The Boston Phoenix November 23 - November 30, 2000

[Don't Quote Me]

Unfit to print

Answers are emerging about the second-most-controversial story of Campaign 2000: George W. Bush's drunk-driving arrest, and why it took so long for the news to surface

by Sam Smith

TROUBLE INSIDE? The story of George W.Bush's drunk-driving arrest isn't the only one the Press Herald has blown this year

Even as the lawyers, judges, and politicians in Florida continue their quest to figure out just who won the presidential election on November 7, events from the campaign are still reverberating. In particular, who knew about George W. Bush's drunk-driving arrest, and when? And why was it leaked just days before the election?

As soon the story broke on the Thursday before the country went to the polls, Portland, Maine, became ground zero in the race for the presidency. As Fox 51 News's Erin Fehlau reported, Bush had been busted in Kennebunkport for drinking and driving in 1976. By Friday morning, Fehlau was on all the talk shows, and the city was overrun with national press playing catch-up on the biggest news in the country. As the story developed, it branched out. Who tipped off Fox 51? Was it a plot by the Democrats? Who was the sheriff that busted Bush in '76? It slowly became clear that it may not have been a Democratic plot after all.

Buried within the Portland Press Herald's report on Saturday, November 4, was this detail: " . . . editors discovered Friday that a reporter in the York County bureau had actually learned of the arrest in mid-July." The Associated Press released a story the same day: PORTLAND NEWSPAPER KNEW OF BUSH DWI ARREST THREE MONTHS AGO, DIDN'T PUBLISH. The AP story ran all over the country.

Could it be this simple? That the news had always been there waiting to be discovered -- and that an editor (of all people) had decided to keep it quiet? It's hard to believe, until you look closer at the Portland Press Herald and some of the other decisions the paper's top brass have made in recent years.

Actually, You don't have to start that far back. Take the November 5 executive editor's column by the Press Herald's Jeanine Guttman. Rather than examining the controversy surrounding Bush's drunk-driving arrest and the Press Herald's role in it (or lack thereof), Guttman dished out some soft-serve musings on journalism -- specifically about her first editor, Red Metz, and what a great teacher he was ("Today, I try to be the sort of editor that Red was . . . ").

ON THE HUNT reporter Ted Cohen learned of Bush's arrest back in July by asking the Kennebunkport police chief if he had anything on the GOP candidate. But an editor spiked the story

It's hard to believe that under these remarkable and enormously embarrassing circumstances, the paper's executive editor would spend her weekly column discussing Red Metz and the qualities of a good editor ("work systematically," "rekindle the joy of learning"). But then, it's hard to believe that a newspaper would have suppressed news that Bush -- a presidential candidate in an unusually close race -- had once been arrested for drunk driving. Guttman's evasive response to the whole mess says a lot about how the paper got into trouble in the first place.

"Things are going on as normal. They're treating it like we misspelled the name of a council member in Freeport," says Tom Bell, a Press Herald reporter. He and other staffers say that because of poor management under the paper's new owners and a lackadaisical culture fostered by the Press Herald's top editors, something like the Bush DWI screw-up was bound to happen.

"My first reaction that night when I heard the news," says Bell, "was `I bet we had that story.' "

He had reason to think so. After all, this isn't the first time Guttman's Press Herald took a pass on a big story. In February of this year, Guttman had a story in hand that nailed both the city and the University of Southern Maine for bypassing their own purchasing guidelines on how to spend taxpayer dollars. The story was held for six months. In another incident, a story tying convicted killer Jimmy Hicks to the deaths of two Maine women (to which he ultimately confessed) was fully reported by a Press Herald staffer four years ago, but the paper did not run it until October of this year -- after Hicks had already confessed to the murders.

"I remember when [Guttman's predecessor] Lou Ureneck was executive editor," says a staff member who asked that his name not be used. "People worked harder even though we had more people. We did get out a better product. He wasn't popular, but he was a journalist."

Last July, as still-unconfirmed suspicions mounted that Bush had once used cocaine, Ted Cohen, a 25-year veteran of the Press Herald, started working up a hunch. (A hunch is a reporter's best friend, you might read in Guttman's column some Sunday.) George W. was a little wild in his youth, Cohen thought. As a young man he spent summers in Kennebunkport. Maybe he'd gotten into trouble in that area back in his bad-boy days.

"So I called the chief of police and said, `Do you have any dirt on George W.?' " Cohen remembers. "And he told me about the DWI charge. I said, `Okay, thanks.' I wanted to think about the information I'd just been given."

A few days later Cohen met again with the police chief and asked if Bush's record would be available to him if he wrote a story. The chief said yes. There it was. There was his story -- a huge national story -- sitting in a filing cabinet, where it had been for 24 years, just waiting for him. He went to tell his editor, Andrew Russell.

