AUGUSTA – MaineWatchdog.org, the latest news website for the state, made headlines recently by reporting that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st District, had traveled aboard her fiance’s private jet. The story left the mainstream media scrambling to catch up, and to report a detail that was absent from the original Watchdog story: that the travel may have broken no laws or even ethics rules, according to the House ethics manual.
The website is part of an emerging network of media outlets around the country sponsored by a North Dakota-based nonprofit, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which is led by a former Republican operative.
According to Jason Stverak, the center’s president and founder, his group’s mission is to inform the public in an era of shrinking resources for traditional media.
“There are fewer and fewer outlets for that type of information, and if we can help a state-based organization or ourselves recruit, train, hire, educate not only professional journalists or citizens, and give them journalistic standards and training to help provide that real information, that’s the goal,” he said.
It’s widely acknowledged across the country that as many newspapers have coped with shrinking revenue, they have made cuts to statehouse bureaus and investigative reporting. That has opened the door for bloggers and citizen journalists to earn credibility by holding governments and officials accountable where traditional media have been silent.
But some critics have accused the Franklin Center, and its array of state-based websites, of purposefully half-reporting stories for a conservative gain.
In the Pingree story, an anonymous source went with information to MaineWatchdog reporter Stephan Burklin, rather than a traditional news outlet.
Burklin went to The Portland Press Herald after he had put together the story, to gauge the paper’s interest in it. A reporter who spoke to Burklin said he left copies of some of his research and documentation so the paper would have the resources once the story broke. Burklin and the reporter both said he never offered the paper the story to run.
Burklin then posted the story on MaineWatchdog.org Sept. 23.
Burklin said he did not seek comment from Pingree or her office before posting the story, though the Franklin Center claims its reporters adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.
“Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing,” the code says.
Nor did he seek to find out whether Pingree’s travel on the private plane was a violation of any sort, which likely would have made the story less sensational. And he has not posted any updates on the story that include comments from Pingree or statements from the House ethics committee staff.
“I don’t really have ownership of the story anymore. I’m a oneman shop right now and I have a couple of other stories and pieces I’m working on right now,” Burklin said. “It was moving too fast, there are too many pieces and I didn’t feel like I could cover that myself.”
According to a story written last spring by Laura McGann in Washington Monthly, Franklin Center Watchdog websites across the country have engaged in a similar pattern of investigative muckraking.
“As often as not, their reporting is thin and missing important context, which occasionally leads to gross distortions,” wrote McGann. She detailed several instances in which Watchdog websites broke stories, which after additional phone calls turned out to be misleading or untrue.
“This sort of misleading reporting crops up on Watchdog sites often enough to suggest that, rather than isolated instances of sloppiness, it is part of a broad editorial strategy,” wrote McGann, who is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and a former editor of the Washington Independent, a liberal D.C. news source.
Stverak denies that the Franklin Center’s work is anything but evenhanded.
“The ultimate judge that we have is the people,” he said. “The goal that we have and the way we train people at Franklin is that the work that you produce must be acceptable and credible to citizens, and at such a level that they can take your information and it is trusted to be used for you to make decisions.
“In terms of willing to go down and take a look at investigating and looking at stories that no one else is covering, I think we should have more types of citizen journalists,” he said.
Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine, said Watchdog’s Pingree story shows that Maine is just now catching up with a national trend.
“This kind of citizen and sponsored journalism affecting the politics in any given state is happening all over the United States,” he said. “Effective journalism is effective journalism, regardless of its source.”
Socolow said MaineWatchdog did fundamental public affairs reporting.
“Specifically because of what Pingree had said in her testimony compared with what she was actually doing,” he said, referring to Pingree’s comments in 2006 against congressional flights on corporate jets. “And it did it in a way that no other media in Maine was either able to or was motivated to.”
Scott Wasser, executive editor of The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, agreed that bloggers can be good sources of information, but only if they maintain the same standards as newspapers.
“Daily newspapers became a conduit of information and the backbone of American free speech because their reporters try to be fair and objective, they are accountable to someone other than themselves and, consequently, they are credible in print and online,” he said. “But when you have a blogger not affiliated with a legitimate news organization or, worse yet, working for anonymous backers who may have unannounced political agendas, everything they post should be questioned.”
Stverak, who founded the Franklin Center in 2009, is a former executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party.
The center bills itself as nonpartisan, but has an advisory board of only conservative journalists, including Tucker Carlson, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Daily Caller; Jack Fowler, publisher of the National Review; and Mark Tapscott, editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner.
The center’s donors are all anonymous, at their request, Stverak said.
In some states, including Ohio and Tennessee, the Watchdog sites are directly linked to groups that are part of the State Policy Network. Those groups are nonpartisan, which is how they maintain their tax-exempt status. But they are allowed to promote a certain ideology, such as free-market principles, to a degree that is traditionally associated with Libertarians and Republicans.
The Maine Heritage Policy Center, which is independent of the MaineWatchdog website, is Maine’s State Policy Network affiliate.
The concept of employing investigative journalists to reinforce and promote research done by such organizations has been promoted at State Policy Network annual meetings, such as one held in Portland in 2007.
The session was called “Strategies to Bring the Policy Heat: Collaborating with (c)4s, Hiring Investigative Reporters and Using Litigation.” Panelists included Kent Lassman of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, who was a co-founder of Maine Leads, a now-defunct Maine-based organization that ran campaigns for citizen-initiated ballot questions.
MaineWatchdog’s only reporter, Burklin, interned for SPN-affiliated public policy groups in Oregon and Colorado, and wrote items for those groups that were published by newspapers in those states.
Burklin said that his background has no effect on his work as a journalist, and that his current work stands on its own as good journalism. (The Kennebec Journal has published three freelance articles by Burklin.)
Since its launch earlier this year, the MaineWatchdog website has focused mostly on scrutinizing state government spending.
“I don’t get direction in terms of what stories I need to be writing or the angle from which they need to be written; that’s all up to me,” Burklin said.
George Stephanopoulos, Diane Sawyer and Bill Moyers all started in the political world and made the transition into journalism, Burklin said when discussing the political roots of Stverak.
“So I think a fair question there is, (are) the Franklin Center and I providing quality, original and objective coverage of local and state issues here? And I think that that’s what my body of work demonstrates,” Burklin said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]