Plum Creek watchdog

Press releases
By JEFF INGLIS  |  December 19, 2007

Thanks to a Phoenix reader, Maine residents now know something the Portland Press Herald was not telling them: that the chief executive officer of the development company that wants to build nearly 1000 units of homes and condos plus two resort hotels in Maine’s North Woods joined the board of directors of the newspaper’s parent company 18 months ago.

To call the Plum Creek project controversial is an understatement, as attested by the 60 or so stories and editorials that the Press Herald has published on the subject in the past year and a half.

Yet none of those pieces — not even the editorials that questioned the deal — disclosed that Rick Holley, CEO of Plum Creek Timber, the project’s proposed developer, joined the board of directors of the Blethen Corporation (the family-owned company that owns the Press Herald) back in May 2006. Nor did they disclose that Holley joined at the personal request of patriarch Frank Blethen, as a Plum Creek spokeswoman told the Portland Phoenix last week.

In a December 2 article, PPH environment reporter John Richardson detailed Plum Creek’s donations to Maine politicians, quoting Bruce Freed, executive director of the Center for Political Accountability in Washington DC: “What they’re trying to is develop relationships and influence decision-making and policy.”

But Richardson’s story didn’t mention another way Plum Creek could influence decision-making and policy — namely, through close connections with the newspaper’s owner.

It’s possible, as Poynter Institute ethicist Kelly McBride notes, that the paper’s editorial team may not have actually known that Holley had joined the board. (If they did know, she says, they should have disclosed it earlier.) As it was, the disclosure came after the Phoenix, prompted by posts on thePhoenix.com, called Richardson and others at the Press Herald.

On Sunday, a Richardson article about Plum Creek added that Holley also sits on the board of the Seattle Times Company, though he (or his editors) took pains to distance Holley from the Press Herald, specifying that the company’s Maine newspapers (the Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel, and the Coastal Journal) have “a separate board of directors” on which Holley does not serve.

But not every article addressing Plum Creek in Sunday’s paper carried the disclosure: columnist Bill Nemitz left out the relationship between the people who sign his paycheck and the man at the helm of the largest private landowner in the country, who just happens to be the proposer of one of the largest land-development projects in Maine history (see “Up Plum Creek Without A Paddle,” by Yanni Peary, November 30).

That omission, and the 18 months of silence throughout the paper, fit a pattern of concealing the connections between the newspaper and Plum Creek: in the 20 mentions of Plum Creek in the Seattle Times since May 2006, none have disclosed Holley’s involvement.

Corey Digiacinto, communications manager for the Seattle Times Company, would not say how many directors the company has, nor whether Holley is a voting member of the board (versus an advisory one). She says the company doesn’t normally talk about its corporate structure, but did so “in this case, for reasons of disclosure.”

Why now, though, if Holley has been on the board for 18 months? Digiacinto referred that question to Press Herald/Telegram editor Jeannine Guttman.

Guttman and Richardson did not return phone calls seeking comment, as is the paper’s general practice when receiving inquiries from other media organizations.

But with Phoenix readers keeping watch where the Press Herald fears to tread, they’ll have to do better next time.

Disclosure: I like plums, and have swum in creeks. With a tip of the hat to the poster named “Jay” on thePhoenix.com. Jeff Inglis can be reached at jinglis@phx.com.

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