Sussman's ownership stake in MTM raises ethical questions

8:16 PM, Mar 28, 2012   |    comments
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PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Maine Today Media, the parent company of the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Waterville Sentinel, is under new ownership. And that ownership is raising some questions about whether the papers will be able to stay impartial.
Under a deal announced yesterday, financier Donald Sussman, the husband of first district Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and a major donor to liberal causes, now owns 75 percent of the company.

While Sussman declined our request for an interview, he wrote in the news release about the deal that he plans to stay out of any editorial decisions that the news department makes. He wrote,
"...I have no interest in being involved in what the news professionals at the company choose to cover, or how they choose to write about it. I'm just happy that the MTM newspaper business is secure and now has a chance to grow."

Tom Bell, the president of the paper's largest union, The Newspaper Guild, said the reporting staff is happy that Sussman has taken over because the paper is now financially secure, and is looking to hire reporters, expanding its coverage. Bell said, " This is very important to us that we protect our professionalism. And we have been assured by Mr. Sussman that we will continue to be a professional news organization."

The paper has been criticized for some time by Maine's Republican party and conservative leaders that it leans left. Republican party chair Charlie Webster said this announcement only solidifies his belief. Webster said, "They're the most liberal papers in the state. I don't think it's going to change things."
Lance Dutson, the CEO of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center said, "At this point, I think it's safe to say that Maine Today newspapers, the Portland Press Herald, is a left wing news organization, and a lot of us would have wsaid that 5 years ago, and I think that really cements that."
Bob Steele, a former Maine reporter and ethics professor who now is the W. Nicholas Endowed Director of The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University, said the ethical questions raised by Sussman's ownership stake are certainly appropriate, but it is possible for the reporting staff to be independent of his politics. Steele said, "The perception factor will exist. There is no way to get rid of that in terms of perception. But (Sussman) should make that pledge both externally to the public and internally to the employees that he will honor journalistic independence."
Steele suggests that the paper add an ombudsman or public editor that can offer independent scrutiny of the paper's coverage. "The ombudsman is not completely independent because she or he is hired by the newspaper," Steele said. "But they have a high degree of independence in terms of being the representative of the public and scrutinizing the ways the newspaper covers the issues of the state, and scrutinizing the way the owners allow that journalistic independence to play out. I think it would be a wise move for the Portland newspaper to create that ombudsman position."
Bell said the union is pushing for an ombudsman position, but no decision on that has been made yet.


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