LEWISTON, Maine — As he greeted voters at Longley Elementary School, Ben Chin was hearing all about his emails as Lewiston residents walked out of the polling place during last week’s mayoral runoff election, but it was too late.
The progressive activist lost by 145 votes to Mayor-elect Shane Bouchard, a Republican, after he was rocked during the last nine days of the race by seven stories from a new website that caught fire on social media with help from the Maine Republican Party.
One Maine Examiner headline said “Leaked Email: Ben Chin Says Lewiston Voters ‘Bunch of Racists’” and featured a real email that apparently forwarded out of a group of campaign operatives. In it, Chin describes a day of canvassing when he had positive interactions but also ran into “a bunch of racists.”
On Election Day, a middle-aged man leaving the polls said goodbye to Bouchard. To Chin, he said “not a racist” and refused to talk to a reporter.
Chin may be the first Maine politician derailed by a new phenomenon: anonymous conservative “news” websites whose most effective pieces blend a kernel of truth from opposition research with large factual and rhetorical leaps traditional media ethics would prohibit.
The Maine Examiner and the nationalist and conspiratorial Maine First Media surfaced in 2017, after President Donald Trump’s election the previous year in a campaign defined by Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and the Republican’s attacks on media in an environment where Gallup measured trust in the press at an all-time low.
Michael Socolow, a journalism professor at the University of Maine in Orono, said “the delegitimization of the credible press has opened the playing field to a lot of alternative information outlets” that may look like news sites but that operate little like them.
“Some information outlets are propaganda, some information outlets are credible, some information outlets know the rules of attribution and some don’t,” Socolow said.
Both of the new Maine sites look somewhat like news sites. The Maine Examiner, for example, commingles political items with more benign ones — including one on an author’s night in Freeport — but a reader can’t find out who’s bankrolling it or writing the posts.
An email to the Maine Examiner’s tip line was returned with a Friday message saying they’re “not interested in an interview,” and that while the site is “right of center,” they “cover stories other Maine media is not covering” and will “hold politicians accountable.” It was only signed “E.”
Garrett Murch, a spokesman for the Maine Republican Party, which pushed Maine Examiner posts on social media and in party emails denouncing Chin, said he didn’t know who ran the site and declined comment after being asked if the party coordinated with them.
Maine First Media was run by Matthew McDonald of Bangor, who said Friday that he sold it in November for “thousands” of dollars to a Nebraska man. (The Bangor Daily News isn’t naming the man because he couldn’t be reached for comment.)
Maine First Media got a boost in April, when it published a video of former Maine Senate candidate Richard Fochtmann joking about suicide at a party event that caught fire on conservative media. The party disavowed Fochtmann’s remarks, but both he and the party told NBC affiliate WCSH that he apologized right after saying it. That wasn’t on the video.
McDonald called traditional media a “dying thing” and said he started the site because he thought Maine outlets weren’t covering Trump fairly and that he “can start something that has more influence than your newspaper.”
“And I did,” he gloated.
These sites exploit conservatives’ lack of trust in the press and traditional reporting methods. If Chin’s emails were passed to an interested mainstream news outlet, he would likely be contacted for an explanation of the “racist” language.
The Maine Examiner doesn’t have to do that and can move faster — without nuance.
On election night, Chin placed lots of blame on the emails, saying they morphed into a “lies vortex” that became “this impossible conversation” with certain voters. Bouchard said the emails “really hurt” his opponent “because they spoke to the people of Lewiston.”
Partisan media isn’t new in Maine. The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and Chin’s employer, the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, run news arms. As Maine Goes, a conservative site, has traded in anonymous political rumors since its 1998 founding.
But the two partisan organizations label their news operations as their own, and As Maine Goes is a message board and not a news operation.
Steve Robinson, a former editor for the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s outlet who is now a producer for Massachusetts conservative radio host Howie Carr, said these pieces “are always better when you put your name on it.” But, he conceded, “it worked” on Chin.
Another Maine Examiner story released just before the election said Chin’s car had been towed for “years” of parking tickets. His car was towed because he had $200 or more in unpaid tickets, according to Lt. David St. Pierre, who oversees parking enforcement for Lewiston police.
St. Pierre said the tickets didn’t go back “years,” but only to September. And he said that Chin’s car was towed on Dec. 7. That was three days later than the Maine Examiner said and the same day it published its post.
Chin paid the bill promptly and got his car back. He won’t be driving it to the mayor’s office.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece referred to Matthew McDonald as a pastor. He said Monday that he resigned from a church that he formerly worked at. It was a reporter’s error.