Saturday, February 17, 2007

Maine's largest newspaper's anti-semetic leanings

The Portland Press Herald once was Maine’s “newspaper of record,” back when newspapers were the primary source of news for Mainers. With the advent of alternative news sources, particularly blogs, podcasts and other online news sites, newspaper circulation numbers continue their sharp, southward decline. Newspapers, like the Press Herald, continue to try to adapt, but appears to have totally lost their way. With declining circulation, comes declining ad revenue. The loss of revenue means that you lay off quality people and as a result, your staff, trying to put out news with too few staff and too many young graduates just out of journalism school, lacks maturity and even competence to warrant its former place of prominence.

Current executive editor, Jeanine Guttman, a woman with a documented history of not understanding journalism's role, continues to regale readers with her regular Sunday column, where she continually acts as apologist for her paper’s policies and tries to justify their move to dumbed-down content, masquerading as news and their latest embrace of the journalistic flavor of the month.

Apparently, their newest schtick as a paper is to become the state’s anti-Semitic source of news. On Wednesday, Maine’s largest newspaper ran an ad for PeoplesChoice Credit Union of Biddeford, which was designed to simulate the Old West “wanted” posters from the 19th century. Included in the “poster” was a photo of a man with a striking resemblance to what critics have characterized as having stereotypical features, which evoke the image of Jews as usurers and unethical money lenders.

Interestingly, the ad refers to the man as “The Fee Bandit” and describes him as “charming and polite,” and someone who “smiles as he takes your money in ways big and small.” (see the link for The Forcaster, to view the ad.)

Several national Jewish groups, including Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center have criticized the paper’s second blatent ad, with its obvious anti-Jewish overtones. The fact that this has now happend twice within the past month, has obviously become a cause for alarm. Stating that the ad, which was designed by Kimberly McCall Advertising, of Freeport, is “overtly anti-Semitic” in content, the group calls into question the newspaper’s intent. Is this the new policy of the paper—to regularly insult Jews in Maine?

This second anti-Jewish ad follows on the heels of a February 3rd advertisement, which ran in the Religion and Values section of the paper and announced a sermon by a South Portland Baptist minister titled, “The Only Way to Destroy the Jewish Race.” This ad drew immediate criticism from the local Jewish community and resulted in written apologies from the offending minister, as well as the advertising director, Rob Blethen, who amazingly, as far as I know, still has a job. While I'm not certain, I would surmise that Blethen is some relation to the family that now owns the Blethen Maine Newspapers. Ah, the sweet smell of nepotism—a wonderful way to ensure competence and quality. While the paper insisted that safeguards were now in place to prevent another incident, they obviously still aren't stringent enough.

Instead, along comes arguably, an even more offensive ad, which should cause any thinking person to incredulous shake their head, upon actually seeing it. As Rabbi Alice Dubinsky of Congregation Bet Ha’am in South Portland was quoted as saying, “One time is a mistake,” she said, “Two times is a policy.” I would have to agree. To publish two ads that anyone with any ethnic and cultural sensibility should have caught, exposes the gross incompetence at the highest levels of this newspaper.

Rabbi Hillel Katzir, of Auburn, is quoted in Friday’s Sun Journal side article on the incident. Hillel says that the ad has “clear stereotypes associated with Jews in a negative way.”

Hillel adds insight into why the add is so offensive when he says, “Given the fact that most people don’t read all the fine print in newspaper ads, what many readers will come away with is an impression of a money-grubbing Jew as the bad guy,” he said.

While Hillel absolved the advertiser of any intent towards malice, I’m not so inclined to be so kind to both the paper and the ad creator.

Kimberly McCall, of Kimberly McCall Advertising, bills herself as the “The Marketing Angel.” At one time, she had a regular column in Mainebiz, where her insights on marketing were offered to Maine’s business leaders, who read the state’s only statewide business publication. She’s also had a regular gig with Entrepreneur Magazine and had articles published in Women’sWallStreet to name a few other publications that have been charmed by her articles on how to market your product or service. Obviously, she’s no neophyte when it comes to advertising and marketing and as such, should have had the professional acumen and savvy to recognize why “The Fee Bandit” ad would be perceived as offensive—unfortunately, she did not.

