Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Press releases: Stenographers

Published in the Portland Phoenix

"Stenographers" is an inflammatory word to use to describe journalists, but it's the only accurate way to respond to news coverage of Paul LePage's inauguration as governor.

Not five minutes into his term, LePage uttered a verifiable untruth. And all three of the state's major daily newspapers quoted him without noting that it was false. It wasn't some throwaway line, but rather a description of the Maine Constitution, which was central to LePage's campaign (along with the US Constitution), and which he has promised will be a touchstone of his governorship.

Here's what LePage said: "The word 'people' appears in the Maine Constitution 49 times. You cannot find a single mention of the words, 'politics,' 'Republican,' 'Democrat,' 'Green,' or 'independent' in 37 pages of preambles, articles, and sections of our state constitution."

The Portland Press Herald, the Lewiston Sun Journal, and the Bangor Daily News quoted that line completely (and accurately) in their reports about the inauguration. And to read those articles, you would believe LePage is right. He's not.

Fact-checking that claim was as easy as it gets, even for lazy journalists who are (or feel) chained to their desks. As I watched the live online stream (from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network), all it took was a quick Google search; the full text of the Maine Constitution appeared on my screen, a PDF from the state's own Web site.

And yes, LePage was right about the number of times the word "people" appears, and about the first four items on his list of absent words: "politics," "Republican," "Democrat," and "Green" are not in the Maine Constitution.

But "independent" is, three times: in the Preamble ("We the people of Maine . . . do agree to form ourselves into a free and independent State"); in Article I, Section 1 ("All people are born equally free and independent"); and in Article IV, Section 1 ("the people reserve to themselves power to propose laws and to enact or reject the same at the polls independent of the Legislature").

LePage's context was about political affiliation, but of course someone who is politically "independent" is by definition unaffiliated. If LePage were being careful with his words, he might have chosen "unenrolled," the technical term for someone who is a registered voter in Maine but who is not listed as a member of any political party. That word indeed does not appear in the Maine Constitution.

Instead, Maine's new governor chose to claim that a very important word, which appears in three very important places in the Maine Constitution, was not there at all. And the state's three major newspapers didn't even bother to determine whether his claim was accurate — despite the complete ease and simplicity of doing so.

I've warned the Maine media before about laziness when it comes to government scrutiny (most recently in "Brave The New World," November 19, 2010). LePage will be making more complex statements over the next four years, and many of those claims will be far harder to assess for veracity than a simple statement in an inaugural address. While LePage's inauguration may have set the tone for his administration, let's hope that the media's coverage of that event is not the harbinger of its performance as his term continues.

• One other note: the PORTLAND PRESS HERALD'S ADVERTISING DONATION TO THE PRO-MAYOR CAMPAIGN THROUGH THE PORTLAND REGIONAL CHAMBER was explained to me by chamber CEO Godfrey Wood in very simple terms. "We have a sponsorship agreement" with the Press Herald, in which the paper donates advertising space to the chamber, he said. "They asked if we wanted additional ad space for this (the pro-mayoral campaign) and we said, 'Yes.'" Whether that places the Press Herald in violation of Maine campaign-finance disclosure laws or not is presently in question, but the mechanism by which the Press Herald indicated its support for an elected mayor in Portland is not.