It used to be a given that politicians sought to be on the right side of the press. As the old adage went, “you shouldn’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”
But in Maine, in the era of Paul LePage, that ink has become virtually worthless.
Enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, a free and robust press is a pillar of our democracy. As much as the three branches of government hold the power to check and balance each other, a free press serves as the Fourth Estate, a watchdog over all of them.
At least this is how it’s supposed to be.
In our state, the system has broken down. Our press no longer functions as an effective check on power, and more and more serves as a vessel for the dissemination of false information.
The crux of this breakdown is the governor’s declared policy that he will not answer questions from reporters. In a free society, this is unconscionable. But what’s worse is the fact that the Maine press generally accepts it.
LePage has set up a network of friendly platforms to broadcast his message to the people of Maine, including talk radio and right-wing websites. By shutting down direct objective press access, he’s eliminated the need to justify any of his statements, and can instead lapse into hyperbole and outright falsehoods with no fear of being held accountable.
What’s worse, these one-way communications are frequently rebroadcast by newspapers and television stations. Every week we see stories that transcribe the highlights of his radio appearances, press releases, and opinion columns. The press gives the governor access to their broadcast networks and helps him push his propaganda across the state.
To be fair, many of these rebroadcasts and reprints contain factual challenges to his statements, but none of them confront the governor directly on any of it.
In a more aggressive media market, like Washington, D.C., this would not stand. A virile press corps would laugh at a politician who refused to take questions. There would be reporters camped out in front of his office until he was forced to provide answers.
In Maine, the press merely shrugs, and accepts this as some kind of new paradigm. Reporters don’t like it, but, at their employers’ direction, they don’t do much about it.
It’s an unacceptable situation, and one that hurts our state. No politician should be able to hide from the press, and Mainers should not be deprived of this critical check on power.
The solution is simple: The press needs to stop serving as an amplifier for the governor’s one-way communications.
The next time he goes on talk radio, don’t write a story about it. Newspapers create a ratings bonanza for these morning radio shows by promoting his appearances, and this in turn gives LePage an even bigger audience for his unchallenged rhetoric. The more newspapers write about his radio appearances, the less important newspapers become.
The next time he issues a policy dictum, don’t write a story about it until he’s answered questions about it. Stop giving him a free pass on his inconsistencies and falsehoods.
And for goodness sake, if he doesn’t answer your questions, don’t keep broadcasting his material. Demand answers, or shut him off. You’ve got a co-equal Senate President and Speaker of the House that would be more than happy to answer your questions about whatever state government topic you need to report on.
This doesn’t seem like rocket science. Especially in the case of a governor who has fantasized openly about blowing up newspapers and shooting political cartoonists. LePage claims buying a newspaper is like paying someone to lie to you. His administration notoriously defies public access laws and plays games with public records requests. He openly disrespects the free press, says he makes up false stories on purpose, and even stated recently that the demise of newspapers would be good for society.
It’s astounding to me that the political press in Maine hasn’t gone into open warfare mode by now.
But they haven’t.
Instead, they’ve been emasculated by this governor, afraid to lose access and unwilling to stand up for themselves as a functional part of our system of government.
If this dynamic doesn’t change, we’re going to see the same closed-door policy practiced by every politician going forward. Why on earth would any elected official subject themselves to press scrutiny if they don’t have to?
I believe most of Maine’s political reporters are ready to start flexing their muscles, if their editors and producers give them the go-ahead. We have the makings of a great press corps in our state, but the way political reporting happens needs to change. Backbones need to be found, and stands need to be taken.
Maine press needs to stand up for the core principle of access, regain their leverage, and force this governor to answer their questions.