the poor and the disabled, he resists breaking the bank to add more moochers to the public teat. He has not forgotten where he came from: a dysfunctional home he ran away from at age eleven after his father broke his nose and dislocated his jaw. That’s enough abuse and humiliation for a lifetime.

No CAT-Scan has yet been invented to diagnose what is in a man’s heart.       

In May 2012, again under the heading of “Local News,” Nemitz anathematized LePage as a “borderline sociopath,” defined as “a person with a psychopathic personality who lacks a sense of moral responsibility.” (A self-portrait?) That icy, ugly curse was the most shameless example of personal destruction “journalism” that I have ever come across.  It was published in the same newspaper that daily cautions its prospective letter-writers: “Letters that are libelous or obscene will not be published.” That advisory says it all about the PPH’s incoherent “standards.”

Apart from the sheer depravity of that gratuitous allegation, it is dishonest — a false fact. Nemitz is no more qualified to make such a “diagnosis” than Mickey Mouse. Even Dr. Krauthammer, former chief resident in psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital, would not presume to evaluate or comment on the mental state of any person under his care without extensive testing and observation. But fools rush in where specialists fear to tread. Treating political disagreement as a psychiatric condition is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes and small-town tyrants.

A man’s honor and good name are off-limits as a topic for sick humor by an unethical and angry reporter. At an earlier time in our history, Vice-President Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, one of the framers of our Constitution, in retaliation for a far milder slur Hamiton had made against Burr. While there is no reason to believe that LePage would react with force, does Nemitz have the cojones to repeat those words to LePage’s face, mano-a-mano?

Opinion Columnist Attacks With Impunity

Tomorrow, or the day after, Nemitz – self-anointed champion of the oppressed – will, with renewed self-righteousness, lecture us on how to treat certain categories of people that he approves of. Expect a hard-luck, sob-story that will tug at our heartstrings. But his compassion is strained, selective, a mask. It doth not fall as the gentle rain from heaven to cover all. Nemitz professes to be against suffering, but he is coldly indifferent to the hurt he causes others.

In a later column Nemitz doubled-down on his allegation — kicking LePage in the groin — by brazenly lying that LePage showed signs of “mental and physical disability” and urging the Secretary of State to inquire into his condition. While LePage’s verbal blunders were unrehearsed, spur-of-the-moment remarks, most of which were confined to and overheard by a small audience, Nemitz’s multiple libels were made with premeditation and intent, then broadcast to the world by the PPH. What is there left to say for a reporter, allegedly in possession of his mental faculties and with a nodding acquaintance with right and wrong, who makes false, boneheaded, hysterical allegations against the governor of this state?

Apparently, Nemitz and his gang stand by their allegations since they have not apologized to the governor or issued a retraction. They’re so brave. Maybe they’ll stage a parade in honor of themselves and invite “Sheriff Bart,” Billy’s respectful nickname for Maine’s 70th governor.

With those slurs Nemitz crossed the line from commentary to defamation. Despite the protections of the First Amendment, a reporter cannot say anything he wants about a public official. Nemitz’s allegations that LePage was a “liar,” a “borderline sociopath” and showed signs of “mental and physical disability” were opinions stated as fact. Those published allegations constituted defamation, specifically libel. They exposed LePage to contempt and ridicule, damaged his reputation and harmed his ability to do his job.

Who Protects Us From Media Bias?

In a 1964 case (N.Y. Times v. Sullivan) the U.S. Supreme Court took up this issue. Although the Times prevailed in that case, it clarified the law with regard to press freedom. A public official can recover for damages if a libelous statement was made with “actual malice” – knowledge that it was false or “with reckless disregard whether it was false or not.” Can anybody argue with a straight face that Nemitz’s multiple libels were made with good will? (Are you listening, Governor LePage?)

What the hell is this “home of the free and the brave” coming to when a rogue reporter, with the blessing of his editorial bosses, can make a career of destroying the reputation of a decent man carrying out his lawful responsibilities? Who’s next? Where does LePage go to get his reputation back? And where is the outrage from those who decry bullying and demand tolerance? When the PPH blackens the governor – or any law-abiding man or woman – it also blackens me and the whole community, for we are all parts of the same vital body.

In my view the PPH – an incubator of ill-will and feuding factions – cannot be trusted as an accurate or impartial news source. Nor can the public rely on it to make informed judgments about their government, elected officials and other important matters affecting their lives. It promises us “probing and objective” journalism but filters or omits the news to fit the owners’ “progressive” political agenda rather than print unbiased news to serve the common good. It hides the dirty linen but can’t prevent the stink from the Obama administration’s scandals, screw-ups and coverups. Although the PPH didn’t report Obama’s 2013 “lie of the year,” it did report as “newsworthy” the jokes of New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s aides about traffic jams. What a newspaper has to sell is credibility. Portland’s top paper fails that test.

Entering November

As the record clearly shows, the PPH bears a deep-seated and consuming animus toward Paul LePage. To that end, the PPH has published multiple libels defaming his character and reputation. It is therefore realistically impossible for the governor to expect or to obtain fair and unbiased news coverage or commentary about him or his administration from the PPH news organization.

Prediction: As the November election nears, the PPH and its billionaire owners, coincidental with the campaign of the gubernatorial candidate they are in the tank for, will do whatever it takes to bring down LePage, both personally and politically. Anything goes, no rules.  And their empty-suit bench-warmer – another tyro who never managed so much as a lemonade stand – will parrot the old clichés, promising to solve all of our problems with somebody else’s money. A new forklift in every spud barn – or you can keep your old one if you like it. Same old baloney in a different package. Their campaign slogan: Get this Frenchy – the other one will do as he’s told. LePage will need to keep his feet out of wet cement and wear body armor.

LePage doesn’t fit the PPH model of a revolving-door, flip-flopping, go-along-to-get-along politician. He is a leader, not a follower; he’s a no BS straight-talker who won’t pander to fears and fads; he has strong personal values; he will spend hard-earned tax-payer dollars  wisely and he’s not for sale to the highest bidder. If that sounds like an endorsement, it is.

Walter J. Eno of Scarborough 

 

 

About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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