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.


Collins Watch said...

Here's the full text of Mike Tipping's e-mail, which he asked me to post:

"I think it was a reasonable request from Collins' staff and reasonable for the BDN to consider what photo went with the post as a featured image on other pages. I wasn't censored at all. I do find it interesting that Collins' staff is attuned to issues of perception around her ties with more extreme members of her party and that's why I mentioned it in the post."

Greg Kesich said...

I understand why the BDN would take the photo down. If you have a headline that says "Republicans say horrible racist things" next to a photo of three Republicans, it's reasonable to infer that all of the Republicans in the photo made those statements. The post calls Collins out for condoning people like LePage and Pierce, not for making the statements herself. That makes the combination of the headline and photo misleading. It's not censorship, it's editing for accuracy.