Maine guv freaks out after local media report on his corrupt environment chief

Maine guv freaks out after local media report on his corrupt environment chief

Maine Department of Education

Foreground: Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage.

It’s almost surprising that Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has never run for national office. In the realm of GOP presidential aspirants, he could give Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann a run for their money when it comes to political ineptitude and pure crazy. He’s told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and he recently used a violent sodomy analogy to describe a state lawmaker at a public rally.

But alas, we could be hearing less from LePage in the future: His spokesperson announced on Tuesday that the governor’s office will no longer communicate with three leading Maine newspapers, because their parent company, MaineToday Media, “made it clear that it opposed this administration.”

Evidence of this alleged opposition came in the form of a seven-month investigation of Patricia Aho, commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and a former corporate lobbyist, the results of which were published in the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, and the Morning Sentinel. The papers reported that Aho “has scuttled programs and fought against laws that were opposed by many of her former clients in the chemical, drug, oil, and real estate development industries.” The commissioner stalled a 2008 law to keep dangerous chemicals out of children’s products, weakened enforcement of real-estate and development laws, rolled back recycling programs, and oversaw a purge of information from the DEP’s website and a restriction of its employees’ ability to communicate with lawmakers, the public, and each other.

Aho’s performance lines up with LePage’s well-established allegiance to corporations before citizens. Elected in a low-turnout, four-way 2010 contest with only 38 percent of the vote (a whopping 216,000 people), LePage started his term off with a bang by issuing a list of environmental safeguards he hoped to weaken or destroy, including a phaseout of BPA in children’s products (“the worst case is some women may have little beards,” he declared of the chemical’s safety risk). He went on to ban the use of LEED green-building standards for state buildings to keep Maine’s timber industry happy.

Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald, said the newspaper wouldn’t be doing anything differently as a result of the governor’s new edict (aside, I assume, from not calling LePage or his spokesperson for a quote) and offered the Associated Press a simple assessment of the situation:

This is about probing journalism that examines how powerful forces affect the lives of ordinary citizens. That makes the powerful uncomfortable. That’s what this is about.

Indeed, LePage has never had what one would call a comfortable relationship with the press. Last month, he kicked reporters out of the ceremonial signing of a unanimously supported suicide-prevention bill — after complaining that the press wouldn’t want to cover the event. Even before this week’s gag order, the governor refused comment on a myriad of issues and funneled most media requests through his spokesperson, Adrienne Bennett. This is not atypical for a governor, but as the Press Herald reports, LePage’s mistrust of the media verges on the paranoid:

LePage has had a rocky relationship with the press since the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, storming out of a news conference amid questions about his paying property taxes in Maine.

LePage also said that he would like to punch a reporter from the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, during a taped interview with the network. …

In 2012, during a presentation at Waterville Junior High School, LePage told 150 eighth-graders that reading newspapers in Maine is “like paying somebody to tell you lies.”

In February, during a reading with schoolchildren at St. John Catholic School in Winslow, LePage said: “My greatest fear in the state of Maine: newspapers. I’m not a fan of newspapers.”

Bennett pointed out that the MaineToday newspapers can still use the state’s Freedom of Access Act to obtain information about the administration. (The best way to do research on a deadline, as any reporter knows.)

How ironic that the same camp accusing a media outlet of biased reporting has decided to make balanced newsgathering impossible by refusing to offer their point of view. It’s a back-asswards stubbornness that journalists run into frustratingly often, and that sources don’t seem to realize will backfire. When does “no comment” ever make you look good? (At a public hearing on proposed coal terminals in Washington state, for example, some of the few terminal supporters in attendance only talked to me after I pointed out that their refusal to be quoted would force me to write a more one-sided story.)

From the AP:

Kelly McBride, a media ethics specialist from the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism think tank, said such storms between politicians and the media tend to blow over. But in the meantime, she said, the governor’s posture will serve only to make him appear petty and to increase readership of the newspaper series.

“Publishers and editors face belligerent sources all the time. As long as they continue to be loyal to their audience, rather than their sources,” she said, “it usually works out for the journalist.”

Claire Thompson is an editorial assistant at Grist.

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Maine guv freaks out after local media report on his corrupt environment chief

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