Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Press Releases: Avoiding the issues

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Governor Paul LePage's "Gestapo" mess has largely subsided, but ripples remain — among them key insights into the squeamishness of Maine journalists, and the information thereby denied to the people of the Pine Tree State.
By now, we've all heard that the guv's July 7 radio address equated the IRS with the Nazis' secret police. He got thrown under the bus by his own press aide for personally changing his scripted radio address, failed to apologize by expressing regret for others' offense (rather than for his own misstep), repeated and embellished the comparison when approached by a Vermont reporter, and then ultimately issued an actual apology in his July 14 radio address — as well as, we're told, private ones to members of Maine's Jewish community.
The first remarkable thing was the conduct of the reporter, Paul Heintz of the Burlington alt-weekly Seven Days. When LePage said the IRS was "heading in the direction" of becoming an agency dealing death (during a July 12 fundraiser for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Vermont), Heintz asked the question so many of us here in Maine — LePage fans and haters alike — wanted to ask: "Are you serious?" (LePage was, and kept digging his hole deeper.)
Maine reporters aren't really known for asking uppity questions of this — or any — governor. It's not just a LePage thing, though the guv has regularly bullied journalists to a degree unheard of in prior administrations. We all remember his campaign-trail threat to punch a reporter in the face, and telling another her question was "bullshit." But reporters are generally known for standing up to bullies — even at risk of their own lives. Not here.
And of course LePage's communications staff shields him from the press pretty completely. Can you think of the last time LePage held a press conference with questions from the media — or even a public question-and-answer session where his staff didn't filter the inquiries? And his performance on transparency is abysmal — he and top administration officials don't even take notes in meetings any more, concerned that those documents would be available to the world under public-records laws.
But then again, LePage appears at all kinds of public events, announced in advance by press releases from his office, no doubt hoping for positive coverage highlighting whatever it is that he's doing. If Maine's reporters really wanted an answer from the governor, they know how to find him, on schedule and in person.
The second remarkable thing was the fruit that reporter's questioning bore for a public interested to know what their governor thinks on key issues of the day.
As was revealed under Heintz's questioning, the Gestapo comparison is clear evidence of LePage's deep misunderstanding of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Sure, LePage knew what the Gestapo did ("they killed a lot of people"), but more to the point, he thought the IRS was going to end up doing something similar by somehow forcing health-care "rationing" on Americans. (Side note: He appears either to approve or be unaware of the rationing we now experience, in favor of the rich.)
Heintz's interview broke the news that LePage subscribes to a much-discredited right-wing claim that failure to comply with the ACA's requirement to get insurance or pay a fine could land a person in jail — though the ACA itself expressly prohibits any criminal penalty.
If you add that to LePage's previously reported belief, shared by only a select few Republican governors elsewhere, that the Supreme Court's ACA ruling allows him to throw tens of thousands of Mainers off MaineCare, we begin to see a picture of the width and depth of the policy confusion experienced by His Excellency the Governor of Maine.
That's the kind of insight into our governor's thinking local audiences expect from our own media. Sadly, we're more successful seeking it in sources from away.