Credibility fail: The Maine GOP’s fake news site

If you believe an anonymous blog has a better chance of being taken seriously than your own organization, something’s terribly wrong.

This is exactly what’s happened in the case of the Maine Republican Party’s now infamous “Maine Examiner” project.

News reports over the last week show the Maine GOP’s executive director, Jason Savage, created an anonymous website, The Maine Examiner, as a way to traffic negative information about Democrats. He and his organization lied to the media when asked about the site, and Savage appears to have used GOP resources to market the site to voters.

There has been much written about the party’s continuing dishonesty about the matter, including GOP Chair Demi Kouzounas’ outright false statement claiming the GOP had nothing to do with the site. Kouzounas will likely try to claim that Savage worked on The Maine Examiner in his off-hours, a hobby project that, though it entangled itself with official party spending, and though it was directly in concert with the party’s communications efforts, had nothing to do with Savage’s job as director of the party.

Regardless of the details of The Maine Examiner’s execution, and the potential lawbreaking that Savage will now have to answer for, the question that keeps coming to mind is — why?

Why would a political party need to create an anonymous website to distribute negative information about an opposing party’s candidate?

Isn’t that what political parties do?

A screenshot from the Maine Examiner website.

The Maine GOP has lobbed negative claims against Democrats as a matter of course for years. Savage himself is known as one of the most eager bomb throwers in Maine politics. So why go to such lengths — and why potentially break the law — in this case?

Because no one believes them anymore.

The LePage-era Maine Republican Party has suffered a credibility problem from the very beginning, as they shielded the governor from his own penchant for dishonesty. But what has emerged lately has become almost comical.

Whether it’s their silly “News You Can Trust” videos, featuring Savage as an ersatz news anchor, saving us from the dreaded “fake news” of the mainstream media, or the wild, over-the-top press releases that make the simplest policy difference sound like the end of times, the state party’s communications strategy relies less on truth than it does on kitsch theatrics.

Savage and his team have turned the party into comic relief. This, coupled with their venomous attacks on the press, have led to the utter collapse of their credibility. The Maine GOP has exaggerated the truth for so long that it can no longer utilize standard media channels to distribute factual information about elections.

Thus the creation of The Maine Examiner.

What’s sad is that the information the Maine Examiner was trying to distribute was perfectly legitimate.

Ben Chin, while running for mayor of Lewiston, had his car towed for failure to pay parking tickets to the city he was looking to be in charge of. That’s a great story — classic man bites dog, and a slam dunk pitch to traditional press.

In another case, Chin had a convicted child molester helping with his campaign. A much seamier story than the parking tickets, but still an easy sell. People are uncomfortable with child predators, and it was an easy shadow to cast on Chin’s campaign.

But the Maine GOP is so distrusted, they came to their own conclusion they had a better chance getting traction for these stories by making up a fake website than they would by simply putting the facts on the table, in their own name.

This is the real problem.

The Maine GOP can’t be trusted, and they know it. So they pursue deeper dishonesties in order to avoid the mess they’ve made of their reputation.

And now that they’ve been caught, the party exacerbates their trust problem by doubling-down on their previous lies.

This is not how you win in politics over the long run, especially in a state like Maine, where no party holds the majority. You can’t rely on simply ginning up the base.

You need to make your argument to people outside of your own party. And in order to do that, people need to believe what you say.

Right now, no one believes a word Jason Savage says.  And it appears the Maine Republican Party is aware enough of this problem that they’ve resorted to peddling information through anonymous websites.

If the GOP is going to compete in the arena of credibility, it needs to start by reassessing its relationship with the truth. Demi Kouzounas, Savage’s boss, needs to stop lashing out at the press and at Democrats and come clean about The Maine Examiner issue.

Tell the simple truth. Pay the fine. And then apologize.

Or keep lying, and hope the next fake news site you build isn’t so easily traced back to you.

Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.