Sunday, February 7, 2010

Press-Herald: Journalism or Public Relations?

Lots of people in Maine have had questions about the direction of the Libra Foundation, the charitable institution created by the late Elizabeth Noyce, especially after they pulled the plug on the Portland Public Market and did so in a way that made it extremely difficult for anyone to try to save it. Last month they announced they were eliminating a popular grant program for poor kids to attend summer camp. Owen Wells, Libra's head, said they had other priorities.

So I was pleased to see the Portland Press Herald -- Maine's former newspaper of record -- has a front page story in today's paper. Until I read it, that is.

Check it out: here's an extensive Sunday news feature that makes absolutely no effort to explore (or even acknowledge) criticism of Libra's direction of late. It's a puff piece that could have been churned out by the foundation's own public relations staff, right down to its headline: "New age dawning for Libra generosity." (Mr. Wells, whose salary and benefit contributions come to well over $300,000 a year, is stepping down in 2011.)

Libra's priorities of late (and their conduct in the Public Market affair) might well make sense once properly explored and explained, but this article makes absolutely no attempt to do so, just taking it on faith that everything Mr. Wells has done in his tenure has been just dandy. (Why is he stepping down again?)

I want to see the Press Herald succeed, because this half of Maine desperately needs a competent and well staffed news gathering organization, but this sort of sycophantic reporting is just driving the daily further into irrelevancy. Even the pseudonymous blogger T. Cushing Munjoy -- a wide-eyed cheerleader for Richard Connor before he took over the paper last year -- has been repeating the essential question: "Is this really the best you can do?"

If so, maybe Connor should just close up shop.

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