Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Press releases: Brave the new world

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine is in crisis — big budget shortfalls, lots of people unemployed, a cold winter approaching. And there's this new governor, talking about making life easy for business.

But since that often means making things hard on people and the environment, we need a press who will stand up and look out for Mainers.

This of course means making sure that promises from politicians end up being delivered — with the effects promised. John Baldacci touted Maine's job growth during his first term when he was seeking reelection. But as his second term ends, Maine has lost all of those jobs, and possibly more. Anybody (except us at the Phoenix) asking him if he's responsible now? No.

But it also means remembering the lessons of history. Some of those pesky environmental regulations businesses hate came about, in part, because paper companies — in the absence of regulation and enforcement — dumped dioxin into Maine's major rivers, killing everything downstream. We're smarter than that now — and better protected as a result.

Much of that protection is thanks to journalists, like those at the defunct Maine Times, who acted as true watchdogs, badgering the public and its elected and appointed representatives into action to clean up the environment and restrict future pollution.

But today's journalists and media outlets are out of practice at doing that sort of work. With rare and infrequent exception, many — most egregiously, the local television news, but let's not spare the newspapers — appear to believe that news is what officials say it is, rather than what is actually happening in the world. These outfits are more likely to be lapdogs for authorities, to wait for "official" comment before doing a story, to let coverage be driven by that scourge of citizens seeking real information (though savior of many a lazy or overworked journalist): the manufactured press conference.

Any Maine journalist who finally steps up to do a good job now risks being labeled partisan. "You slacked for eight years with a Democratic governor," that argument might well go, "so your renewed vigor now must be because you dislike Republicans."

Fortunately, there's an easy answer reporters can give: "We shouldn't have slacked — and we recognize that it helped get us into this mess we're in. We have realized the error of our ways, and, like everyone else in Maine, want to be part of the solution. So we're jumping into the game with new energy, and we'll be watching you the way we should have watched the Dems."

Early indicators are mixed. Even before the Republican sweep of Augusta, media outlets like the Portland Press Herald and the Lewiston Sun Journal were restoring lost staffers to the State House beat. That's a welcome sign indeed, and if sustained (dare we dream that the regrowing corps could be expanded by other media outlets?) bodes well for informing the public.

But there are also serious problems. Press Herald business reporter Jonathan Hemmerdinger gives us a recent example in his 800-word story on November 7, in which numerous businesspeople and politicos, including Paul LePage, lamented the strict state of business regulation in Maine.

The only example of problematic regulation given in the article, though, was a requirement that "developers planning projects larger than 75,000 square feet must conduct a nine-point project review that examines factors including community impact and traffic patterns." Would we really prefer to remain ignorant of how a massive big-box store would change traffic use, and affect other businesses in the community?

No other specific regulations came under any fire at all. That shows the journalist didn't ask for examples — if he had and gotten answers (or no-comments), the responses would have been in the piece. We can do better — and we'll need to.