For an ex-reporter, Adrienne Bennett is not particularly media-savvy. An eight-year veteran of the news staff at Bangor's CBS television affiliate, she was bureau chief before landing a job in 2011 as the chief spokeswoman for Republican Governor Paul LePage. Last week, she announced that the state's largest news organization, MaineToday Media (which publishes the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Morning Sentinel, and the Kennebec Journal daily newspapers), will no longer get "one-on-one access" to Bennett, LePage, or any state department commissioners.
"It was my decision," Bennett told the Phoenix. She's playing politics, not PR, complaining: "MaineToday Media has made it perfectly clear that they are biased toward [sic] this administration."
When pressed, her only specific reason was an alleged lack of disclaimers "about Donald Sussman and Chellie Pingree;" the paper's owner is married to Maine's 1st District congresswoman.
Bennett didn't even try to explain how that affected coverage of the governor or state government, instead saying the allegedly missing disclaimer "shows that they're willing to have a story that's incomplete."
Obviously that's not true. The blackout was announced on the final day of a three-part series, "The Lobbyist in the Henhouse," Colin Woodard's aggressive reporting on the conflicts of interest held by former chemical-company lobbyist Patricia Aho, who now serves as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection. (Though perhaps never this brazenly, the DEP has been failing for years: see "Don't Expect Protection," by Alex Irvine, July 16, 2004.)
Bennett appears self-contradictory and confused, at best. For one, the Sussman disclaimer does regularly appear in stories that discuss Pingree. She also complained that the MTM papers print inaccuracies that they later refuse to correct, but didn't come up with any examples even days later, and subsequently dismissed corrections as insignificant anyway. (MTM executive editor Cliff Schechtman says errors are corrected or clarified as, and when, facts support a fix.)
And she told me she believes the blackout "won't make a difference" to the Press Herald's reporting. (Indeed: Aho refused multiple PPH interview requests even before the ban.)
The ban might have the opposite effect than the one she intended. Despite her clear attempt to hurt the paper — by making irrelevant and unsubstantiated accusations besmirching its quality and the stellar and much-honored reputation of Woodard (who before he was hired by MTM was a contributing writer at the Portland Phoenix) — Bennett's move has only attracted negative national media attention for the administration. (And kajillions more readers for the exposé, Schechtman confirms, adding, "If it doesn't make a difference, it's because we're going to continue to do our jobs. It's not like they're very forthcoming anyway.")
Not forthcoming in useful ways, at least. To deprive her publicity-hog boss of the megaphone afforded by Maine's largest newspaper company is quixotic at best (About that VASELINE REMARK: It would have been less menacing had LePage lost his famously short temper and raged incoherently. But in the WMTW video, the governor appears uncharacteristically reserved, spouting vitriol calmly and intentionally. Mental-health pros, please weigh in about the pathology behind these symptoms.)
During our conversation, Bennett made clear her contempt for MTM, its readers, and the profession she formerly pursued. She not only suggested people look to other Maine media outlets, but claimed without apparent irony that the announcements and press releases that come out of her office are "news" on their own, not requiring any further investigation or analysis.
At another point, she took a mocking tone: "I do not think that people in the state of Maine exclusively depend on MaineToday Media as their news source." When I asked about those who do, she responded forcefully: "They can call me directly and get their news." Her work number is 207.287.2531, and her cellphone number, which she publishes in almost every item she issues, is 207.592.3718. Call regularly.