Politics & Other Mistakes: The impermissible press

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You need a permit to walk around downtown. You need a license to dance.
Warren Zevon, “Life’ll Kill Ya”

Maine requires members of an awful lot of professions to get permission from the state before going into business. You better hold an official license to practice medicine or law or social work or cosmetology or to be an electrician or even an arborist (because the public has to be protected from ugly trees). You must have the proper credentials to open a night club, close off a leaking pipe or spray a pesticide.

Those flaggers on road construction projects? They need certification from the bureaucracy to prove they know the difference between “STOP” and “SLOW.”

Al DiamonEven my beloved dogs aren’t exempt. They must submit to intrusive state licensing each year, demonstrating to the satisfaction of officialdom that their reproductive organs have been removed. I know this embarrasses them.

On the other hand, there’s me. As an alleged journalist, the only license I need is the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press. The government has no power to require me to be competent, reasonable, fair or even truthful.

And that’s a good thing. Because the government is the last entity on earth that would be capable of assessing any of those qualities in my work in an unprejudiced manner, particularly if I happened to be criticizing the government. Which, as you may have noticed, is mostly what I do.

I’m not alone in this endeavor. The Maine Wire, a conservative website run by the Maine Policy Institute, and the Maine Beacon, a liberal site backed by the Maine People’s Alliance, both frequently post stories that take politicians to task while promoting the agendas of their parent organizations. They often cover issues overlooked by the mainstream media, but they also have few qualms about skewing their coverage to suit their own ends.

Possibly because of that tendency, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills’ administration decided in October, 2021 that those two news outlets would no longer be welcome at daily briefings on the pandemic held by the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That move was petty, stupid and almost certainly unconstitutional. Mills’ minions realized this belatedly (after it received some mainstream media attention) and lifted the ban.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. As the Maine Wire discovered through a Freedom of Access Act request (that took a year to elicit a response), Mills had merely changed tactics. If the government couldn’t regulate the press, then she wanted the news media to regulate itself.

About a week after the aborted attempt at censorship, Mills’ communications director, Scott Ogden, sent letters to the Maine Press Association and the Maine Association of Broadcasters asking them to set up a program to credential journalists who wished to cover state government, thereby distinguishing those working for supposedly neutral news outlets from those representing advocacy groups. Failing to gain approval from the press or broadcast organizations would mean some reporters could be barred from certain public proceedings.

The press association, an organization whose principle function is to reward its members with dozens of awards at its annual convention, declined to get involved, but not because of any deeply held respect for the First Amendment. Lynda Clancy, the immediate past president of the group, replied in a letter that Ogden’s proposal was “interesting,” but because her group was a “financially modest nonprofit,” it lacked the resources to institute such a program. Clancy did note that the MPA board had misgivings about “judging and credentialing our peers.”

Courageous stuff.

Since that limp response by the press association a little more than a year ago, the Mills administration seems to have dropped its efforts to regulate the news media. But the attempt could be seen as at least partly successful. While the Maine Wire and Maine Beacon continue to advocate and provoke, most of the Maine media carefully avoid producing stories that might unnecessarily antagonize the governor and other powerful political leaders.

It’s almost as if they’re afraid they’ll lose that license they don’t have and don’t need.

Exercise your literary license by emailing me at [email protected].

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