Monday, November 24, 2008

The Maine Media

After clicking "Publish Post" and tipping off a few national outlets, I go to bed August 13 convinced that I've stumbled on a scoop.

And sure enough, the next morning my hunch is confirmed: By sunrise, the post I've written about Sen. Collins and a stunningly undignified radio interview has been picked up by Election Central. In the hours that follow--as the Collins Watch hit counter soars high into triple and The Politico also run stories.

That prominent local publications are a bit slower to pick up on the news isn't much of a surprise. By August, I've learned that hoping for timely, incisive coverage from PPH and BDN--and pointing out the gaps in their coverage--is an exercise in futility.

By August, it's become clear that just about anything that might cast Sen. Collins in a negative light is bound to be dismissed or ignored by both papers.

And so I've realized that a better way--and maybe the only way--to get Maine's two most influential outlets to pay attention to salient developments in the Allen-Collins race is to go over their heads, directly to the national media.

My theory? By forcing the papers to chase national coverage of a story in their own backyard, editors might become embarrassed enough to actually do their jobs.

It seems like a plausible hypothesis. Certainly nothing else had worked.

And sure enough, late in morning, with the Collins interview story bouncing from one national outlet to the next, my judgment is vindicated: I receive an e-mail from a PPH reporter, asking to talk on the phone.


Flash forward 24 hours.

It's now a full day-and-a-half since my original Wednesday night post--and an entire news cycle since the Collins interview has made the rounds of the national media.

With the story continuing to gather steam, something seems amiss: There's still no sign of coverage from the AP.

The AP's failure, even late on Friday morning, to acknowledge the story is puzzling for a couple of reasons: First, as the one national news organization with a journalistic presence in Maine, it seems perfectly positioned to deliver an authoritative article on the the incident.

But more to the point: I'd actually included an AP reporter in my original Wednesday night batch of e-mails. (In August, I remained agnostic about the quality of the AP's Allen-Collins coverage--there had been precious little of it.) So there's simply no reason for the wire service to be late to the party.

And yet, still nothing.

What to make of the AP's apparent silence--36 hours and two calendar days later--about a development quickly becoming the most attention-grabbing twist in the Allen-Collins race?

As I mull that question over late Friday morning, a story finally finds its way onto, Foster's Daily Democrat and elsewhere around 11am.

Better late than never.

But there's a problem. And it's a big one: The story has a key fact wrong.

And not just wrong, but wrong in a way that completely recasts the events in question.

Here's the beginning of the article's third paragraph:

During the Portland radio program, Collins was asked if she thought Edwards was the father.
If you remember the Collins interview, you know that this isn't just kinda-sorta-not-correct. It's a complete invention: Collins wasn't asked anything of the kind.

Indeed, the fact that Collins wasn't asked is a big part of why her breach of decorum garnered so much attention: She'd blabbed and blabbed about Edwards with very little prompting

Collins, you'll remember, seemed to seize on a single, open-ended question ("Were you shocked [about Edwards]?") to drive the conversation in a sordid, gossipy direction minutes later.

And yet here was the AP, falsely framing her claim about Edwards as if it had been elicited by a direct question.

How on earth did such a basic, obvious error make its way into the copy?

After all, the video was available for repeated viewing online. It could be stopped, restarted and replayed. And even on a single viewing, anyone paying attention would come away knowing that Collins hadn't been asked directly about Edwards' paternity.

So was the AP extraordinarily lazy? Was the reporter actively attempting to whitewash the incident?

(It's worth noting that, somehow, an identical error made its way into a contemporaneous report from WCSH6. It would be interesting to know--though I've never tried to find out--whether either outlet talked to the Collins campaign during the preparation of their stories.)

As soon as I finish reading the article, I send an e-mail to the AP reporter I'd originally contacted about the scoop. And he writes back within minutes to acknowledge the error and tell me that the story would be corrected.

In the meantime, the false story pops up on more news sites. And when the fix does surface, it swaps in language that, while technically true, leaves the same false impression:

When asked during the Portland radio program about the affair, Collins said she thought Edwards was the father.
Of course, you'd think, reading that sentence, that Collins' commentary about Edwards paternity was a reply to something that had actually been asked. You'd have no grounds to conclude--and be surprised to learn--that her claim about Edwards was made more or less unprompted. Or that it was made as Collins returned the conversation to Edwards even after the host had attempted to change the subject.

Again: Not exactly false. And not a complete whitewash. But also not how you'd characterize the exchange if your aim (and your job) was to accurately capture what had transpired.

When I e-mail the AP to point out that the new language is--at best--misleading, I receive a curt reply 10 minutes later.

Does the reply concede that the sentence is unhelpful, or at least inartful? Will the AP fix the story in an effort to deliver readers a more accurate picture of the interview?

What do you think?

Saturday papers in Maine and elsewhere carry the misleading text.

