The Universal Notebook: Call it the Maine Center for So-What Reporting

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The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a good idea that just hasn’t panned out yet. I was going to say I can’t tell you how disappointed I’ve been in MCPIR, but I guess I can and I’m going to do so right now.

An independent, nonpartisan investigative journalism organization supported by media partners (including The Forecaster) and foundation grants is a great idea because the decline of print journalism and journalism in general has meant that fewer and fewer newspapers have sufficient staffs to undertake long, investigative projects. ProPublica is the national model for nonprofit journalism, but it was too much to hope that MCPIR would measure up to ProPublica.

MCPIR is a mom-and-pop news shop run by the husband-wife team of John Christie, former Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel publisher, and Naomi Schalit, former Maine Public Radio reporter and Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel opinion page editor. Launched in 2009, MCPIR has produced several series of investigative reports, the majority of which have left me asking the same question: “So what?”

It’s not the lack of real consequence that bothers me so much about MCPIR as it is the strange, conservative line of inquiry it has taken. I recently heard an interview in which Schalit talked about being brought up to champion the underdog. Maybe so, but MCPIR hasn’t done so yet. Like I said, I didn’t expect Pro Publica, but neither did I expect the “Maine Heritage Policy Center for Public Interest Reporting.” Many of the major center projects would look just as at home on the Maine Heritage Policy Center website as on the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting website.

My first major disappointment was MCPIR’s series on the state pension “time bomb,” an alarmist report made to order for deficit hawks. Buried deep in the story was the truth of the matter, that the pension “crisis” is an artificial one caused by a legislatively imposed deadline. Pension crisis? So what? Change the deadline.

Then there was the MCPIR expose of the Maine Green Energy Alliance. When the alliance realized that its strategy for weatherizing homes wasn’t working, it said so and gave the remaining money back. So what?

Next was the big state ethics probe that revealed that some former legislators had ties to organizations that received state funding. Nothing illegal, mind you. But MCPIR is all about appearances. Unless the agencies in question, Goold Health Systems and Shalom House being the most prominent, were not qualified to receive state funding, so what?

And now comes MCPIR to indict the University of Maine System for giving jobs to several former members of the Baldacci administration. Again, I say, so what? Were these people unqualified? Were jobs created for them or were they hired into open positions? Would we really rather advertise them nationally and give Maine jobs to some stuffed shirt from Sacramento? All appearance, no substance.

With working-class people, women, the poor, the elderly, minorities, school children, immigrants, state employees, educators, environmentalists and just about any group you can name other than sunshine patriots and corporate stooges under attack from right-wing conspiracies fronted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, Maine Heritage Policy Center, and the LePage administration, there are plenty of underdogs out there to be championed. That’s why it ticks me off that the Pine Tree Watchdog has turned out to be such a conservative lapdog.

To put it another way, Christie and Schalit seem content to write parking tickets for bureaucrats while drunk drivers in Augusta are running over the state’s most vulnerable citizens and running roughshod over the environment. They consistently ask the wrong questions about the wrong stories.

Two of my old bosses, former Maine Times editors Matt Storin and Jay Davis, are on the MCPIR board. Maybe one of them should join the center’s staff. A good editor could make a big difference.

So far, MCPIR hasn’t.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.