Portland state senator Ethan Strimling has caught some flack for his decision to continue working as a talk-show host on WGAN radio, even though he’s exploring a bid for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 1st District. Republicans complain publicly that he’s using his weekend program and his frequent appearances as a guest host on the Portland station’s weekday morning show to discuss issues in the race. Democrats apparently lack the courage-related organs needed to make the same comments on the record, but supporters of some of Strimling’s potential primary opponents haven’t been timid about launching a behind-the-scenes smear campaign.
From a legal perspective, Strimling appears to be correct. (Those keeping score will note that this is the first time in this column’s history that the words “Strimling” and “correct” have appeared in the same sentence.) Under Federal Communications Commission and Federal Election Commission rules, he’s not considered a candidate — even though he walks like a candidate, talks like a candidate, and raises money like a candidate. The feds say until Strimling exceeds fundraising guidelines, buys advertising promoting his candidacy, or starts referring to himself as a candidate, he isn’t.
That’s important, because broadcast stations are required to provide equal time to opponents of actual candidates, but nothing to those running against un-candidates or whatever Strimling is.
Ethically, the situation is murkier. While Strimling is campaigning and raising money — including a $100-per-head fundraiser with a Sopranos actor — he’s also, in effect, getting free advertising on WGAN. Does that create a moral dilemma for a station that promotes itself as an outlet for quality journalism?
Nope, according to WGAN program director Jeff Wade. “Look at the legal definition the FCC sets,” Wade said. “He doesn’t meet the standard. He’s not a candidate. There really isn’t an ethical issue at this point. It’s not even a discussion, yet.”
Aw, come on, Jeff, everybody in the news biz knows Strimling has been preparing to run for Congress for years. Doesn’t common sense trump the letter of the law?
“We don’t know he’s going to be in it,” Wade said, which, if true, would make WGAN the only media outlet in southern Maine that doesn’t know. “We can’t really comment on something that hasn’t happened.”
Nor is Wade worried that Strimling’s continued presence on the air could create the impression the station is biased in its campaign coverage. “We have a long history of covering elections,” he said. “We’ll treat Ethan like any other candidate.”
Until then, he said, WGAN will treat him “like any other talk show host.”
(In the interest of full disclosure, I hosted a talk show on WGAN in the early 1990s. I got fired, but not because I was running for anything.)
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The conservative Web site “As Maine Goes”, the state’s primary on-line source of political rumor and gossip, has some competition. Paul Mattson of Harrison, a frequent contributor to AMG, has started a new — and similar — site for right-wingers called “MaineFirst”. But just as this venture began, Mattson discovered he’d been banned from AMG until further notice.