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The Portland Press Herald was criticized for donating almost $47,000 in advertising to a political amendment. (Credit: Portland Press Herald)

The Portland Press Herald has been called out for giving almost $47,000 worth of free advertising to the supporters of an amendment changing the way the city votes, the Forecaster revealed.

The Forecastera weekly newspaper with four editions — Portland, Northern, Southern and Mid-Coast — states on its website that its Portland Edition has a circulation of 19,500 copies.

According to the Forecaster, “the Press Herald did not charge the chamber for several ads in the week leading up to the Nov. 2 vote on the City Charter amendment.”  The amendment changed the way Portland’s mayor is chosen: before the 2010 vote, the mayor was chosen by City Council, but the amendment — now passed — allows direct election for the mayor position.

The donation was discovered in “a post-election finance report for Elect Our Mayor/Yes on 1.”  That group includes both the League of Young Voters and the Portland Regional Chamber, the Forecaster noted.

The Forecaster cited two city officials who opposed the amendment critical of the Press Herald.

City councilor Cheryl Leeman criticized the amendment’s passing. “My concern, first and foremost, is the way this was done,” Leeman is quoted as saying “If it was legal, then they circumvented the law, and that’s very unsettling.”  According to ABC-affiliate and local TV station WMTW, Leeman “declined the nomination” as mayor.

And, charter commission member Tom Valleau reportedly is looking into the possibility the incident breaches campaign finance law.

Valleau also criticized the newspaper for the lack of disclosure and conflict of interest.  He stated:

“I think they had a conflict of interest.  They let the city of Portland down when they did this and didn’t disclose their interests.”

The chamber reportedly was given “one free ad a day, at least one of which was a full page” after the chamber asked the newspaper for more space to advertise the amendment.  The ads ran from Oct. 26 until election day, Nov. 2, 2010.

The newspaper also ran two positive editorials about the amendment before the free advertising started, the Forecaster stated.

According to the Forecaster, the ads in the Press Herald didn’t note that they were donated by the newspaper. The first advertisement included a disclaimer that the chamber paid for it, but the chamber had that label changed to explain the chamber authorized it.

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The mayor, Nick Mavodones, who was selected as mayor Nov. 22 for the second year, also criticized the donations.  According to local TV station, ABC-affiliate WMTW, Portland’s city council previously appointed the mayor each year, but starting next year, Portland can vote for the mayor position.

“I think it’s wrong and it’s shocking,” Mavodones is quoted as saying. “To think the newspaper may decide to give free advertising to a candidate of their choosing is something we’ve never had to deal with in this city.”

The Press Herald’s executive editor, Scott Wasser, “defended the paper’s coverage, suggesting opponents were simply criticizing the coverage because their side lost the vote,” the Forecaster wrote.

Wasser is quoted as saying:

“That’s a shock; somebody who had the decision go against them thought the coverage was slanted.  Wow. That’s a revelation. I’ve never heard that before.”

The Forecaster also included the campaign finance report as evidence.  The report indicates that the Portland Regional Chamber “contributing more than $46,500 in advertising in the Press Herald to the campaign” although it was annotated with a disclosure that the chamber wasn’t charged for the advertising.

iMediaEthics has written about the Press Herald previously.  In September, the newspaper was sharply criticized for its front page coverage of Ramadan on Sept. 11.

The newspaper didn’t cover the anniversary of Sept. 11 on the front page that day.  The newspaper’s publisher and editor, Richard Connor, initially apologized for not covering Sept. 11 on Sept. 11 but stood by the newspaper’s decision to cover Ramadan.  There was some confusion regarding his apology as some took it to be an apology for covering Ramadan; however, Connor reiterated that he defended the Ramadan coverage and the newspaper should have covered Sept. 11.

iMediaEthics has written to the Portland Press Herald’s Wasser and the “Elect our Mayor” group for comment. We will update with any response.

Hat Tip: Romenesko

UPDATE: 1/7/2011 1:00 PM EST: See an update to this story here.

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