Media blackout likely to backfire for LePage

I’ve been mad at reporters before.

I’m mad at a couple right now.

I’ve been mad at one or two for several years.

But you can’t just stop talking to them, not if you live and work in the public eye.

And certainly not if you’re the governor of the state.

Beginning Sunday, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram investigative reporter Colin Woodard ran a three-day series of stories examining the inner workings of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection since Gov. Paul LePage was elected.

The results of the seven-month investigation suggest a pattern of questionable treatment of personnel and a drastic change in direction for a department meant to protect the state and its people.

It was not a good story for the administration, and it was particularly bad for DEP Commissioner Patty Aho.

The only people who came out looking good were the lobbying firms who can show the story to potential clients as a way to demonstrate their effectiveness.

After the publication of the stories, the governor created a new policy: The administration will no longer answer questions or talk to any reporters from the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel.

I understand the urge. I deeply understand it. There have been times when I wish I could have done the same thing.

During the Baldacci administration, I was the deputy chief of staff and communications director. During my four years in the office, we were hit with a number of stories that I felt were unfair, inflammatory hit pieces.

I was once served with a fake warrant accusing me and the administration of murder. A reporter was right there, part of the stunt. For the record, I’ve never killed anyone.

Another headline accused the governor of having a “political prison,” an absurd assertion.

At various times, reporters wrote stories that accused the administration of being incompetent or the masters of complex conspiracies.

Good men and women were vilified. Sometimes bad situations were made worse. Economic development deals were put in jeopardy, and real harm was done.

But through it all, we never stopped talking to the press, and we didn’t try to limit access by reporters, even those who were particularly scornful.

While Gov. John Baldacci was committed to access and tried to always make time for reporters, we didn’t keep talking just because the boss was a nice guy, although he was.

We kept talking because we thought it was the best way to advocate for our positions.

The most effective way to influence media coverage is to have the best argument, to present the facts in the clearest way possible, to make your case.

We thought we were right, and we tried to defend our position the best we could. Sometimes we did a better job than others.

Many conservatives believe that the dreaded “mainstream media” is biased and presents the world from a liberal point of view, and they have a particular loathing for the Press Herald. While the editorial pages and columnists have their own points of view, the reporters try to be honest, balanced and to get the facts right.

As a consultant and as someone involved in political campaigns, I deal with the media often. I consider many of the reporters and editors in the state friends and colleagues.

And some days they drive me absolutely nuts. And when they do, I tell them. (Or I sit and stew and swear I’m never talking to them again, and then I get over it.)

When you’re in the hot seat – the governor is in the hottest seat of all – it can feel like everyone is out to get you: friends, foes, reporters, advocates, stupid columnists from the Bangor Daily News.

It’s not really true. It just feels like it is.

All reporters carry some personal bias into their work. They are informed by their experiences, their education, their family, their faith. And sometimes they have a bad day and just make a mistake. It happened to me many times during 17 years of working in newspapers.

But on most occasions and with most reporters, they also go out of their way to be fair, sometimes even going to crazy levels to treat people equitably. They want to put “both sides” in a story, even if one side isn’t really that credible.

They see the job as a calling: to tell the truth, hold people in power accountable and shine a light on what’s going on.

The governor would be better served if, after a couple of days, he let members of his administration start talking again. And then, after a little more time, he let things just go back to normal.

He’s better off if he and his people have a chance to make their case.

Silence isn’t golden. It’s politically deadly.