MaineToday Media Fact Checks Watchdog's Reporting, Questions Accuracy

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Rebekah Metzler wrote for MaineToday Media Oct. 2 that a political news watchdog website has been “faulted” for not reporting the complete truth, highlighting the watchdog site’s report suggesting a state Democratic representative violated ethics.

“Some critics have accused the Franklin Center and its array of state-based websites of intentionally half-reporting stories for conservative gain,” MaineToday Media explained.‘s Sept. 23 story, by Stephan Burklin, claimed that Democratic state representative Chellie Pingree “has been traveling on a private plane owned by the corporation of her significant other, Donald Sussman, Founder and Chairman of Paloma Partners, a billion dollar hedge fund.”

The watchdog explains on its website that it seeks to offer “in-depth investigative reporting in an entirely non-partisan and non-ideological manner.” Further, the website says all of its staff and guest writers must follow the Society of Professional Journalists’Code of Ethics.  “In addition, criticism of our work is welcomed and strongly encouraged.”

While one would expect a watchdog site to report the undistorted, fact-checked truth, MaineToday Media’s report suggests otherwise in this case.

The Pingree Story

Burklin’s story highlighted that Pingree “criticized lawmakers who traveled on corporate jets” when she was president of the nonprofit Common Cause.

As MaineToday Media reported, MaineWatchdog got the Pingree story from an anonymous source.  Burklin didn’t contact Pingree or her office regarding the claim and, Burklin didn’t “find out if her 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,” MaineToday Media added.

“I don’t really have ownership of the story anymore. I’m a one-man shop right now and I have a couple of other stories and pieces I’m working on right now,” MaineToday Media reported Burklin said. “It was moving too fast, there are too many pieces and I didn’t feel like I could cover that myself.”

However, despite MaineToday Media’s report that the story was sensationalized, The Portland Press Herald reported that “Maine Republican Party officials said [Oct. 1] that they will file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree violated election law” by flying on her fiance’s plane.

“Federal election law prohibits congressional candidates from traveling on non-commercial aircraft unless they fly on a plane owned by a family member. The law does not recognize a fiance as a family member.”

In question is a Sept. 13 flight Pingree took with her fiance from Portland, Maine to White Plains, NY. She reportedly went to a campaign fundraiser in New York.  Her spokesperson, Willy Ritch, is quoted as telling the Portland Press Herald that the flight wasn’t paid for by campaign money.

“Chellie traveled with her partner Donald to New York on a day he had business there,” Ritch is quoted as saying in a statement “So he was traveling for business reasons and Chellie went along with him. Chellie also visited her son and drove to a campaign event in New York later in the day. The flight to New York was personal and no campaign or taxpayer funds were used to pay for it.”

Franklin Center

MaineWatchdog’s parent company, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, claims on its website “to promote social welfare and civil betterment by undertaking programs that promote journalism and the education of the public about corruption, incompetence, fraud, or taxpayer abuse by elected officials at all levels of government.”

The Franklin Center’s founder, Jason Stverak, “denies that the Franklin Center’s work is anything but even handed,” MaineToday Media reported.  Stverak’s biography on the Franklin Center’s website identifies him as a former executive director of the North Dakota Republican Party and the North Dakota executive director of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential committee.

MaineToday Media also cited Washington Monthly’s Laura McGann’s May/June 2010 story on partisan investigative journalism.

McGann labeled the Franklin Center and its watchdogs “perhaps the clearest illustration of the promise and peril of the new breed of conservative muckraking.”  She added that the center’s sites have published  hard-hitting stories on worthy topics that are overlooked by the mainstream press.”

As an example, McGann highlighted the New Mexico watchdog site, which broke a big story in November.  The report claimed that “$6.4 billion in [the federal] stimulus goes to 440 non-existent Congressional districts.”

While the story got national attention, McGann reported that “the story was, at best, misleading.”  In fact, the Associated Press checked out the watchdog’s story and found that  “as it turns out, the funds were going exactly where they were supposed to go, not vanishing into black holes as the Watchdog sites had implied,” McGann wrote.  “The problem was simply that a handful of the local government agencies and nonprofits that had received stimulus funds had mistyped the zip codes when they entered information about their projects into the federal database.”

See McGann’s full post here.

Jim Barnett wrote for the Nieman Journalism Lab in mid-September criticizing the Franklin Center for allowing any donations to be tax deductible.  See his full post here.

iMediaEthics has written to MaineWatchdog for comment and will update with any response.


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MaineToday Media Fact Checks Watchdog’s Reporting, Questions Accuracy

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