Thursday, May 5, 2016

Behind The Curtain

Activist and blogger Mike Tipping buried what seemed a rather explosive charge--whether he meant it as such or not--deep in a recent post on what Sen. Susan Collins's past willingness to support bigoted and xenophobic pols might tell us about her posture toward presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Tipping makes a compelling case that she's likely to back the misogynistic real estate mogul.)

Here's the key nugget:

Last December, when I wrote about how Republicans were standing by Rep. Jeff Pierce, the latest in a string of Maine GOP state legislators to make bigoted and racist comments on social media, I used a photo of Pierce standing with Collins and LePage to illustrate the post. A member of Collins' staff called the Bangor Daily News to complain and the newspaper asked me to remove the photo. We eventually came to a compromise where it was replaced as the featured image but remained on the page.
In short, Tipping seemed to be suggesting that he was pressured by editors into tweaking the post at the behest of a prominent public figure--something that struck me (and apparently others) as a quintessential journalistic no-no.

And while Tipping himself later rejected the "censorship" label, the idea that editors were pushing to excise a photo (pictured above) because it made the state's most powerful and senior elected official uncomfortable doesn't exactly scan as a model of free and open discourse.

That the paper's former editor and his wife did stints as Collins staffers (the editor subsequently returned to the newsroom) and that BDN owners have repeatedly donated to her campaigns provides more fodder for skepticism about the outlet's actions and its motives here.

That BDN has a long history of covering Collins more like a hometown hero than an accountable pol in its news pages--and famously skewed its coverage to her advantage at a pivotal moment in her career--only compounds the sense that something fishy may have been afoot.

So I reached out to BDN's Director of News Anthony Ronzio for an explanation--and to Tipping for his take as well.

Ronzio suggested via e-mail that the issue wasn't so much the photo itself as its presence as a click-thru image on the BDN homepage next to an unfavorable headline (the post is titled "Awful, bigoted comments by Maine Republican legislators are now routine"):

The matter, as I recall it, was how the blog photo and headline appeared on the BDN homepage. That triggered a complaint from Collins’ folks. We strive to ensure stories on the BDN homepage are presented accurately and fairly, and this didn’t pass that test...

In short, we treated this situation no differently than we would treat concerns expressed by the Maine People's Alliance, other elected officials, athletic directors, businesses or readers in general. It happens all the time.

He then pasted in a screenshot of what he intimated was a parallel circumstance--a shot of Betty White with her middle finger extended, which presumably offended some reader or readers.

For his part, Tipping wrote via e-mail, "I think it was...reasonable for the BDN to consider what photo went with the post as a featured image on other pages." He also clarified that his blog discussion of the back-and-forth with Collins and BDN was included to draw attention to what it indicated about the Collins camp rather than what it might suggest about BDN's editorial process. harm no foul?

Maybe. Certainly the wrinkle about the homepage layout puts the push to revise the post in a somewhat different light.

And yet it's still nowhere near clear to me why BDN felt it necessary to honor the Collins camp request: Namely, what cost to fairness or accuracy would there have been if Collins had been pictured next to a disgraced pol and a negative headline?

Especially given the thrust of Tipping's piece--focusing on the normalization of bigoted acts within the Maine GOP--didn't it make perfect sense to illustrate it with a photo tying the offender to the state party's most powerful figure? Isn't the salience and pertinence of that connection pretty much self-evident?

Ronzio didn't reply to a request for clarification, so I can only speculate. But reading between the lines, his fear seems to have been something like the following: That a reader scanning the page could conceivably have assumed that Collins was the Maine Republican legislator guilty of "awful, bigoted comments".

But the obvious retort to that what? Headlines can and do necessarily connote all sorts of things that, if taken completely out of context, aren't supported by the accompanying story--which in this case was only one click away.

The idea that basic fairness implies an imperative to protect a three-term US senator from even the prospect that some incurious reader somewhere might arrive at erroneous conclusions (that some blogger thinks she's "awful" I guess?) and then not click through to get a more accurate picture is a huge stretch.

What's more, that such a conclusion seems obvious to Ronzio (and whoever pulled the trigger here) suggests that BDN puts an extremely high value on avoiding offense--to such an extent that this priority risks crowding out more worthy objectives, like conveying to readers the unvarnished truth about their leaders. (Ronzio's inapposite comparison between a photo showing an obscene hand gesture and an utterly kosher, non-obscene photo only furthers this sense.)