In the interest of full disclosure, this isn’t the first “bone to pick” I’ve had with Ms. McCall, as I took her to task for her treatment of a young entrepreneur, who I though she was being unduly harsh towards, when McCall was still writing for Mainebiz. At the time, I thought she exhibited a “nasty” side in her trashing of a young woman who was offering some neat t-shirts, with catchy slogans, utilizing a t-shirt company with a good reputation for being anti-sweatshop and donating her proceeds to community causes, like Habitat for Humanity.

At that time, I was probably a bit “over-the-top” in my characterizations of McCall on a former blog site and she called me on it. I did issue her an email apology and offered to buy her a cup of coffee and chat, as a gesture of good will. She accepted the apology, but declined to meet and I lost the opportunity to glean some sense of her as a person. This time, however, I don’t see any real excuse for being critical—the criticism being lodged by members of the Jewish community, in my opinion, is warranted. If you are going to engage in self-promotion and trumpet your expertise, then it seems to me that you should be able to recognize when your creativity crosses the line of good taste and becomes offensive to a group of people who deserve much better. This isn’t 1950, when stereotypical advertising and being able to have fun at the expense of certain ethnic groups was accepted. As an “expert” in your profession, you should know better.

While the story has received prominent coverage in the Lewiston Sun Journal, Friday's story, actually originated with the paper’s sister publication, The Forcaster and was bylined to Kate Bucklin, a longtime staffwriter for the solid community-based weekly. I am also not unaware of the fact that the Sun Journal is a major competitor of the Press Herald. Still, having some fun at a competitor’s expense, or not, the implications ought to be talked about, particularly in a state with very little objective journalism being practiced.

When publications like The Casco Bay Weekly went away and prior to their heyday, the muckraking Maine Times found it impossible to stay afloat, Maine no longer has a repository of hardline, “get them in our sites and blast ‘em” investigative sources of journalism. Because of that, businesses like the Blethen Maine Newspapers, corporate bad guys and political cronyism tends to receive free passes, or a few haphazard articles here and there and are allowed to do as they please in a state that in some ways, even with its few cosmopolitan flashes and semblance of entering the 21st century, still mirrors the rural backwater that was Maine for much of its history.


Anonymous said...

Well written! I'm not sure if you read the comments left here:

Anonymous said...

Oops. Click here

Jim said...

I'm not sure why, but these online forums at several Maine newspapers seem to attract some of the states nastiest, hate-filled knuckle-draggers. When I hear people insist that racism and bigotry is a thing of the past, or that to express concerns is nothing more than an overreaction by PC types, I just shake my head.

I think it's informative that WGAN, which runs noted bigot, Rush Limbaugh and WLOB with its lineup of right-wing whack jobs has no trouble attracting advertisers.

Thanks for directing me to the comments section.

Anonymous said...

You're welcome.

Do you know of any Maine forums that attract sophisticated and sound minds?

Jim said...

Newspaper comment forums + sophisticated and sound minds....

The two appear to be mutually exclusive of one another, don't they?

Anonymous said...

Good grief you are up as early as I am.

Yes they do, and I don't know if it's because they don't have jobs and hence too much time to play the online bully? Or maybe worse, they are PAID to comment by nefarious types?!

Anonymous said...

One other thing- I was surprised that Jeanine Guttmann didn't comment on the fiasco in her weekly sermon.

Jim said...

My "regulars" know of my propensity for early AM blog "blasts," although, now that my gig requires that I leave the house for my work (vs. working at home), I'm no longer Mr. Automatic when it comes to early morning blogging.

Ah, lovely Jeannine's "sermon" of the week. She had more important fish to fry, such as her exquisite explanation of how her paper is going to commemorate Longfellow's birthday.

I know that ole' Henry is one of Portland's most revered figures (I guess?), but he was born 200 years ago and despite her insistence that "His poetry continues to affect artists and everyday people today...", I'd beg to differ.

I think that everyday people are more concerned with "Survivor," NASCAR and Britney Spears, than Longfellow, whatever that says about us as a people.

Her Sunday "chats" are so school-marmish and condescending, as if all her readers were a bunch of ill-informed high school students that she needs to lecture once a week.