At the end of a mostly calm town hall meeting in York last week, Gov. Paul LePage suddenly picked up his familiar attack on newspapers.
As he began his familiar diatribe, a woman in the back shouted out, “How would you know, you don’t read newspapers?”
He said his staff reads them.
The governor’s attacks on the press are not new, but it is clear they were a prelude to his wider war, and his continuing battles with the Legislature.
And we are now seeing a similar assault on the media playing out in President Donald Trump’s Administration.
His closest adviser, Stephen Bannon, a former right-wing news provocateur, attacked the “mainstream” press in a recent phone conversation with The New York Times. He said the administration defines the press as “the opposition party,” and the press should just “keep its mouth shut and listen.”
For LePage, his attacks on the press began early in his administration. He would urge children at schools he visited not to read the newspapers, because it’s like “paying people to lie to you.”
The Maine Republican party has now widened the war on the press in a video campaign to encourage its followers to monitor Maine’s weekly newspapers, supposedly for “fake news.” In a video Facebook post, Executive Director Jason Savage accused the Advertiser Democrat, a Norway weekly newspaper, of printing “fake news.”
With a front page of the Advertiser Democrat projected behind him, Savage charged that the newspaper, which focuses on local news, had not run a story on the inauguration, but instead ran a story on protesters, and a story on Janet Mills, a Democrat. He urged Republicans to monitor local weeklies for evidence of supposedly fake news. (The Advertiser Democrat, like The Forecaster, is owned by the Sun Media Group of Lewiston.)
For Maine Republicans, this attack on the media was, in fact, a prelude to a wider war.
Savage followed up his attack on the media on Friday by criticizing Portland School Superintendent Xavier Botana for standing up for the refugees and immigrants affected by Trump’s travel ban, and allowing students to respond to the Administration’s actions. Savage suggested that the students are linked to outside groups, which Botana denied.
In this charged atmosphere, we all need to keep track of “just the facts.” Famously, the late New York Senator and Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”
But Moynihan, who died in 2003, was a great example of a maverick politician who hated labels, and pursued innovative solutions based on facts, not dictated or limited by any particular party ideology. He served in both Republican and Democratic administrations and convinced a Republican president to supplant welfare programs for the poor with a national guaranteed income, which went nowhere in a Democratic Congress.
That bipartisan atmosphere is now just a dim memory. Although with the aid of moderate Republicans, the Maine Legislature is able to function, but the partisan atmosphere makes progress difficult. And some of LePage’s positive policy ideas, like education reforms and his early attempts to shift tax policy onto a wider sales tax, have been lost in the battle zones.
But in an age when information comes in so many forms, and many rely on a curated social media news feed to buttress their world view, we also need more than ever the mainstream media to report the news. If we’re not entitled to our own facts, then we need to find facts in a place that we all agree on. And like it or not, mainstream and well-resourced news organizations are the best place to get the facts, and have the credibility to counter the official versions of events.
The media are not perfect, and should be challenged when they fall short. But it was The New York Times and Washington Post that played a pivotal role in illuminating the transgressions of Watergate and Vietnam. They may play a similar role in the months ahead.
Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.