Saturday, November 3, 2012

Systemic Failure and the Maine Press

Four states will be voting on marriage equality-related referendums next Tuesday.

Of the eight senators who represent those states, six have told voters where they stand on the issue and how they'll vote on election day.

In Maryland, Sens. Mikulski (D) and Cardin (D) support the state's same-sex marriage law, as do Sens. Cantwell (D) and Murray (D) in Washington state. (Like Sen. Snowe, Murray voted for DOMA in 1996. Unlike Snowe, she has repudiated that vote.)

In Minnesota, meanwhile, Sens. Klobuchar (D) and Franken (D) have been vocal opponents of a referendum to add a ban on same-sex marriage to the state's constitution. Franken and his wife Franni have appeared in a poignant ad on the subject.

That leaves Sens. Collins and Snowe. Neither senator has taken a public position on Maine's referendum, which they'll be voting on in three days. Their silence hasn't garnered a single mention from the state's major media outlets--not a single article or blog post on the subject.

All we've got to go on, courtesy of the Washington Blade, is this:

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she's "considering" her position on the initiative in an email provided Thursday morning to the Washington Blade...

"Next month, the voters in Maine will be asked to decide if they will allow the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Like voters in my state, I am considering this issue very carefully."

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who's set to retire Congress at the end of this year, expressed a similarly neutral position in a separate statement later Thursday.

"It is left to individual states through the legislature or referenda to make their own determinations on this personal issue--and the people of Maine will now make this final determination come Election Day," Snowe said.

As I noted last week, Collins's response--that she's still "considering" the issue--is both cowardly and insincere. Indeed, it takes a special kind of cowardice to ask for a pass on the most contested social issue of the decade mere days before you'll be voting on it.

But looking at the cowardice of Collins and Snowe in isolation would be a mistake. It's important to ask why Snowe and Collins think they can get away with it. And the answer there is clear: It's only a viable political strategy because of the deference of the Maine press.

In a healthier media ecosystem, this kind of dynamic would never exist. Reporters, hungry for good stories, would be more interested in challenging Snowe and Collins than coddling them. Editors would be more worried about churning out salient copy than about tiptoeing around powerful pols. And outlets would be tripping over each other to be the first to report out such a high profile scoop.

Take Minnesota, whose media scene I'm at least loosely familiar with: If Franken and Klobuchar tried to dodge such a major issue, they would be pressed for answers by print, radio and TV reporters; ducked question would yield unflattering headlines; and ridicule on the opinion pages and in the alternative weeklies would follow soon after.

But in Maine, since Collins and Snowe would prefer not to discuss the topic, the question never gets asked. Even as reporters work with both senators to advance the narratives they're interested in pushing.

This isn't a blind spot. It's a systemic failure. And when you've been watching it for as long as I have, it's hard to accept that it's an accident.

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