Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Press releases: Confusion and upset

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The big Maine media news is that Central Maine Morning Sentinel executive editor Eric Conrad fired reporter Joel Elliott on January 26. (Disclosure: Elliott is a friend and a fellow member of the Maine Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.)

Since then, Elliott (who had been at the paper since June 2005) and several Maine-media watchers have criticized Conrad's action.

There appears to have been longstanding trouble between Conrad, a former managing editor at the Portland Press Herald who left briefly in 2006 and then returned to take the helm at the PPH's sister papers, the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal, and the career-minded Elliott, who used a personal "vacation" last year to report from Pakistan for the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

The dispute ultimately comes down to whether Conrad is too milquetoast or Elliott too aggressive. Elliott says Conrad used complaints from sources to justify disciplinary action, suspending him repeatedly over the past year and ultimately firing him.

The three main complaints relate to a May story in which Elliott quoted the Waterville police chief disparaging Colby College's student-discipline practices, which the chief denied saying; an August story in which he quoted a special assistant attorney general saying something she later claimed was off-the-record; and a September story in which he quoted a Colby College guest speaker saying something a Colby public-relations official suggested could have been interpreted as disparaging the people she was talking about — who had no connection to Colby.

Elliott, who is challenging his termination through his union, says the stories were accurate, and the paper has so far taken no action to suggest otherwise; the stories in question have not been retracted or corrected, online or in print.

He says Conrad should have supported his reporter, but instead sided with powerful local interests — the Waterville police chief, a state official, and the college.

In the Colby situation, unnamed college officials asked Conrad not to assign Elliott to write any stories at all relating to the college. While that in itself is a remarkable request — and even more remarkable for Conrad's mention of it in Elliott's termination letter — Elliott makes two noteworthy accusations.

First, he observes that Conrad's wife works for Colby, which could suggest a conflict of interest — pitting Conrad's obligation to serve his readers against accommodating his wife's employer. (Not to mention, of course, the standard pressure to "play nice" a heavyweight non-profit institution can put on its local newspaper.)

Second, and most powerful for non-conspiracy-theorists, Elliott notes the bizarre timing of the request. The last piece he wrote about Colby was in mid-October, a full three months before Colby asked Conrad to bar Elliott from covering the college. As it turned out, there wasn't much danger of that: a week later, Elliott was fired.

Conrad declined to comment on any aspect of the situation, citing privacy concerns (even though Elliott has repeatedly waived confidentiality — including once allowing several newsroom staffers into a disciplinary meeting with Conrad).

Conrad's reluctance to talk about Elliott is reasonable; but his failure even to directly refute the charges laid against him only serves as fodder for further questions. By failing to explain his actions, Conrad, whose newspaper promotes transparency and accountability in those it covers, appears to be putting himself in a situation that — if not compromising — is certainly uncomfortable. And as most in the media realize, impressions often assume a reality all their own.