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Will the Fourth Estate Takes the Fifth

Will the Fourth Estate Takes the Fifth?
By Jean Hay

October 1998
Aroostook Democrat

For those of us interested in the relationship between politics and the media, two recent staff-generated opinions in the Bangor Daily News, along with a fresh libel suit against that paper, were nothing short of remarkable.

On Sept. 19-20, NEWS State House reporter and Political Editor A. Jay Higgins, started his weekly column this way: "Anyone who doubts [that] the power of the press is as good as money in the bank hasn't been hanging around the state ethics commission office lately."

Higgins noted how unpaid fines immediately started flowing into the Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices after the list of deadbeat offenders was published in a competing newspaper, the Maine Sunday Telegram.

"It took the media 48 hours to accomplish what the state could and couldn't do (sic) in 19 months," Higgins wrote. But did that successful scoop by another paper prompt the BDN political editor to institute more enterprising investigative political reporting on his own beat? Not a chance.

"Instead of sending violators countless letters containing hollow threats," Higgins concluded, "maybe the commission should just take out an ad in the Bangor Daily News."

If you ever had a question about whether the disturbing national media trend toward the merging of news and advertising had reached northern Maine, you had your answer with that one.

Higgins column was followed a week later (Sept. 26-27) by the BDN's lead editorial bemoaning "The nonrace" for governor. Expensive television ads, the mainstay of political reporting in recent years, are noticeably lacking this year. It seems that since none of the candidates except the millionaire incumbent have any money in their campaign chests, the office-seekers are keeping their day jobs and "running for office in their spare time."

"Despite the surface appeal of the citizen-lawmaker this type of campaigning evokes, when it prevents voters from making an informed choice it does a disservice to the process," the editorial states. "…The result, at least to date, is a noncontest and - lacking information - an inability for voters to turn it into one."

And who is to blame for this lack of information about where the candidates stand on the issues? Remarkably, the editorial writer misses the elephant on the table and blames neither the media in general nor his own paper in particular. "The problem falls back to the parties-Democrats particularly-which failed to prepare strong candidates for the election," the editorial states.

There you have it, straight from the voice of the Bangor Daily News-If you want to know what the candidates are doing, thinking and saying, you're on your own. Don't expect the BDN to do your political homework for you.

The third interesting juxtaposition of politics and the media came Oct. 1 in the form of the filing by a certain political consultant of a libel/defamation suit against the Bangor Daily News and reporter John Day over its coverage of the final weeks of the 1996 U.S. Senate race here in Maine.

You may remember the front page headline, "Dems hire investigator to dig dirt on Collins." And the lead sentence, "…Collins is being shadowed by a dirt for hire consultant with a checkered past."

The said consultant, Robert Norris, apparently did not care for Day's characterization of him. In a 16-page suit filed in Penobscot County Superior Court just days before the two-year statute of limitations would have run out, Norris claims the stories Day wrote, which the BDN published in the last three weeks of the campaign, had caused "severe injury…including but not limited to lost wages, business good will and emotional distress, impairment of reputation and standing in the community, personal humiliation and mental anguish and suffering."

Norris' suit alleges that defamatory statements in the articles, which were republished in other papers across the country, were false or fabricated, and contained "either direct, or by implication, factual disparagements" about Norris' business practices.

Citing the crucial legal phraseology, Norris' suit charges that "said defamatory statements were made with negligence and/or malice and/or reckless disregard for their truth or falsity and/or actual ill will."

Norris, on the first page of his court complaint, made a point of stating that he is a private figure, thereby invoking the lesser standard to prove malice, negligence or reckless disregard for the truth. Public figures like Joe Brennan, who lost that race to Susan Collins, have a much harder road to hoe to prove libel or defamation—although, knowing what I know about the situation, I think Joe had a good case.

Norris has asked for a jury trial.

