Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Nine is fine: Portland's Best Music Poll 2008

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Thanks to the hundreds of you who ventured out right after work (or perhaps played hooky from work) on Wednesday night to attend our ninth annual BEST MUSIC POLL PORTLAND MUSIC AWARDS SHOW. Some people who had told us last year’s was the best ever told us this one was better than that, to which we can only reply, thanks!

We at the Portland Phoenix are very happy to be able to bring together — at least once a year — the entire Portland music scene, with fans, musicians young and old, sound engineers, mastering people, radio personalities, TV stars, politicians, and activists.

It seems every year something new happens to keep us on our toes — this year’s was THE SECOND-EVER WRITE-IN WIN, by the same guy who landed the first such score two years ago, in the BEST DJ/DANCE ACT category. And we had AN OUTRIGHT TIE for the BEST R&B/SOUL/BLUES ACT, in which readers honored both a relatively new-to-the-scene solo artist and a longtime Portland standby. (You’ll have to keep reading to find out who they are.)

This year also saw the return of RUSTIC OVERTONES to the ballot, and to the stage to accept some awards, which is a wonderful development for their many fans in Maine and around the country. But for the first time ever, Rustic didn’t win every category in which they were nominated. That says far more to us about the quality of the other performers in the scene than it does about Rustic, who didn’t lose a step — or a hop — while they were apart.

There were a lot of people who made this all possible, who deserve our thanks and congratulations. First up is CHRISTOPHER GRAY, who about a year ago half-jokingly assumed the job title “local strong-arm,” as well as “8 Days A Weeker” and “the guy you need to send your listings to.” He put his strong-arm talents to work this year putting the whole show together. And then, when all the planning was done, he donned a very sharp-looking tux and spent the night co-hosting the event, for which we are all very grateful. In what might have been the pinnacle of strong-arming (as well as a stroke of sheer genius), Chris also convinced our staff writer, the lovely and talented DEIRDRE FULTON, to add her zip, humor, and funny gestures to the show.

All the other Phoenicians helped out too, lining up food, hanging banners, staffing the door, cleaning up, and generally making the night go very smoothly, so thanks to them.

And the crew at the ASYLUM were great again this year, keeping the beverages coming, and dishing up finger food to absorb at least some of those drinks. Thanks to BUDWEISER for helping out, and to the BAR OF CHOCOLATE, the FROG & TURTLE, BONOBO, and ANTHONY’S ITALIAN KITCHEN, who collectively supplied as much food as we all wanted.

A quick thanks are also in order to MARK CURDO at WCYY, CHARLIE GAYLORD at WBLM, and the crew at 207 on WCSH CHANNEL 6 for having us on their shows to promote the ballot and the awards show; to the local celebrities who turned out to support the scene; to DOMINIC AND THE LUCID, SARA COX, ROY DAVIS, LABSEVEN, and DJ GRAYMATTER for keeping the tunes on all night long; and to you, the readers, listeners, and supporters of the Portland music scene.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Press Releases: Shields up

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Reporters around the state should mark two dates on their calendars. One is July 18, the day the state’s journalist-shield law takes effect, protecting journalists’ confidential sources and information from governmental intrusion. The other is April 24, the day the Maine Supreme Court told government officials in Maine that they can be protected from public scrutiny, even if they mislay or misuse millions of taxpayer dollars.

The journalist-shield law passed the Legislature unanimously and was signed into law by Governor John Baldacci right as the legislative session drew to a close in April. Proposed by Portland Democratic Representative Jon Hinck, it protects journalists from being forced by courts to disclose the identity of confidential sources or the information they reveal, on the principle that such protection will help preserve the free flow of information to the public. (Disclosure: In my role as president of the Maine Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, I testified in favor of the bill and in favor of several suggested amendments, some of which survived the legislative process.)

The shield law does lay a groundwork where none previously existed in Maine, but it still doesn’t address the kind of problem that arose late last year when a Maine judge ordered 15 media organizations to open their notebooks to lawyers for a company that was afraid it might be sued in connection with a 2006 fire in Biddeford. (See “Legislature Moves to Protect Maine Journalists,” by Jeff Inglis, October 19, 2007.) Journalists typically object to having their work used for purposes other than to inform the public — such as to benefit a private party in a lawsuit.

But because the information given to reporters at the fire was not confidential, it would not be protected under the shield law, though “that seemed like a very reasonable thing to have included ... and I was sorry to have it dropped,” says Hinck.

The bill also fails to include a legal definition of the term “journalist.” While that does allow anyone — full-time reporter, Web publisher, blogger, pamphleteer — to make the case that they are one, Hinck worries that it might take several cases in which people are denied shield-law protection before state courts clarify who qualifies and who does not.

On the other hand, you’re screwed
State government agencies picked up a shield of their own recently when the Maine Supreme Court ruled on April 24 that giving the public access to information discussed in a Portland School Committee executive session would be “absurd” — even though what was discussed was the degree to which the superintendent and other employees were responsible for a $2.5-million budget deficit.

The school officials argued that the school staffers’ roles in the egregious shortfall was a “personnel matter.” The Portland Press Herald argued that knowing how $2.5 million in taxpayer money went missing is a matter of great public interest.

And while the school ultimately ended up releasing most of the information the Press Herald had requested, the Supreme Court’s ruling provided all government agencies cover for hiding budget-management problems behind closed doors, if they just call those problems “personnel matters” — as opposed to “who lost the taxpayers’ money matters.”

Preti Flaherty attorney Sigmund Schutz, who argued the case for the Press Herald, says the court has placed the public’s right to know about how taxpayer dollars are managed below public employees' interest in keeping job-performance shortcomings secret from the people they serve.

“The court has put great emphasis on the need for secrecy in governmental affairs,” Schutz says, marveling at the ruling that the newspaper’s argument might “lead to the absurd result that there could never be a discussion in executive session about personnel whose responsibilities are fiscal or monetary.”

But as Schutz notes: “It’s never absurd to find in favor of the public’s right to know.”