A Glaring Conflict of Interest

Maine’s governor is under attack from a paper with a definite bias problem.

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FILE - In this June 26, 2013 file photo, Gov. Paul LePage speaks to reporters shortly after the Maine House and Senate both voted to override his veto of the state budget at the State House in Augusta, Maine. Heading into the July 4 holiday weekend, LePage, a Republican, has vetoed 57 bills that the Democratic-led Legislature has sent to his desk thus far. The total surpasses former Independent Gov. James Longley who previously held the record for single-session vetoes with 49 in 1977.

Up until recently there were probably not all that many people in Maine who had heard of billionaire hedge fund manager Donald Sussman, who, according to a report issued by the Sunlight Foundation, became the state's top political donor in 2012.

He's active nationally as well, having attended at least one meeting of the Democracy Alliance, a group Politico described as "wealthy, politically active liberals" who in 2010 met at "Washington's swank Mandarin Oriental hotel, where off-duty police officers and other security patrolled the halls looking for reporters and other uninvited guests, who were escorted from the premises."

Among his other political activities, Sussman has shown a special interest in the career of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, a former head of campaign money watchdog Common Cause and who, since 2009, has represented Maine's 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

According to the Sunlight Foundation, Sussman has found ways to "bankroll" Pingree's political efforts, going so far as to buy "a controlling interest in the local papers that cover her district." What attracts him to Pingree may be her liberal stance on campaign finance reform, gun control, women's issues and the environment. Or it may be that he finds it useful to back her political career simply because he is married to her.

Either way, it’s probably not a coincidence that the Portland Press Herald, one of the newspapers in which he has an interest, is doing all it can to bring down conservative Republican Gov. Paul LePage – against whom Pingree may still run in 2014 despite having already said she would not -- by tilting its coverage to make the otherwise plain-speaking chief executive look bad.

In one instance the paper blasted LePage for what the Bangor Daily News described as his "proposal to limit Maine's role in a 13-state initiative designed to curb the production of smog under the federal Clean Air Act."

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

While controversial among so-called environmentalists, the LePage administration's position was that, since Maine "has stayed below the program's thresholds for both air quality and the creation of smog-producing pollutants that affect neighboring states since 2004, the state shouldn't be required to participate in the credit swap program" established under the federal law.

Unlike other papers, the Portland Press Herald used the issue to make LePage out to be pro-smog. In its coverage, it specifically failed to mention that what the governor was proposing had the support of Barack Obama's Environmental Protection Agency and was virtually identical to actions taken by the state's two previous chief executives – Democrat John Baldacci and independent Angus King, now the state's junior United States senator. For this, the Press Herald was upbraided by other papers in the state.

For its latest anti-LePage attention-getter, the Press Herald claimed LePage said Barack Obama "hates white people" while attending a recent "meet and greet" held in a private home in honor of the new chairman of the state Republican Party.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

LePage immediately denied he said any such thing. Two Republican state legislators – State Reps. Alex Willette and Larry Dunphy – were willing, unlike the governor's accusers, to go on record saying that if the governor had made such a remark, they didn't hear it. Nevertheless, the paper ran with it and, given the inflammatory nature of what it was alleging, the story went international overnight courtesy of the liberal blogosphere and the World Wide Web.

There's an important question of journalistic ethics involved here. What is the responsibility of a newspaper to the truth and to reputable standards of journalism concerning anonymous sources, even when they confirm each other's account of a particular event, when there are other sources who are willing to go on record saying it didn't happen? And should those standards, if there are any, be even higher when someone on the management or ownership level of the media outlet making the charge potentially has an agenda of their own, in this case to replace Paul LePage in the governor's mansion in 2014 with Chellie Pingree?

When a major newspaper's coverage rises – or perhaps sinks to the level of a thinly sourced story that might be the equivalent of what the least informed, most partisan blogger might throw up on a website, then it's fair to question the coverage. In this case, the Portland Press-Herald has more questions to answer about its own conduct than it has raised about the governor's.

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