It also reflects an internalized timidity and a knee-jerk willingness to accommodate Collins camp complaints--something which exists throughout the Maine media--that would be totally foreign in any number of other media ecosystems: Plenty of competitive, scoop-hungry editors in cities across the country would see the availability of a photo headline depicting the association between a disgraced pol and prominent figure like Collins as a boon--a feature rather than a bug notwithstanding the official's complaints--because of the attention it draws and the news value it adds.

That kind of competitive, confrontational spirit simply doesn't exist in Maine--at least when it comes to Susan Collins. And that's a real shame and a genuine problem.

Because while, per Tipping, it was probably reasonable for BDN to take steps to insulate Collins from even the risk that her stature might suffer some infinitesimal, undeserved dent, it would have been equally reasonable to tell the Collins camp to go fly a kite--to quit being so sensitive and instead get used to the idea that it isn't the media's job to safeguard her reputation or her political brand.

The Maine media landscape could sure use an injection of that kind of maturity, unsentimentality and moxie when it comes to the state's most powerful politician.

I've been watching the Maine press long enough to know that I better not hold my breath waiting for it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Collins Inches Closer

Just about ready to get on the Trump train.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

You Can't Make It Up

One-time Financial Planning Association lobbyist Phillips Hinch has joined the staff of Sen. Susan Collins as a senior policy adviser.

According to his "revolving door profile" at, Hinch was lobbying less than four years ago--on issues like finance, retirement and taxes.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Game, Set, Match

Sen. Susan Collins on the prospect of Donald Trump winning the Republican nomination:

"I don't think his nomination would be catastrophic."

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Too Little Too Late?

ThinkProgress has a deep dive on the biomass amendment Sen. Susan Collins proposed earlier this week:

Environmentalists around the country are now incensed over an approved amendment categorizing bioenergy as carbon neutral--a move that groups say puts forests and even portions of the Clean Power Plan at risk.

"I think it's a very dangerous amendment," said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an interview with ThinkProgress. "It tries to dictate that burning forests for energy won't affect the climate, that's what the term carbon neutral is supposed to mean and that's just not true. You can't legislate away basic physics."


Environmentalists say the amendment sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) interferes with the EPA's efforts, as it explicitly tells agencies to adopt policies that reflect the carbon neutrality of forests' bioenergy. They also argue that it may incentivize cutting forests for energy and most importantly, undo important provisions of the Clean Power Plan that call for reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector through increased use of renewable sources.

Some key questions: Why was the green community caught off guard here? How on earth did this thing pass on a voice vote?

And why aren't environmental organizations that endorsed Collins (like League of Conservation Voters) and those that didn't (like Sierra Club) raising a bigger ruckus in social media and elsewhere to try to head the amendment off before it becomes law?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

No Roll Call on Collins Amendment

Politico confirms that the Sen. Susan Collins amendment to override EPA scientists about the climate implications of burning wood was indeed adopted--by a voice vote.

How exactly does that happen?

MPBN has also posted a strong article on the issue--the best I've seen from them in a while.

Enviros Blast Collins on Biomass

Still trying to get the facts about the status of the Collins/King effort to undermine the EPA's Clean Power Plan.

Meanwhile, a slew of environmental organizations including League of Conservation Voters, National Resource Defense Council and Sierra Club are out with a strong joint statement blasting the amendment:

The amendment would require that federal policy shall "reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy." This requirement would result in substantial damage to forests and climate by undermining the scientific process established by the EPA...

Cutting and burning our forests to generate electricity is not "carbon neutral." Per megawatt-hour, wood- burning power plants emit more CO2 than fossil-fueled plants...this amendment would therefore sanction and promote high-carbon sources of energy in federal policy, undermining the gains we are poised to make under the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Accord, and other climate policies.

Moreover, this amendment amounts to legislative interference with what should be a science-based policy...

This amendment is an environmentally damaging and scientifically indefensible approach to biomass policy.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Amnesia Watch

Sinclair Broadcast Group video and text January 26, 2016:

[Sen. Susan Collins] says the recent indictment of the people behind the undercover [anti-Planned Parenthood] video is a, "cautionary lesson" to others on Capitol Hill to wait for all the facts on an issue before passing any legislation.

"It shows that it was premature to move to any kind of elimination of funding for Planned Parenthood...I'm personally very happy that I opposed all the attempts to defund Planned Parenthood."

Portland Press Herald, August 4, 2015:
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is coming under unusual fire from women’s health groups for supporting a Republican-backed effort to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood.


Planned Parenthood has been under intense criticism since anti-abortion activists released secretly recorded video of organization leaders discussing the use of fetal tissue from abortions for research purposes. That has resulted in allegations that Planned Parenthood profits from abortions and prompted a drive by Senate conservatives to strip the organization of its federal funding.