Except for the papers that run the original, categorically false version.


Back to that e-mail from PPH.

I give the reporter a call, and we talk for a bit.

Our discussion is off the record. But one of the reporter's unspoken aims, clearly, is to assess whether I'd been tipped off to the interview's existence by the Allen campaign. (I hadn't been, and say so.)

So a good deal of our chat is about how word of the interview spread on the web and where it spread to.

I hang up the phone encouraged: It seems like PPH is going to follow through here.

And sure enough, an article surfaces on the PPH website within hours.

To the reporter's credit, the piece (unlike the later AP story) accurately summarizes the radio interview and quotes from it at length. But there's a curious claim tucked in toward the middle of the article:

The video is now circulating around the Internet, mainly on political blogs written by Democrats.
It's a strange observation to make: After all, how often does PPH, as part of its coverage, examine which other outlets are pursuing the same story? And how does introducing such an expansive, time-sensitive claim advance the reader's understanding of the underlying issue?

Notably, the claim seems designed to diminish the story in the minds of readers--by telegraphing that the video is garnering attention mostly from Democratic partisans.

In short, it strikes me as an odd choice. But that's just my take, of course. Including the claim is certainly a defensible news judgment--provided that it's true.

The problem is, it isn't true. And hasn't been since the story broke.

By any objective count, and all day long, the video had been posted on at least as many non-partisan sites (among them,, The Politico,, WGME, PPH itself) as left-leaning blogs (Collins Watch, Turn Maine Blue, Daily Kos, Maine Politics and Senate Guru).

And so what we're left with is a false, superfluous sentence that just so happens to serve as Collins-friendly spin, undermining criticism of the junior senator that arises from the interview.

I point this out in an e-mail to the reporter at 5:45pm, shortly after the online "news update" goes live on the web. I remind him about all the non-partisan sites on which the video can be found, and include a current list.

As you might guess, the e-mail receives no reply. The story isn't fixed for the print edition. As far as I know, no correction ever runs.


These are two of the more obvious--and least important--reporting errors that redounded to Susan Collins' advantage over the course of the campaign.

By contrast, the lion's share of media falsehoods, omissions, mischaracterizations and elisions that Collins benefited from were more subtle, and more substantive.

Of course, the most glaring, systemic problem with the coverage from BDN, PPH and the AP was the way all three uncritically accepted--and reinforced--Collins' moderate branding.

Neither of Maine's influential dailies interrogated Collins' claims to ideological independence: Not a single article in either publication was devoted to putting her carefully-crafted moderate image in the context of her actual record in Congress.

Not a single piece set her bipartisan rhetoric up against her actions in the Senate.

And when Allen was allowed to discuss Collins' record--on the rare occasions when the papers printed more than a soundbite--his allegations were always placed in the context of he-said/she-said coverage. Never were they used as a jumping off point for further examination and reporting.

That's the big picture. And it says a lot about how uninterested both papers were in bringing a critical, hard news approach to Senate race coverage.

But there were tons of flagrant, day-to-day flaws in the coverage, too.

At BDN, a former Collins staffer (with a wife who recently worked for the junior senator) ran a paper that, even before the campaign started, was famous for skewing its coverage to prop up Collins.

And in 2007-8, BDN didn't disappoint: It passed off objective facts unfriendly to Collins as allegations; framed Collins-friendly assertions as fact; collapsed distinctions between the two candidates that put Collins at a disadvantage; gave Collins more--and more prominent-- coverage than her opponent; cherry-picked statistics to lead readers away from the truth; mischaracterized the state of the race; and complained about efforts to film Collins in public.

(A September e-mail to BDN editor Mark Woodward asking about how his recusal from campaign coverage had worked out went unreturned.)

Meanwhile, BDN's schizophrenic editorial page managed to heartily endorse Collins even as it criticized the Iraq war, supported the Employee Free Choice Act, opposed retroactive immunity for telecom companies and opposed gutting habeas corpus. (Can anyone square that circle for me?)

In sum, BDN's coverage was preposterous. It was a joke. No informed, careful reader could possibly take it seriously.

PPH, however, was a more complicated--and more troubling--case.

More troubling because Portland Press Herald is widely perceived as a center-left outlet and an honest broker of information.

Over the last couple of years, it's earned a reputation for dull, spotty coverage. But when it came to the Allen-Collins race, few casual observers would have expected the paper's news judgment to tilt markedly toward Susan Collins.

And yet that's exactly what happened.

PPH rewrote history in its headlines; glossed over key difference between Collins and Allen on Iraq; drew false equivalencies to downplay egregious behavior from the Collins camp; took months to look at the false card check attacks on Allen; parroted Collins' misleading charges about Allen without debunking them; and in April through July, hid polls that showed a close race while trumpeting those that put Collins well ahead.