When Cohen describes what happened next, he starts to sound a little like W. himself: "I didn't listen to my heart," he says. "I've always been a news dog, and I knew I had a big story. I talked to my editor about it -- I was in on the decision not to print it as much as my editor. He said it's old, 24 years, we know he was a drinker. He thought we shouldn't run it. It made sense to me to do what my editor suggested."

And so they did nothing, and apparently told no one else about it. But the story lingered in Cohen's mind.

"I never stopped thinking about it," he says. "But what stunned me was, none of the big papers had thought about it. I began persuading myself we made the right decision. For good or ill, I played right into my own rationale."

Cohen was home watching the news the night the story broke.

"The only thing that prevented me from jumping out the second-story window when I saw the news," he says, " was I knew I told my editor. I could look at myself in the mirror and could say I was clear -- I brought news to my boss."

Neither Russell nor Guttman would speak to the Phoenix about this story. Our questions were passed on to the paper's director of marketing and communications, Ted O'Meara.

O'Meara reiterates what Guttman said in a release to the AP: that the story was handled inappropriately, and that the information Cohen gathered was never shared with Guttman or anyone else.

"Reporters and editors make hundreds of judgment calls a day, collectively, with a paper this size," he says. "Sometimes you make a mistake. I don't think it's a defining moment for the paper."

And that's where O'Meara and the paper's top editors (assuming he's speaking for them) split with a number of reporters. For many of them, this was the paper's ultimate defining moment.

"I think the fact we're not as aggressive as we could be is not in dispute here," says reporter Mark Shanahan. "This paper, I think, was at one point more aggressive about stories. There was more emphasis on thinking critically about news. We don't really talk about what is news and what is not news; we seem concerned mostly with just making sure we have the stories to fill the paper."

There's no question that Cohen and Russell deserve blame for dropping the ball on the story. But when you listen to Press Herald staffers talk about the paper, about the priorities that are set from the top down, it becomes clear that the reporter and assigning editor share only a fraction of the blame. If Cohen had made a string of bad decisions over the years, that would be one thing. But by all accounts he hasn't. On the other hand, the leaders of the paper -- the "teachers," as Guttman put it in her November 5 column -- have thoroughly demonstrated their capacity to blow a good story. When Cohen and Russell decided to pass on the Bush DWI story, it could be they were simply following the example being set for them.

Steve Vegh was a reporter at the Press Herald for seven years until he took a job last month at the Virginian-Pilot. When he heard that his old paper had blown one of the biggest stories of the presidential race, he says, "I felt ice in my bowels." But it wasn't the first time Vegh had seen the Press Herald with a solid story in its hands and no idea what to do with it.

Last February, Vegh was covering a civil lawsuit brought by Moses Sebunya, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP in Portland, against three county officials who Sebunya claimed had stifled his right to free speech when he was employed at the county jail. At one point in the trial, Sebunya commented on the stand that, since his employment with the county jail had ended, he had worked as a consultant for the University of Southern Maine (USM) and the city of Portland. It was an innocuous enough comment, but it caught Vegh's attention.

"I got copies of those contracts from USM and the city," he says, "and realized that there was no competitive solicitation done for the contracts. My big question was, how come? Isn't that one of the standard safeguards that public agencies exercise so they can be accountable to taxpayers?"

After further investigation, Vegh confirmed that the contracts had not been put out to bid: they had been awarded to Sebunya without properly ensuring that taxpayers were getting the best deal for their money. In doing so, USM and the city were ignoring their own purchasing policies.

"This was February," says Vegh. "I was ready to go with the story."

But, at Guttman's direction, the story was held -- not for a day, not for a week, but for nearly six months. Long enough for the Press Herald to be scooped on the story by Casco Bay Weekly, a rival newspaper.

"I was told, `What we really need to do is broaden the story and look at the entire issue of competitive bidding by the city and USM,' " says Vegh. "I didn't oppose that, but this was information I had checked out as factual. I had it. Maybe I'm old-school, but I think if you have information, you get it out. If you get more information, you put out another story later."

O'Meara says, "There was a feeling on the part of the editors that the story needed to be broadened. There was a feeling that there were some problems with the system -- they were broader than any one individual."

The story finally appeared on August 1.

About two months later, on October 8, another big story ran in the paper. Like Vegh's piece, this one had been held by the editors. It was the story on convicted killer Jimmy Hicks, and the writer, Jason Wolfe, had been waiting four years to see it in print.

