Of all the coverage of Olympia Snowe's decision not to run for re-election this year, the Maine media should have been expected to handle it best. Close to home, with insider knowledge available and solid connections to sources on the ground — that's the best preparation for a breaking political story.
Sadly, though, the in-state coverage was neither as thoughtful nor as comprehensive as were the news items produced by out-of-state outlets. As I've said before, the Lewiston Sun Journal, mostly in the person of tireless reporter Steve Mistler, has had the best coverage in Maine (see thePhoenix.com/AboutTown for more).
But the cost of the other papers' sluggishness (and Mistler's comprehensive updating of lists of people taking out petitioning papers from the Secretary of State's office) has been a lack of exploration of the mess all these prospective successors to Snowe are vying to get into.
POLITICO broke the story of intra-party warfare going from cold to hot about the same time as Snowe's announcement, with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch targeting Snowe in a mailing seeking support for his reelection campaign, suggesting her moderation was undesirable even to a longtime friend and Senate colleague.
North Carolina political scientist Jonathan Weiler noted in the HUFFINGTON POST that reporting of Snowe's complaints against partisanship unfairly placed blame for polarization across the political spectrum, when it squarely belongs in the Republican column, where "right-wing extremism has gone mainstream."
STATE OF ENLIGHTENMENT political blogger Joe Joffe observed that Snowe's decision came in the midst of a massive battle over women's health and related issues — a set of questions that had largely been settled in moderate ways under the George W. Bush administration but have resurfaced because of rabid extremists' opposition to Obama's continuation of those policies.
And Maine's media also refused to depart from Snowe's own narrative that she was successful at being a moderate and in creating opportunities for real progress. Jonathan Chait in NEW YORK MAGAZINE, however, argued that while Snowe has been given great power in many political debates, "She has used it, on the whole, quite badly." That piece specifically criticized her for using the concepts of moderation and centrism not as a means to a public-policy end, but as "a matter of political self-preservation."
It takes a broad media diet to uncover reporting on all the various ways in which Snowe's decision either changes the political landscape or sheds light on how that landscape has already been indelibly altered. But you won't hear about that from any of Maine's daily newspapers, who repeatedly act as if they can — and should — be the only places Mainers get their news. (Distressingly, they often are.)
• Also missing from the local media was much digging into WHY SNOWE MADE THIS DECISION when she did.
The best summary of that reasoning came in a single paragraph at the end of a front-page New York Times article by Congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman, published the morning after Snowe's bombshell. It's worth reproducing in full:
"Ms. Snowe may have just grown fed up. At raucous Republican caucuses in February, her name was greeted with jeers from some Tea Party activists. Republicans had seized control of the governor's mansion and the State Legislature in 2010, but for the most ardent conservatives, it was not enough, Ms. [Georgia] Chomas [a cousin and close confidante of Snowe] said. Ms. Snowe had turned 65. Ms. Chomas's mother, who was like a mother to Ms. Snowe, had died, followed by the mother of Ms. Snowe's husband, John R. McKernan Jr., and the mother of her late husband, Peter Snowe."
Elegantly presented, well-reported information with strong sourcing close to the senator. That's what Mainers got by seeking media from farther afield.
Jeff Inglis can be reached at email@example.com.