Covering LePage is more complicated than just repeating what he says

Good morning from Augusta, where how we cover Gov. Paul LePage is an ever-evolving challenge.

Keen followers of Maine political coverage might have noticed that some media outlets covered LePage’s statement on the radio Thursday that two Maine companies are set to close their doors and eliminate some 400 jobs. The governor’s statement was vague, so some attributed his concern about the potential economic damage to high energy costs, income tax increases, the impending rise in Maine’s minimum wage or a Massachusetts referendum about the treatment of animals.

At the Bangor Daily News, we talked about covering the story, did some basic fact-checking, then decided not to report the statement as news. Given the timing — a day before LePage releases his state budget proposal — and lack of details and substantiation, we did not believe it would best serve readers to report that 400 unidentified workers at unnamed companies might lose their jobs.

LePage’s confrontational relationship with the media — particularly newspapers — dates back to his first days in office and has deteriorated to the point that he has vowed never to talk again to a newspaper reporter. Months pass between LePage’s news conferences, his communications staff regularly ignores requests for comment or elaboration on what he says, and after his infamous meltdown last year that culminated in an obscene voicemail to a Democratic representative, he halted his series of public town hall meetings across Maine. However, he did say Thursday that he will continue that series but has yet to schedule his next appearance.

So reporting on LePage consists primarily of trying to decipher what he says during radio appearances or in remarks at breakfast speeches or business gatherings, without the opportunity to follow up with questions asking for details or clarification.

The majority of questions posed by the Bangor Daily News and other media outlets to LePage’s office and other executive branch departments are ignored. We’re told it’s because we’re politically biased against the governor and for sure, he faces criticism in editorials and opinion columns on a regular basis. In news stories, however, our priority is to be fair and even-handed but it’s a challenge exacerbated by being frozen out of the flow of information from the executive branch.

So how do we cover the governor? Our only access to him is through letters and official written communications, bills he proposes and increasingly, his nearly weekly interviews on radio stations, including WVOM on Tuesdays and WGAN on Thursdays. The latter is where LePage made the claim Thursday about the 400 job losses.

Early last year, LePage said he expected 900 job losses in southern Maine over the summer — and he later upped that estimate to 1,500 jobs. The BDN and other media jumped all over it. Those job losses haven’t happened.

Our job as journalists is to provide context and fact-check statements by public officials. When the administration won’t respond and we’re left with an unchallenged statement made in a vacuum, we’re faced with the choice between letting it fly on the premise that what the governor says is important or letting it pass because we don’t have the whole story. It’s a messy business and we don’t always get it right.

As you’ve seen, the BDN and the Daily Brief have published hundreds of stories based solely on something the governor said. In some cases, that’s made us complicit in spreading inaccurate or incomplete information.

If we rush to simply throw a headline on something a politician says, without providing important context or asking them to provide substantiating information then we function as de facto propaganda machines.

That’s what we’re guarding against.

LePage is a savvy politician. Like Donald Trump’s early morning tweets, his radio remarks often set each day’s tone and agenda for political discourse in Maine. Because he’s Maine’s chief executive, it’s essential that the state’s people know what he says, but because he’s also such a polarizing figure, his opponents and allies rush to frame his statements to their advantage. Our role as journalists is to try to peel back that spin, identify it and place it in proper context. It’s not easy.

LePage recently said on the radio that “it used to be in this country that you needed the press to have oversight over government. Now it’s government that has to have oversight over newspapers.”

The media makes mistakes — as does the government — but holding elected leaders accountable is the cornerstone of democracy and the foundation of our republic. We don’t see our job as playing “gotcha” or advancing a political agenda. Instead, it’s to provide the most complete information and context to readers so they have what they need to make informed decisions about the actions of the people we’ve elected and the direction government is taking. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Susan Collins and Planned Parenthood: Some congressional Republicans are trying — again — to end taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood by including it in the latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine isn’t one of them. “I’m not happy to hear that [House Speaker Paul Ryan] wants to include defunding of Planned Parenthood, an extremely controversial issue, in the package,” Collins said on Thursday, according to an article in The Hill. This isn’t the first time Collins has opposed her party’s attempts to include funding cuts for Planned Parenthood to anti-Obamacare legislation. Whether the provision prompts Collins to vote against repeal or author another amendment to keep Planned Parenthood out of the conversation — as she did in 2015 — remains to be seen.
  • It’s budget day: We don’t know when or how it will happen, but Gov. Paul LePage’s deadline to present his state budget proposal for the two years that begin on July 1 is today. It will be a document hundreds of pages long and like past proposals, will be packed with spending adjustments and new policy initiatives. Stay tuned to today and in the coming weeks for coverage and analysis.
  • More on the forensic unit: Yesterday, lawmakers on the Legislature’s appropriations and health and human services committees spent more than four hours holding a hearing on LePage’s plans for a forensic mental health unit even though the governor is moving ahead with plans to build the facility in Bangor without legislative approval. Was the hearing a waste of time? Maybe not. Lawmakers intend to ask Democratic Attorney General Janet Mills to weigh in on whether the executive branch has the authority to design and build the facility without involving the Legislature. Meanwhile, the ACLU of Maine has already weighed in with a memo that argues against the government’s authority in this case. There’s been no word yet from Mills about whether she’ll engage in the debate, but we’ll keep you posted. (NOTE: The link to the ACLU’s memo has been updated to a newer version of the memo.)
  • More campaign finance violations: The Maine Ethics Commission has another loaded agenda for its meeting on Monday morning. Several 2016 legislative candidates and political organizations face possible fines for late filings related to spending in the lead-up to the November elections. Facing the largest penalty — $5,000 — is Democratic Sen. Geoff Gratwick of Bangor, who didn’t report a $9,500 mailing on time. Commission staff have recommended reducing the penalty to $200.

Reading list

The hardest button to button

Fashion is not something I’m an expert on. My father was a plumber and every time I put on a tie for work, I think of how I never, ever saw him wear one.

But I do have to look somewhat respectable at the State House so over the holidays, I invested in a pile of new work clothes. Two of the shirts I bought have a feature I haven’t seen before: A button centered on the back of the collar. You have to unbutton it to put on a tie, then button it again if you want to avoid embarrassing call-outs.

Like I said, I’m no fashion expert. I struggled with that button for at least 10 minutes, cursing the misguided clothing designer who thought it was a good idea. At least it gave me a fantastic song for today’s soundtrack. — Christopher Cousins


Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.