Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Press Releases: Where's the drumbeat?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Last week's news was dominated by a larger-than-life figure whose cartoonishly confident self-image was battered by revelations that high-level staffers were engaging in questionable practices while trying to get their jobs done.
No, I'm not talking about Rupert Murdoch, but rather Paul LePage, Maine's governor. There was the Phoenix's own story about a man we'll dub "Copy-Paste LePage" for the way he turns private-interest memos into public policy (see "The LePage Files," by Colin Woodard, July 22, for the details of how lobbyists control his agenda, including overruling his own ideas). And there was the blistering letter released by resigning marine resources commissioner Norman Olsen, accusing LePage of answering to anonymous special interests in the state's fisheries industry, refusing to communicate with one of his cabinet members, and directing public policy by private polls.
Stories like the Murdoch scandal are best handled by a practice Murdoch himself perfected: the constant drumbeat of new revelations, with even minor ones being used as an excuse to recycle all the old allegations, day in and day out, week after week, until the target of the reporting is beaten and battered, with public disgrace forever attached to his name.
LePage fares better in the tame Maine media ecosystem. There is clear evidence that the corporate influence-peddling in the LePage administration has reached levels that in most other states would be considered unacceptable — if not downright corrupt (see, in our own pages, "LePage's Secret Bankers," January 21 and "LePage's Secret Puppeteers," February 11. both by Colin Woodard).
But the Portland Press HeraldBangor Daily News, and Lewiston Sun Journal — the state's biggest three papers — have given a pass to the governor and his cronies.
They changed that practice slightly when Olsen issued his statement — it was simply too inflammatory to be ignored, especially when written by a career US diplomat, who well knows the importance of word choice. But a week after these charges were issued, the headlines are gone, and LePage can go on his merry way with the tacit approval of the leaders of the state's media organizations.
If you're hoping these newspapers' State House bureaus are just digging behind the scenes and will begin their drumbeat soon, think again.
The coverage of a LePage "town hall" meeting in Dover-Foxcroft (his latest in the "Capitol for a Day" series) was, in fact, clearly friendly to the governor. None of the three papers took even a moment to note that the "questions from the audience" that LePage took were selected by his staff, from among written questions submitted by people as they entered the room before the event started.
MaineToday writer Susan Cover went so far as to say "No one asked LePage about the resignation of his marine resources commissioner" the day before. Her story did not say whether that assertion was based on checking the pile of submitted questions, or whether she simply tallied those that got past the LePage censors and were permitted to be raised aloud — but a meeting attendee suggests she did the latter.
Chris Korzen, co-founder and director of Maine's Majority, says members of his group (the folks with the "61%" stickers and T-shirts) did indeed submit questions about Olsen, as well as about those copy-paste-from-lobbyist practices. Korzen was not surprised that none were chosen. He characterized the meeting as "noncontroversial" and noteworthy mainly because, unlike other such events, where tempers have run hot on all sides, "there was nothing really remarkable at all" at the Dover-Foxcroft event.
While legal investigations are proceeding, public opinion seems clear that Murdoch's staffers engaged in despicable and deplorable acts that may yet clip the wings of his empire. But it seems regrettably likely that the revelations about LePage's public-trust violations have already finished their brief appearance in Maine's media. Unless the drumbeat starts.