Hidden agenda

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  June 27, 2007

The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram are wonderful newspapers.

The preceding sentence is an example of what experienced journalists call a “bald-faced lie.” It’s designed to conceal my motives. Sort of like how the Press Herald and Sunday Telegram concealed their motives in the debate over tax reform, by failing to mention the papers had a stake in the outcome. More about that in a moment.

The truth is that while I’m a big fan of “Mark Trail” and “Big Nate,” much of what doesn’t run on the comics pages in the PPH and MST ranges from disappointing to deadly dull. I read it, but only because those publications set the agenda for political debate in Maine.

Without the Portland newspapers, TV, radio, and the Web would have almost no statewide issues to discuss. The outside-the-mainstream media occasionally break a story, but the majority of their content is either a reaction to, an expansion on or a repeat of what’s already appeared in the Press Herald or Sunday Telegram. Even the Bangor Daily News, the only other Maine news outlet of comparable stature, can’t compete with the Portland papers in the range of issues publicized and the impact of that publicity.

The PPH and MST coverage of the tax-reform debate probably generated more public opposition to the legislation than all the anti-reform lobbying campaigns — and there were a lot of them — combined. In a May 16 Press Herald story, the editors highlighted the effect an expanded sales tax, a key part of the reform bill, would have. It would extend the five-percent levy to “dozens of tax-free services,” they wrote, “from body piercing, movie tickets and snow plowing to dry cleaning, pet grooming and plumbing.” In a May 23 front-page story, the paper interviewed a barber distraught over the possibility haircuts would be taxed; a dry cleaner, worried customers would complain about the added cost; and a ski industry spokesman, fearful of lost business. The story was accompanied by photos of cute puppies, people walking on beautiful beaches, and kids enjoying amusement-park rides, all pleasures that might soon be subject to a new tax.

As public-relations expert Dennis Bailey, the owner of Savvy Inc. in Portland, put it in an e-mail, “It read like an ad, something, well, that Savvy would produce to help defeat the proposal.”

Which was probably the intent. But readers had to look hard to find the reason.

What was mentioned only in passing — in the story’s 17th paragraph on the back page of the section — was that the tax reform bill would impose a five-percent levy on newspapers. What wasn’t mentioned at all was that the Press Herald and Sunday Telegram were lobbying furiously against the bill, urging their employees to write to legislators on the Taxation Committee asking them to oppose the measure.

On May 31, the PPH produced a fairly straightforward story on how the reform bill would reduce the state income tax. But the headline was “Tax plan comes with trade-offs,” and the subhead left no doubt as to the paper’s sentiments: “Income tax savings could also bring the expense of sales tax on more items.” The fact that one of those items would be newspapers was, again, referred to only in passing.

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