The administration of Gov. Janet Mills sought the creation of a novel credentialing system for journalists last October in a bid to exclude certain media outlets from covering official state briefings and press conferences, according to a letter obtained by The Maine Wire.
Mills’ Director of Communications Scott Ogden made the request in an October 13, 2021 letter to the Maine Press Association (MPA) and the Maine Broadcasters Association (MBA), two small non-profits comprised of various Maine media outlets. In that letter, Ogden called on the groups to create a credentialing system that would bestow privileges on certain reporters while blocking other journalists from covering certain functions of government.
Ogden’s letter came just one week after the Mills administration and Maine Centers for Disease Control banned Maine Wire reporter Katherine Revello and writers for the left-wing Maine Beacon from public health briefings. The proposed credentialing system would have granted the Mills administration — and future administrations — a pretext to bar reporters the administration doesn’t like from official governmental events.
Ogden’s proposed limitations on Maine’s free press only came to light after a member of Maine’s news media provided a copy of the MPA’s response to The Maine Wire.
“Your suggestion that Maine — in particular, the MPA and the Maine Association of Broadcasters — explore establishing our state’s own version of the Standing Committee of Correspondents is interesting,” wrote MPA past president Lynda Clancy, noting that the Standing Committee vets political journalists in Washington, D.C. and decides who is allowed to enter the Senate Gallery.
“The MPA Board of Directors discussed your letter at length during our Oct. 23 annual business meeting, and unanimously agreed it is not in our best interests to establish such a model,” said Clancy.
Clancy’s response shows the MPA declined to obey the Mills administration’s request not out of respect for press freedom or the First Amendment. Instead, Clancy declined the idea because the MPA is a “financially modest nonprofit” that lacks the resources to vet journalists and administer such a program on Mills’ behalf.
Ogden, who made $138,000 per year in 2021 as Mills’ communication director, later took a leave of absence from his state job in order to work on Mills re-election campaign.
His request shows that in October 2021 the Mills administration was waging a campaign to block critical coverage of Mills’ economic lockdown of the state, a campaign that ran deeper than the public has known before now.
At the time, the New England First Amendment Coalition publicly rebuked the decision to limit health briefing access as an infringement on the First Amendment. The coalition called on the Maine CDC to formulate a policy that was content- and viewpoint-neutral when it came to allowing members of the press to participate in briefings.
In a letter to Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long, himself a former editor at the Bangor Daily News, the coalition said Mills’ attempt to shut out journalists from state briefings based on perceived political opinions was not unlike former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s attempt in 2013 to shut out the Portland Press Herald due to its critical reporting.
Facing bipartisan blow back for the attempt to stymie journalism, the Mills administration and the Maine CDC backed away from the policy and restored briefing access to all journalists.
Although the Mills administration was not successful at permanently limiting access to briefings or getting the MPA to create a list of “approved” journalists, it has successfully resisted efforts to investigate decision making in the governor’s office by exploiting weaknesses in Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA).
The Maine Policy Institute, a 501(c)3 free market think tank that owns The Maine Wire, filed a FOAA request following the events of October 2021 seeking communications between and among various state agencies regarding the decision to curtail press access to the briefings. The goal was to identify how the Mills administration and the Maine CDC made the decision.
That request, a routine act of basic journalism, has gone unfulfilled for more than a year. Had that request been fulfilled in a reasonable manner, The Maine Wire would have become aware of Ogden’s letter well before last Friday.
Maine’s FOAA outlines how government agencies must provide certain public records to those who request them, how much they can charge for records, and how quickly they must acknowledge requests. The law does not, however, contain any mechanism to prevent political appointees and politicians from withholding documents for unreasonably long periods of time in an effort to protect their political reputations.
In a Nov. 17 editorial, The Maine Wire highlighted threats to press freedom in Maine and weaknesses in FOAA, including emerging attempts by the “Right to Know” committee to curtail FOAA. In that editorial, the Maine Wire questioned why other Maine journalists have not been more vocal over attacks on press freedom, FOAA, and the “Right to Know.”
In response, a member of the Maine media shared MPA’s letter replying to Ogden as if to say, “Look, we stood up for you.”
But that’s only part of the story.
According to the letter, the MPA’s Standing Committee met at length to discuss the issue of obeying the Mills administration and creating a white list of approved journalists who would be allowed to cover official political events.
They ultimately decided against obeying Mills and Ogden’s wishes, but the very fact they considered it means several Maine journalists were aware that the Mills administration was seeking a backdoor route to limit press freedom in the state. None of the newspaper reporters and editors privy to those discussions decided the governor’s request was newsworthy. The Bangor Daily News covered the original attempt to block Revello from press briefings, but not a single Maine outlet covered Ogden’s letter asking for viewpoint-censorship.
The Maine Wire has filed an additional Freedom of Access Act request seeking only Ogden’s Oct. 13, 2021 letter to the MPA. That’s a request that should take less than 15 minutes for any competent communications professional to fulfill. This story will be updated when that request is fulfilled.
Here is the MPA’s response to Ogden’s request:
Here is the letter from the New England First Amendment Coalition to the Maine CDC’s Robert Long that caused the Mills administration to backtrack on its decision to bar Revello and the Maine Beacon from press briefings: