Published Date Written by Bob HigginsNews came late last week (after I had filed my column for the week) that the Maine Ethics Commission is planning on rewriting some aspects of campaign finance stuff as it applies to journalists and newspapers.
What they want is to examine the exemption of the Maine press to campaign finance disclosure laws.
Several Maine newspapers (not this one) find themselves in the unique position, that Chellie Pingree, up for re-election, finds herself married to Billionaire Donald Sussman, hedge fund manager and newly minted CEO/Owner of the Portland Press Herald.
When considering campaign disclosure statements required for state offices, and other ones filled out for federal office, there is a bit of a problem here. A campaign can "loan" itself whatever it wishes, so long as they disclose. But the question is this; can a campaign "loan" itself good press?
Can it write off the expense of sending reporters to cover a candidate that happens to be doing the horizontal hokey-pokey with the owner of the paper? Used to be all you had to do to get press to attend an event was set out the free booze. These days, everything is travel expenses, hotels, airfare and Internet access fees.
Oh, and free booze.
Media critic Al Diamon took a swipe at the ethics commission this week in his column for DownEast Magazine. He made a few points, but there were other points missed. He referred to the "gone-but-not forgotten" Fairness Doctrine, and how the state might want that to apply.
The federal "Fairness Doctrine" came about the usual way, with some seriously flawed case law. "Red Lion V. Pennsylvania" was the "Citizen's United" case of its day, telling a guy who owned a bunch of radio stations that, since his station held a license "in the public interest" that he had to present BOTH sides of a political argument for fairness.
Newspapers are not radio or TV, in case anyone missed the memo. Neither is the Internet. The thought that five yokels in a room can decide the difference between "fair" media and unfair media is laughable. If you doubt that, try getting those five same yokels to agree what to order on a pizza.
Diamon pointed out that a lot of this came about because of the shenanigans of his longtime friend Dennis Bailey, and the whole "Cutler Files" fiasco. Bailey was fined by the commission, but somehow attracted the attention and legal support of the ACLU for his appeal.
The issue at the time was if the website was set up with contributions by the candidate he had been doing work for, and whether he could anonymously post a website saying (from Cutler's point of view, anyway) some fairly obnoxious and possibly legally actionable stuff.
Not working for the candidate of your choice anymore and still have an ax to grind? Step right up. Domain names are cheap. The issue I had with it at the time was the anonymity of it. I do something online, I sign my name to it.
Somehow, Bailey considered himself a modern day founding father. The difference was, he wouldn't have been HUNG for his offense, just sued.
Like the lingering ghost of a silent-but-deadly crop dusting at a dinner party, Dennis Bailey and his "Cutler Files" website dealt it, and the aftereffects are causing the ethics commission to scowl and furtively glance at those still at the party in search of likely suspects.
Part of this is that whole "is a blogger a journalist" discussion. In the neverending whack-a-mole debate on such, I've got to agree with Big Al on this one. There is NO WAY this state or this country is ready to decide who is or isn't a "journalist." Proposed rules have even mentioned a requirement of a "pattern of campaign-related news coverage that provides reasonably equal coverage to all opposing candidates."
For the Maine ethics commission, this should be a no brainer. Who ultimately decides who is or isn't a journalist?
The guy who signs the checks. In the case of bloggers, they sign their own checks.
(Bob Higgins is a regular contributor to The Portland Daily Sun.)