Up until a week ago, I wrote a weekly column on politics for three papers in the Mid-coast: The Republican Journal, The Camden Herald, and The Courier-Gazette. In the first week of October, these three ran a piece of mine entitled “Is Chellie Pingree Quiet Quitting?” in which I criticized the six-term congresswoman for being detached from key concerns in the district and suggested a vote for her opponent, Republican Ed Thelander, might better serve our interests.
Then I got cancelled.
The notice of my cancellation was garbled enough that it is hard to discern what the exact reasons were, but according to MaineStay Media Executive Editor Dan Dunkle, his colleague at The Republican Journal – Maine’s oldest weekly newspaper – had “strong objections to <my> background.” While he didn’t elaborate on these, I can only assume he meant my 2018 conviction for failing to register as a foreign agent, following a charge brought by then-special counsel Robert Mueller.
My column is titled “Crossfire Hurricane,” in reference to the fatally flawed FBI investigation of ties between former President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. Given this, it is hard to believe that the Republican Journal’s editor suddenly discovered my checkered past. But as a friend in the League of the Cancelled told me, there’s always a reason.
Since I left The Camden Herald in 1994 to work on a Maine gubernatorial campaign, I’ve been enmeshed in politics at home and abroad. It was my work in Ukraine that got me in trouble with the folks investigating Paul Manafort as a potential link between Trump and Russia. When I came back to Maine in mid-2020, I had lunch with Reade Brower who owns these papers and many others in the state. That’s where the idea of my writing again was born.
At our lunch, Reade and I discussed trends in the media at that time. Andrew Sullivan had just left New York Magazine having chafed at its editorial guardrails on him and gone to Substack. So too had Bari Weiss, who left The New York Times, also for Substack. Like me, neither Weiss nor Sullivan is a fire-breathing paleo-conservative, but in an age of narratives anyone who points to inconstancies in the groupthink is at best irritating and more likely a threat. While I don’t pretend to put myself on par with these giants of commentary, they do set the context.
Over the past two years, things have gotten worse.
When the New York Post broke an expansive story about troubling materials found on a laptop of soon-to-be First Son Hunter Biden that he’d abandoned at a Delaware repair shop in October 2020, Facebook suppressed sharing of this reporting. A Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently told podcaster Joe Rogan this was at the direction of the FBI, which allegedly told the social media giant the laptop story could be Russian disinformation.
Except it wasn’t. In the ensuing two years, mainstream media outlets have slowly and quietly walked back the “debunking” of the laptop story.
The effort to vilify and silence opposing views has only gathered steam. In yesterday’s Guardian, a left-wing British newspaper, progressive columnist and former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich labeled three common GOP talking points as “false” and “untrue.” In an earlier age, one might call someone of an opposing viewpoint “misguided.” Today, he or she is a dangerous liar and a malicious monger of misinformation.
Tribalism of the media consumer is a big part of the problem. In America we still believe our chosen source of news and information is telling the truth. This contrasts sharply with other countries where I’ve worked, like Ukraine. Former communist countries emerged from the USSR rightly skeptical of the government-sponsored press that was carved up by rival factions after 1991. If you want to find out what’s really happening (especially important in a country at war), you have to read everything and then do the hard work of parsing out what likely happened.
That is why today I read everything from Breitbart to Mother Jones. Meanwhile in mainstream media, the token voices of the other side had better pull their punches. Better still if, like The Washington Post’s house conservative Jennifer Rubin, the counterpoints constantly lament how awful their own side has become. Real debate on the op-ed pages is stage-managed by the editors who still pretend.
My cancellation from three small, weekly newspapers is a Dog Bites Man story these days and one I should have expected. Until we restore a public square where all reasonable voices can be heard, we’re probably headed for bigger trouble.
Patten worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators. He has also worked extensively on democracy promotion abroad and was an advisor in the U.S. State Department from 2008-9. He pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent in 2018 and is once again a Maine-based writer.