Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Around 11 a.m. Tuesday, officials at the Maine Heritage Policy Center first saw an anonymous blog alleging that one of their staffers had made statements online praising a video produced by white supremacists.
By 5 p.m., that staffer, Leif Parsell, was fired.
Fueled by bloggers all day Tuesday, the story reached its conclusion before most mainstream media outlets had a chance to weigh in.
The episode shows how the news media are changing in the age of the Internet, said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.
The Internet enables ordinary people to easily research past online statements by others and distribute what they find to the public while bypassing traditional news media, Benton said. The result is increased accountability and a more democratic system for sharing information, he said.
"There is something poetic about the fact that the same system that allows this individual to express their opinion also allows somebody else to expose those opinions," Benton said Wednesday.
Parsell himself represented something new to Maine. He was a reporter for the Maine Wire, a news agency operated by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank.
The website, which went online Dec. 13, is promoted as a "fair, high-quality political news product" that will end the "pro-government monopoly on media," said Lance Dutson, CEO of the policy center who assigns many of the stories.
The Maine Wire, based in Portland, has a story-sharing agreement with Newport-based Hometown News, which publishes several weekly newspapers in central Maine.
Conservative think tanks in other states have set up similar news operations, Benton said. While Democrats have excelled in harnessing the power of the Internet to raise money, conservatives have spearheaded the concept of creating state-based news sites that do reporting without explicitly saying they offer a conservative slant on the news.
Besides Parsell, the Maine Wire has one reporter, Terrilyn Simpson, who focuses on investigative pieces.
Parsell, a Maine native who is in his late 20s, recently completed a master's degree at Boston College. He worked previously for the Virginia-based Leadership Institute, which trains conservative activists.
On Tuesday, an anonymous website called The State of Maine posted a story, "The Maine Heritage Policy Center Hires a Reporter Who Advocates White Supremacy."
The story posted links to comments that Parsell made on PolicyMic, a crowd-sourced news and discussion forum. In one of the comments, Parsell wrote that "cultural diversity combines with our increasing racial and ethnic diversity to degrade society."
Parsell linked to a video clip of Jared Taylor, a white nationalist, who says that diversity creates a "crazy mish-mash" that leads to social conflict and a dim future for white people.
The video is promoted by the National Policy Institute, which on its website portrays itself as a defender of the nation's white majority against policies that favor nonwhite immigrants and minorities.
In a Facebook posting, Parsell warns about American's decline and says he wants to see a nation that continues to be "full of Europeans." He said he'd rather have a country that has fallen behind India and China than "sold its soul to non-European immigrants and lost its culture."
After The State of Maine posted its story, liberal political bloggers Gerald Weinand, Mike Tipping and Dan Aibel shared the story with their Twitter followers and berated the Maine Heritage Policy Center.
After he read The State of Maine story, Dutson said, he clicked through the links and was upset by what he saw. He talked with Parsell late Tuesday afternoon, after Parsell returned from an assignment at the State House, and fired him.
Dutson said he fired Parsell before the Maine Public Broadcasting Network aired a story on the issue during its 5:30 p.m. news broadcast.
"We don't like race-based politics and it doesn't have a place in our policy discussions," Dutson said.
Parsell said in a prepared statement that "vicious" anonymous attacks against him are "ridiculous characterizations" and that his quotes were taken out of context.
He said he is saddened that the Maine Heritage Policy Center chose not to defend him.
Dutson said the policy center will find a way to replace Parsell, but it hasn't decided yet whether to move staff members internally or hire someone.
Before he hired Parsell, Dutson said, he researched his name on the Internet and didn't find any racial comments.
"We went through the normal process of background checks, and the stuff didn't stand out," he said.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: