Sussman in the newspaper boardroom should worry us all

By Roger Katz, Special to the BDN
Posted Feb. 21, 2012, at 3:44 p.m.

If the New York Yankees were allowed to subsidize the salaries of umpires calling games against the Red Sox, people would be screaming from Eastport to Block Island.

If we learned that a lawyer loaned a judge money just before beginning a trial before that same judge in court, we all would be appalled.

We expect umpires and judges to “call ‘em as they see ‘em” and the integrity of baseball and our judicial system depends on our trust that is happening.

Then why is it all right for Donald Sussman, husband of Rep. Chellie Pingree, to invest money in the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal and Waterville Sentinel, become a part owner and take a seat in the boardroom?

I have never met Donald Sussman. A reputed billionaire who made his fortune in Wall Street hedge funds, he is, by all accounts, a good man. His generosity with charities from museums to colleges is legendary and he was named Spurwink’s Man of the Year. I think I would like him. He probably even owns a couple of dogs (which gives him extra points in my book).

But here’s the rub: Sussman is the largest contributor to the Maine Democratic Party and related liberal/progressive causes in our state’s history. During the last several election cycles he has given millions directly to the Democratic Party and other organizations affiliated with them. His wife is running for re-election to Congress and his stepdaughter, former Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, may have legitimate political aspirations of her own.

Sussman assures us there is no reason for concern. He is simply being a good citizen, infusing millions in cash into a newspaper business in financial crisis. He will not attempt to exercise any influence over the reporting of the news or the editorial policy of the newspapers he now partly owns. Not to worry, he tells us.

But despite his assurances, there is danger on the horizon having little to do with Sussman’s particular political views. The same dilemma would exist if one of the far-right Koch brothers moved to town and decided to buy in. We should all be concerned, wherever we fit on the political spectrum.

There are three groups who should be worried. First, the editors. If Sussman decides to give substantial funds to support the campaign for gay marriage, what will the editors do? Support him in print and look like they have been co-opted? Oppose him and worry about a pink slip?

What about his wife’s re-election campaign? What if they decide her opponent is better qualified? They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. One thing is certain: The editorial writers constantly will be in an untenable position and I wish them well with their sleepless nights.

The second group who should be nervous are reporters. I find that the reporting staff tries its very best to be fair, objective and unbiased. But what happens if damaging information were to surface about Sussman, his wife or the political organizations he so lavishly supports? Will they feel free to aggressively pursue those leads, knowing the resulting stories may cast their boss in an unfavorable light? And if they do, how will Sussman react?

These reporters are people too, with mortgages and car payments to make and kids to support. How unfair to them to be put in this position.

The final group that should be worried is us, the readers. The public already has little confidence in members of “the media,” who are by all accounts right down there with lawyers and politicians (my two jobs!) at the bottom of the trust-o-meter. If we take the things we read in the paper now with a grain of salt, we will be choking on chunks of it going forward, always wondering if a news report, an investigative piece or an editorial position might be colored by the 1,000-pound gorilla in the boardroom.

Sussman could have made us all breathe easier if he had just made an outright loan to the papers instead of insisting on an ownership stake and a seat on the board of directors. But he did not. Why?

This issue is not unique to Maine. In Philadelphia, former Gov. Ed Rendell is fronting a group attempting to buy the Philadelphia Inquirer, and these same concerns are being raised there. The head of the union representing 400 newspaper employees worries about the continued journalistic integrity of the paper, pointing out: “Without that [integrity], nobody will want to read the papers. We won’t have jobs.”

Sussman’s investment may be a positive development for the newspapers’ balance sheet, and that is good. But I worry it is a sad day for those of us who wake up every morning, go to the door and want to pick up an unbiased source of news to read with our morning coffee.

Roger Katz is a Republican state senator from Augusta.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/02/21/opinion/contributors/sussman-in-the-newspaper-boardroom-should-worry-us-all/ printed on July 28, 2014