The media isn’t the enemy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t biased

Read these two headlines. What do you expect from the story?

After spending thousands to buy, renovate Augusta building, state now plans to demolish it.”

“State buys bank-owned property for two-thirds of asking price, plans to address parking shortage.”

The first headline sounds like an example of government waste. The second sounds like good old-fashioned prudent Yankee trading.  

So, with the news that state government — and thus the LePage Administration — was going to demolish an old eyesore bank branch across the street from the Blaine House and kiddie-corner from the Capitol Dome, the first headline is from a Maine newspaper, the Portland Press Herald. Yet the second headline, which I wrote, would have been equally accurate.

Normally, to those on the right, this would have been an eye-rolling example of implicit media bias over a routine, bureaucratic government function. The “hook” of the article was that the administration had spent $21,000 on “renovations” to the building for office space, before deciding it was not needed.  

No doubt, $21,000 is a lot of money. But the building is around 2,100 square feet. And spending $10 per square foot in commercial real estate generally buys new carpet and fresh paint. It is all pretty reasonable, particularly where Bangor Savings Bank asked $375,000 for the building, and the state bought it for 67 percent of the asking price — $250,000. And they didn’t just buy the building, but all the land with it. It was a routine transaction, hardly noteworthy.

But we do not appear to be living in normal times. President Donald Trump has called the media “enemies,” while reporters — nominally objective — have pushed themselves into stories with opinions incorporated into their dispatches. It all came to a head when CNN’s Jim Acosta demanded White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders make a statement supporting the news media.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on Aug. 2. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When she instead listed gripes the White House had with what they believed was unfair coverage, and said the president was understandably “frustrated,” Acosta walked out in protest. He made plenty of headlines, becoming the story rather than reporting it. He has since been roundly criticized. Not just by those on the right, but also my former counterpart at the BDN Cynthia Dill and by The Atlantic’s Todd Purdum.

Let’s break this down. No, the media is not the “enemy.” You can believe fellow citizens are unfair, biased, and wrong, but we’re not enemies. At the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln had the United States Marine Band strike up the popular anthem of the South: Dixie. The war was over. While the wounds would persist, Americans were no longer enemies.  And unless someone wants armed rebellion, we should not describe our countrymen as enemies.

But there are legitimate gripes those on the right have with the media. Opinion columnists do not claim objectivity; the newsroom does. Yet “objectivity” is an impossible goal. Choosing a topic for a story is inherently biased. This bias isn’t malicious, it is just a simple outcome dictated by limited resources. Not everything can be a story.

However, when those limited resources are spent chasing a $271,000 real estate transaction and the resulting story lacks context that the deal would be considered routine in private industry, a credible concern arises. Particularly when positive stories seem hard to find in those same outlets.

So Trump is wrong when he calls the media “enemies.” But Sanders’ point that some reporting can be overly negative, lacking context, and sometimes just unfair is right. And the sooner news outlets recognize that, the better.  

Maybe the next headline is that things can get back to normal. Who wouldn’t want to read that story?


Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.