Politics & Other Mistakes: Taking the wrong side

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There are some people you don’t want on your side.

Sex traffickers.

Proud Boys.

And of course, Central Maine Power Co. executives.

Al DiamonAfter the recent referendum in which CMP’s electrical transmission line through the forests of western Maine was defeated by near-landslide numbers and the Department of Environmental Protection’s decision to suspend the project’s license, nobody thinks that the last group carries any political clout.

Better you should team up with Big Pharma.

But CMP wasn’t alone in being stripped of its thin veil of influence. These defeats revealed some other supposedly powerful organizations as empty suits, living off reputations from earlier times. Like the paper companies and railroads that once ran Maine, their ability to bend the people to their will has eroded, leaving a power vacuum that’s yet to be filled.

Here’s a partial list of entities that, thanks to their strong support of the CMP project, can no longer claim an elite position in the state’s political hierarchy:

Chambers of commerce.

Labor unions.

Certain environmental groups.

Mainstream liberals.

Gov. Janet Mills (in spite of her carefully orchestrated, pre-arranged agreement to get CMP to stop corridor construction).

The state’s major (and minor) newspapers.

Let’s discuss that last one. All Maine’s largest newspapers (and several of its smaller ones, including the Portland Phoenix) called for a “no” vote on the referendum, thereby endorsing the power line. Most of them did so on environmental grounds. The Portland Press Herald admitted there were a lot of shady claims by CMP and its allies, but set those aside because “we see this project as part of the fight against climate change.”

The Bangor Daily News warned, “If Question 1 passes, we fear the opportunity to make the energy supply in New England and Maine a little cleaner will be lost and a message will be sent that Maine is not welcome (sic) to the investments and infrastructure needed to do this essential work.”

This is the same message CMP and its pals spent more than $60 million promoting in TV ads. They scarcely needed a bunch of print outlets with aging readerships and a slipping grasp on the state’s shifting political attitudes to parrot their remarks.

The corridor vote demonstrated something that ought to have been obvious some years earlier: When it comes to swaying public opinion, newspapers no longer matter.

TV advertising still counts for something, although less all the time. Social media matter, although it’s always a crapshoot as to which parts are actually influencing anyone. Radio is irrelevant because it’s cut most of its local content, leaving its airwaves to rants on national issues. In-person gossip works, although the pandemic has made it harder to spread.

But what mattered more than anything is having an opponent nobody liked. Even the people who voted to allow the corridor to go forward did so in spite of their antipathy toward CMP.

None of this was obvious to the aging gnomes who set editorial policy at the state’s newspapers. They employed the same style of analytical thinking that worked so well for them in the 1970s. Shipping Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts to reduce fossil fuel use was a good thing to do, regardless of what damage it did to the Maine woods, what minimal advantages it provided to this state, or what benefit it provided to a foreign-owned utility with a long history of callous disregard for its customers.

By siding with CMP, newspapers solidified their position as part of an aging infrastructure of formerly important institutions headed for extinction. If the print media were composed of endangered mammals, there’d be lawsuits by environmental groups demanding the federal government stop lobstermen from using trap lines, farmers from using pesticides, hunters from using lead shot, and readers from falling into an apathetic funk.

But today’s newspapers have little in common with their hot-blooded antecedents. They’re almost reptilian in cold-bloodedly assessing issues based on how their editorial stands might upset the powers that used to be. Most real reptiles have better survival instincts.

Next year, newspapers will follow tradition by endorsing candidates for local and statewide offices, blissfully unaware that no one is paying attention.

Tell me how you intend to ignore my print-media opinion by emailing [email protected].