Sunday, August 20, 2006

Looking for some real news

Maine’s media community is woeful at best and non-existent at worst. The former purveyors of hard news—the daily publications—have given themselves over to fluff pieces, weekly spin-offs and fake news supplements. While Maine’s newspapers face a challenge, with our state’s, population of just over 1 million, which contributes to flagging circulation numbers, our “flagship” newspaper, headquartered in the state’s largest city of Portland, could attempt to practice journalism, at least occasionally.

While I was spared another patronizing Sunday column this week from the Portland Newspapers’ Jeanne Guttman, I’m sure she’ll be back soon, probably touting their latest journalistic “technique”—the investigative column.

For those who may not be familiar with the Sunday newspaper of the Portland Newspapers (owned by the out-of-state Blethen News company), the Maine Sunday Telegram frequently carries a column by Guttman, the paper’s editor. Guttman regularly sermonizes on the trials, tribulations and difficulties inherent in being a newspaper, or how hard it is being an editor, or some combination of these basic themes. She frequently “shares” with us some “success story” that they’ve had, or gushes about the work of some intern who just wrote their first column, or how her staff all love her and just are the best people she’s ever been associated with (sniff, sniff). OK, so I’m going over the top here. I think you get the drift. All you really need to know about the editor of Maine’s largest paper can be gleaned from this older article in the Portland Phoenix. [This link doesn't appear to be loading; it might be down temporarily, or the story may have disappeared down the memory hole. I'll continue to try to update this link, or find an alternative.--jb]

This Sunday, the MST rolled out a new technique on their front page, or possibly, it was an older technique, I just happened to miss it. At the very top of the front page was an investigative story about overtime costs at the Portland Fire Department. Just in case we might not be aware that the Portland Newspaper’s reporters still practiced investigative journalism, the story was labeled, “Telegram Investigation: Portland Firefighters” in red. Just below it, on the right, above the fold, was another story about a possible ethics violation at the Maine Turnpike Authority. Investigative journalism on the pages of the Maine Sunday Telegram—“Hallelujah and glory be to God!”

Speaking of the turnpike, the Lewiston Sun-Journal, which lies northwest of Portland, as one travels Maine’s major north-south artery, semi-regularly practices journalism of the investigative variety. Better than that, they don’t label their stories, because apparently, S-J readers are familiar that the practice of journalism includes investigative work. In fact, one of their editorial page editors, David Farmer, had a solid investigative piece about how the TABOR initiative was being funded by large out of state interests. With this so-called “people’s revolt” actually part of a well-orchestrated national strategy that has ties to right-of-center conservative and libertarian groups with ties to people like Grover Norquist, Farmer’s piece is the kind of needful reporting that used to pass for news, back when most journalists took their craft seriously and editors demanded much more from their staffs. Newspapers, while they have always been financed by advertising, didn’t always place reporting in the subservient role that it occupies today.

As Chris Busby, one of the few muckraking journalists left in a state that at one time had a proud tradition for that brand of journalism (think the Maine Times, under John Cole), has an editorial (The Bollard's View; August 14, 2006-Blethen foists fake newspaper on Portland) about some of the practices of his hometown newspapers, the Portland Press Herald and the Maine Sunday Telegram.

For those Mainers (and others, from away) who remember the days when reporters reported on the happenings and hi jinks of crooks, criminals and corrupt politicians (often the same people), Busby’s online publication, The Bollard is a worthwhile read. While certainly Portland-centric in content, it’s a refreshing read and will help purge your system from the impaction that is caused by the drivel emanating from the likes of Guttman and Co.

I can hardly wait for next week’s column from my favorite editor. What new journalistic tip or trade secret will she let us in on next? I can only imagine.


Rikki said...

I hope this isn't bad form, but here is the story as I found it using Google's cache feature:

Ax finally falls on Cohen

The Portland Press Herald, after several years of getting its nerve up, has fired reporter Ted Cohen, who in July 2000 unearthed the story of George W. Bush’s 1976 DWI arrest in Kennebunkport. Cohen’s editor promptly spiked the story, with the result that it didn’t get out into the national media until just before the 2000 election.

The discovery that the Press Herald sat on the story embarrassed executive editor Jeannine Guttman and made the paper an object of ridicule among journalists. Since then, Cohen says, "the working atmosphere has just been strained beyond words. I would say that it became much more trying once Ryan Blethen succeeded Andrew Russell as regional editor and as my superior."

Ryan Blethen, crown prince of the Press Herald and son of owner Frank Blethen, is widely considered to be a shining example of nepotism in action. In a profession that normally demands years of reporting service before editorial slots open up, Ryan Blethen was made regional editor only a few months after joining the paper. Asked whether anyone at the Press Herald thought Blethen’s promotion to regional editor was deserved, Cohen responded, "As Dwight Eisenhower said when he was asked about the good qualities of his vice president Richard Nixon, ‘Gimme a couple weeks and I’ll try to think of some.’ "

He goes on to tick off Blethen the Younger’s transgressions: denying overtime, "calling me at home on days off, falsifying my timecard, throwing away an expense report of mine, leaving phone messages on my answering machine when he knows I’m on vacation . . . this is a man of pure fiction."

Even after the newspaper’s own doctor, Dr. Jane Glass, validated Cohen’s concerns about nepotism poisoning the work atmosphere at the paper, the Press Herald refused to take her suggestion that Cohen be assigned to another editor or that a mediator be called in. "I’ve been able to work with anybody else in 30 years," he says. "I’m the most productive reporter the paper has — and I’m an old man. So, once in 30 years, you might make an exception."

Neither Guttman nor Blethen would talk to the Phoenix, but Guttman and managing editor Eric Conrad released a statement on April 6 that began, "Ted Cohen is obviously a disgruntled former employee . . . A release that Ted sent out on Monday contains so many false and misleading statements that we are not going to respond point by point." Guttman has previously said, and the statement reiterates, that Cohen essentially resigned by demanding to work with another editor.

Cohen says he has a certified letter firing him. "It’s payback," he says. "I’m going to fight." As the Phoenix went to press, he announced that the Portland Newspaper Guild has filed a grievance on his behalf. In addition, "I’ve been talking to my lawyer. He’s looking at where and how to appeal this. If it means a lawsuit, bring it on."

Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004

Jim said...


Thanks for the article-this is actually one of two that I was looking for at The Portland Phoenix site. The other made reference to Guttman's propensity for baking brownies, rather than dealing with issues in her newsroom.

Michelle said...

It's really discouraging to scan our local publications (beyond the afore-mentioned Bollard and the Portland Banner, both of which are only available in the quasi-limbo of the internet) and discover that very few people know how to work as real journalists any more. Actually, forget discouraging -- it's down right depressing.

On a more positive note, I heard a rumor that the new editor of the Phoenix printed that hideous Paris Hilton affront on his front page to generate outraged reader response, although personally I think it may be a little late.