Commentary

What is an ‘advocacy journalist’ and why was the Maine CDC restricting access to its briefings?

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That darn First Amendment.

This week, The Maine Wire learned that the Maine CDC had booted its journalist, Katherine Revello, from the agency’s regular press briefings. The rationale provided by the agency was that it could “no longer accommodate advocacy journalists” at the briefings.

I would argue they weren’t very accommodating to begin with considering she attended one briefing on July 28 and did not ask any questions. Nonetheless, our government isn’t in the business of labeling certain reporters “advocacy journalists” and barring their participation at public briefings. That’s why the First Amendment exists.

If the Maine CDC wants to limit access at the briefings to “credentialed reporters” for the purpose of shortening the length of the events (as it tried to reason was “in the public interest” during Wednesday’s briefing), it must develop a neutral policy that respects the First Amendment. That’s not what happened.

Instead, the Maine CDC mysteriously crafted an “advocacy journalist” policy out of the blue and then axed Revello and journalists at the Maine Beacon, a news and opinion website operated by the Maine People’s Alliance, from their press list. However, according to the Bangor Daily News, The Maine CDC informed the Beacon in late August of their removal from the list. So why didn’t the Maine CDC inform me or Revello?

The Maine CDC did not respond to numerous inquiries over the course of three weeks – between September 15 and October 6 – related to our removal from the list without notice. Finally, on Wednesday morning, I received this response from Robert Long of the Maine CDC.

What is an “advocacy journalist” in the eyes of the Maine CDC? How does it define a “credentialed reporter?” Nobody knows. The agency has not responded to requests from us and other outlets to produce the policy.

What I do know is that Revello is a qualified journalist. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her byline has appeared in numerous reputable state and national publications. She strictly writes hard news – not opinion – for The Maine Wire. She is, by all accounts, a “credentialed reporter.”

In fact, Matt Dunlap, the former state auditor and longtime secretary of state, gave Revello his resignation letter to Senate President Troy Jackson last week before any other Maine journalist because she was “very fair and professional” (his own words) in previous communications. He confirmed the claim with the George Hale Ric Tyler Show.

Other news organizations that followed up with the Maine CDC for clarification on the policy were told The Maine Wire and Maine Beacon couldn’t participate because we “solicit donations” to promote “political and ideological causes.” Herein lies the issue with the government determining what it thinks “advocacy journalism” is.

I subscribe to newspapers in Maine and across the country that send emails and other solicitations to the public to support their work – both in the form of subscriptions, and in contributions beyond the cost of regular subscriptions. The money collected is used to pay both journalists and editorial boards that endorse political candidates. Those editorial boards can tell people how to vote and who to vote for. And they do.

The Maine Wire is a property of Maine Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization. In neither our news or editorial content can we endorse political candidates or parties. We can’t tell people how to vote or who to vote for. And we don’t. The reality is that we are legally prohibited from engaging in the same type of advocacy that newspaper editorial boards regularly engage in. The Maine CDC’s rationale is bogus, both legally and rhetorically, and they know it. Their policy explicitly excluded journalists from two specific nonprofit news organizations.

But watch Maine DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah defend the policy — which they do not define — after receiving questions from the BDN’s Caitlin Andrews.

Lambrew’s face after the follow up question tells you everything you need to know. But even Dr. Shah had the gall to quip, “We don’t think so.” What exactly is going on at the Maine CDC?

Fortunately, there are other great journalists in this state who believe in the free press and defended Revello both privately and publicly. Even rigid opponents of The Maine Wire and Maine Policy Institute stood up for us to be included, and for that I’m truly grateful.

Later Wednesday afternoon, the BDN had published its piece about the whole ordeal with quotes from press advocates and, within a few hours, the Maine CDC informed us that The Maine Wire and Maine Beacon would be invited to attend and ask questions at the next briefing.

It’s still uncertain, however, if we’re being allowed to attend one briefing or if both organizations will be allowed to participate moving forward. Our request for clarification, along with a copy of the original policy used to bar our participation, has not been returned by the Maine CDC. At this point, I just hope their scientists and other staff can discern the difference between this piece of commentary and Revello’s reporting. (Hint: This piece is tagged with “opinion” and “commentary” below.)

By the way, I find it curious only the BDN has found it necessary to publish an account of the Mills administration’s blatant attack on the free press. Lots of major news outlets in Maine had reporters present at Wednesday’s CDC briefing. Many of those outlets were hypercritical of the previous administration’s treatment of the press, sometimes rightfully so. Yet, it seems as though some editors out there aren’t as eager as the journalists are to defend us.

At the end of the day, I suppose some stories will always get a good ol’ leavin’ alone. Such is the nature of a free press.

That darn First Amendment.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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