(That last point may seem minor. But keep in mind: For a challenger, fundraising is much easier when a race appears close than when there's a wide margin. By emphasizing polls that showed Collins way ahead, the paper made it harder for Allen to raise money--and thus, harder for him to close the gap with Collins.)

Notably, the paper never even ran profiles of the two candidates.

And even though PPH serves a left-leaning constituency, and though the race was widely thought to be pivotal to Democratic hopes of reaching 60 seats, the paper never offered a single article or a chart sketching out the positions of the candidates on the major issues.

It also often ignored the race for extended period.

On its opinion page, it ran scarcely any op-Eds on the race in the months leading up to the election. In fact, the page featured more frequent and incisive coverage of the Allen-Collins race in 2007 than 2008.

Of course, as everyone knows, in 2008 PPH found itself facing steep losses and layoffs. And so it makes sense to wonder whether the paper's red ink might explain the glaring, incumbent-friendly omissions in its coverage.

But that seems not to have been the case: After all, if scarcity of resources was the problem, how did editors find the time and space to run a lavish six part series contrasting President-elect Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on the issues?

Why was such a substantive, comprehensive approach taken to the McCain-Obama race--even though national outlets were better positioned to cover it--while the paper virtually ignored the important national race that it was uniquely situated to examine.

Clearly, what we're talking about here is a question not of resources but of priorities. Scrutinizing Susan Collins simply wasn't high on PPH's list.


So were people inside PPH actively hoping to help Collins--or were they just lazy, and inappropriately deferential?

From my vantage point, it makes little difference--the effect is what matters.

(Though it certainly raises eyebrows that the paper's campaign coverage was overseen by Andrew Russell, who managed to spike PPH's biggest political scoop of the decade and then retain his job through several rounds of cuts over the years that followed.)

That's not to0 say that the skewed coverage from PPH--or BDN or the AP--proved decisive in the Allen-Collins race. And it's doesn't in any way excuse or explain away the Allen campaign's mistakes. (I'd argue that one of their biggest miscalculations was not appreciating just how hostile a media environment they faced.)

But the biased coverage clearly did have an impact--both by framing the race for Mainers and by filtering down to other print outlets and local TV.

We can't know exactly how thing might have played out if, for example, PPH had swapped staffs with the no-nonsense, professional folks at Anchorage Daily News.

But the examples of Minnesota and Oregon--two blue states that featured competitive Senate races this fall--provide some clues.

In both of those progressive states, center-right newspapers (the Star Tribune and Oregonian, respectively) play crucial media roles. But in each case, owners and editors seem to have given political reporters the leeway to follow stories where they led, and to pursue them aggressively.

And in both states, respected alternative weeklies help to keep the big papers honest: Editors know that their coverage risks being ridiculed in print--and scooped--if it becomes biased or lackadaisacal.

(For whatever reason, The Portland Phoenix, which seems well-positioned to play such a role, took little interest in the Allen-Collins race.)

Those differences mattered. And while there were certainly many other factors at play, it's an important part of why Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) were less successful than Collins at portraying themselves as non-ideological, post-partisan figures.


Anyway, all that is history.

The good news is that the recent sale of PPH provides a great opportunity for turning the page.

On the other hand, the fact that the paper was sold to well-connected establishment types isn't particulary encouraging.

Will the new owners be more interested in telling readers the truth? Or in playing kingmaker--and coddling the powerful?

Will they want a newsroom full of reporters who follow the facts where they lead? Who ask tough questions that speak to the interests and concerns of their readers? Or will they want a paper peopled by yes-men and yes-women who do their best not to ruffle any feathers?

And: Will anyone ask them any of these questions?

It would be a bit overdramatic to say that the health of Maine's democracy rides on the answers. But not by much.


Anonymous said...

dude, get a life!

You don't even live in Maine , do you?

Anonymous said...

Don't blame the newspapers for your candidate's demise. Bottom line...Tom Allen and his cronies ran a poor campaign. Live with it.

KayInMaine said...
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Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the PPH and BDN to task for their abysmal coverage of this race. Their lack of interst in comparing the two candidates' actual voting records was stunning, and the PPH endorsement of Collins was indefensible and illogical.

Anonymous said...

Collins simple said what most were thinking: Edwards was a lowlife. To imply that she should have been defeated over this issue reveals Collins Watch and its one-sided opinion. No problem, being partisan is o.k., just own up to why your guy got beat. He ran a poor campaign with out of staters in charge, never gave voters a reason to support him, and had his lunch handed to him by the Collins team. That was the big difference.

Anonymous said...

Blaming the press is the last refuge of a loosing campaign. In the last 10 days Allen showed weakness by letting his wife do the fighting. The press conference where he stood aside and had his daughter and wife do the talking was pitiful. Even if the media had been in the can for Allen he would have fallen short. Just not ready for the big stage and unpopular outside of Portland's peninsula - no amount of newspaper coverage could overcome that.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.