Thursday, February 6, 2014

Press Releases: Unleash the beef

Published in the Portland Phoenix

I’ve got some beefs with the Maine media. The state’s Freedom of Access Act is meant to be used by all Mainers, for all sorts of reasons. But the press has historically been fickle about which issues they’ll issue those requests about.
Of course, the press should have — and did — demand access to the so-called Alexander report, the $1 million hatchet job a conservative crony of Republican Governor Paul LePage did in order to justify failing to expand health-care coverage to tens of thousands of Mainers.
But what about a case described as “the second federal probe into serious allegations against Governor LePage’s administration,” in which “it’s been nine months since these allegations were first made and we know that documents have been destroyed, the FBI is now involved and favoritism may have been played”? No freedom-of-information requests there.
At least not from the media; those quotes are from Ben Grant, chairman of the Maine Democratic Party, explaining why his organization last week made FOAA requests for correspondence between the LePage administration and Department of Health and Human Services and Maine Center for Disease Control officials relating to shredding of documents used to justify the awarding of $4 million in public-health grants.
This is even more galling because it was a press inquiry for public records that started the whole affair. The Lewiston Sun Journal’s inquiry into CDC grants led to the shredding of supporting documents, according to whistleblower complaints filed by former Maine CDC worker Sharon Leahy-Lind.
But rather than dig to the bottom of the affair itself, the Sun Journal has left the opportunity for what should be straight-up investigative news coverage to become politicized by the involvement of the Maine Dems.
This is a disservice to Mainers, who expect their media outlets to engage in investigation without partisanship. Now the press coverage will not be about whether the governor ordered the shredding, but the Republican administration’s response to the Democrats’ request, and the political gamesmanship and tit-for-tat that ensues.
>> Even more craven and spineless were the reporters called to an off-the-record meeting with LePage on January 27. According to Press Herald State House reporter Steve Mistler’s account, the administration didn’t invite the Press HeraldSun Journal, or the Bangor Daily News’s bureau chief, though apparently another BDN reporter was there.
My problem isn’t with the selective invitation, which is just another example of the governor’s longstanding ill-will toward the press. I’m disappointed that only one of the reporters who was there appears to have objected to the off-the-record nature of the discussion.
When public officials speak on issues to reporters, Mainers have an expectation — of both the public servants and the press — that they should be able to hear or read what was said. This sort of control of access and information has been decried at the highest levels of the media world, against restrictive White House Press Office policies under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It has no place there, and none here in Maine either.
>> My last beef isn’t with a reporter, but a politician fearing questioning. It’s a national story that after the State of the Union address last week, New York Republican Congressman Michael Grimm reacted badly to being asked by television reporter Michael Scotto about a federal probe into his campaign’s fundraising activities.
After storming out of the interview, Grimm returned and was caught on camera threatening Scotto, saying “I will throw you off this fucking balcony,” and “I will break you.” Grimm’s non-apology apology claimed he expects “a certain level of professionalism and respect” from reporters. This is very much like the threatened violence and claimed appeal to standards of decency that LePage has at times used when criticizing reporters for doing their jobs well (i.e. asking questions that make politicians uncomfortable and demanding public accountability).
In case it’s not clear, here’s the official notice from the media to all who serve the public: Transparency is part of the job, not a luxury. If you don’t like it, don’t get elected or take a job with a government agency. It’s as simple as that, and we’ll brook no beefs about it.