If you read any Maine newspaper other than the BDN back then, you know that Norris was not the only one offended by the BDN's invention, hysterical promotion, and distortion of the facts around his employment and activities. The other daily papers in the state, back then in October 1996, knew the BDN's charges were so blatant and unfair that they took the unusual step of contradicting the BDN characterization in print and defending Norris and his right to research Susan Collins' public records.

The northern paper's unbalanced reporting so offended my personal, political and journalistic instincts that, when I went back to college in 1997, I did some research on the subject for the UMaine Political Science Department. I compared and contrasted the coverage of the Norris issue by the state's top four daily newspapers-BDN, Portland Press Herald (and Maine Sunday Telegram), Lewiston Sun Journal and Kennebec Journal in Augusta. The circulation areas of those four papers only overlap at the edges. I discovered that, from the day this "story" broke, the BDN was alone in making a big deal about this issue, or contending that it was scandalous. All the other papers spent a lot of ink debunking the BDN stories as soon as they surfaced.

As part of that process, I did the math. I found that in the Senate race, in which Collins defeated Joe Brennan by 32,196 votes, a full 30,744 of the vote difference turned up in the BDN monopolistic circulation area. Imagine that. As A. Jay Higgins wrote so recently, "Anyone who doubts the power of the press…"

The result of all my research has been posted on my internet web page since last January [1998].

In the interest of fairness--and in an unsuccessful attempt to get a regular column opposite Day's-- last December I personally handed a copy of my college report to the BDN executive editor Mark Woodward. When I wrote that report in the summer of 1997, Woodward was Collins' press secretary in Washington. He left that position a few months later to take the top job at the BDN. Woodward's wife now works in Senator Collins' office.

I stopped by Penobscot County Superior Court and picked up a copy of Norris' libel suit. I was surprised to see that John Day was the only reporter named in the suit, since others on the BDN payroll wrote similar stories in the closing weeks of the campaign. And statements about Norris' activities by Susan Collins and Bob Tyrer, her campaign manager, were also wildly defamatory.

I know it is not the focus of this libel suit, but I think it is a shame that Norris could not raise the issue of whether Tyrer had violated FEC regulations by using government equipment--his e-mail account in Sen. William Cohen's office--to communicate with John Day months after Tyrer had taken a leave of absence from his job as chief of staff in Cohen's office to run Collins' campaign.

Since my college research dealt with published information, I had not called John Day for additional information, and it was this spring before he discovered my report on the internet. He e-mailed a comment. I seized the opportunity, and wrote back, asking Day point-blank why he, an experienced political reporter, did not jump on Tyrer for using publicly-owned equipment in a U.S. Senate office to conduct campaign business. Day knew the law. He knew what was going on. After all, it was an e-mail from Day to Tyrer's e-mail account in Cohen's office, which Day mistakenly cc'd to a Stephany Cohen who worked in the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, that uncovered Tyrer's use of that Congressional communication equipment.

Day somehow neglected to answer that part of my question.

Tyrer is now chief of staff to Defense Secretary William Cohen.
Jean Hay, who lived in Bangor, was managing editor of The Enterprise weekly newspaper in Bucksport when this article appeared. She was a U.S. Senate candidate in 1996, losing to Joseph Brennan in the Democratic primary.

The Breaking of a Candidate An Analysis

Did unfair and inaccurate reporting by one monopoly newspaper in Maine
alter the results of the 1996 U.S. Senate race? ----August 26, 1997

Libel, the Untold Story What the Bangor Daily News didn't want you to know about the political libel case it settled out of court. ----Nov/Dec 1999

Don't Miss
The Story the Bangor Daily News Doesn't Want You to Read,

The Remarkable Op-Ed Piece written by Robert Norris, that the Bangor Daily News published as part of its court settlement. (Reprinted here with permission of the author)----October 23-24, 1999
And Then There's This:

Getting It

A political dirty trickster who was a bit player in the 1996 Collins saga laments the big money in politics -- when the other guy's team outspends him, out-tricks him, and wins.----May 2000

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