Wolfe, who worked at the Press Herald from 1989 to 1999 and is now an independent writer in Portland, was put on the story by Tom Ferriter, a highly respected line editor at the paper. Ferriter thought it would be worth Wolfe's time to investigate the disappearance of two women connected with Hicks, one of whom was Hicks's girlfriend.

In all, three women with ties to Hicks had disappeared. Hicks had been convicted of killing one of them, and, as Wolfe discovered, Hicks had been the last person to see the other two alive. A detective with the state police verified that Hicks was a suspect in their investigation of the disappearances. The story, Wolfe says, did not try to accuse Hicks of murdering the women, but it did attempt to lay out the facts so that readers could reach a conclusion on their own.

"The initial version of my story probably went a little too far in accusing him of foul play in the disappearance of his girlfriend," says Wolfe. "The final version was a lot softer."

The Press Herald's editors ran the story's final version past a lawyer, who voiced concern that the piece could open the paper up to a libel suit from Hicks. Based on that recommendation, Guttman (who had only recently assumed control of the paper from Ureneck) and the paper's publisher decided not to run the story. But, Wolfe says, it was never really discussed with him.

"There was never a point where we sat across the table and talked about this," he says. "I mean, is a convicted killer really going to take us to court where he'd have to talk about all this? But there was never that kind of talk about the story. It just fell by the wayside."

Wolfe says he was frustrated by the decision. But he says one of the hardest parts of the ordeal was calling the families of the victims, whom he'd interviewed at length for the piece.

"The family members were so pleased that [the newspaper] was looking into this," he says. "At that point they didn't know what happened [to the victims]. They thought if we can just get the story out there, somebody might see it and remember something that could help us find them. Maybe the paper could help in finding these women."

Last April, Hicks was arrested for assaulting and trying to kill a woman in Texas. When the story broke, Wolfe contacted his former employer and asked if the paper would like him to rework his earlier Hicks story, now four years old.

"There was some initial excitement," says Wolfe, "but then it fell by the wayside again."

Facing life in prison in Texas, Hicks confessed to the killings in exchange for a transfer to a Maine prison, where he'd be closer to his family.

Once again Wolfe called the paper. Finally, guided by Ferriter, the story made it into the October 8 edition of the Maine Sunday Telegram, the Press Herald's Sunday edition.

A few days later, Hicks was brought back to Maine and showed police where he'd buried the bodies.

"When I heard he was arrested in Texas," says Wolfe, "I just thought, `We could have exposed this guy four years ago.' "

The problem in this decision-making process, as well as in the case of the Bush DWI story, speaks to a fundamental ethic in journalism, says Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school and ethics lab in Florida.

"These kinds of stories are best handled when we say, `How can we run this story?' rather than `Do we run this story?' " he says. "It's about trying to find ways to report stories, not trying to find ways not to report them. And these decisions should be made with as many people involved as possible."

Amy Mitchell, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, DC, agrees. She attributes much of the trouble to the fact that the Press Herald has no direct competition in the region.

"Anytime you have a monopoly, the risk is to assume that you are perhaps all-knowing, to not question yourself," she says. "If you are a monopoly it's even more important to have as much diversity of opinion, to have open discussions, to have discussions about what you're doing and if you're making the right decisions. It's very important to have open discussions about newsroom decisions."

WHEN YOU ask reporters at the Press Herald what the DWI fiasco has done to morale, they are quick to point out that morale had been in the gutter long before. Not only are the editors responsible for setting a poor example in judging news, but the paper's new owners have done much to erode reporters' enthusiasm for their jobs.

When the Press Herald was first purchased by the Seattle Times Company in 1998, staffers were hopeful that the new owners would foster a cooperative relationship with the Newspaper Guild, the union that represents the vast majority of the paper's non-management employees. But union members have not been able to negotiate a contract with the new owners and have not received a raise since 1997. Plus, to cut costs, a number of positions vacated by reporters have not been refilled. Strong antagonism has developed between union members and the paper's owner, and that has taken a toll.

"There has been a slow, steady decline in morale," says Shanahan. "The newsroom has become such an airless, unhappy place. Some very good people have left because they don't need this."

"They've lost some people and not replaced them," says another staffer, who asked that his name not be used. "That puts the burden on the people who stay. And the job just isn't going to be done as well with fewer people. I think the readers have come to expect less from their daily paper."

"Reporters have had a hard time getting aggressive news stories into the paper quickly," says Bell. "My hope is the newspaper and its owners will use [the Bush DWI] incident as a catalyst for changing the culture at the paper.

"The paper is filled with talented reporters, editors, and photographers. They don't deserve this."

Cohen says he has hired a lawyer to represent him if he is called to task by his bosses for speaking out about what happened with his Bush DWI story. "There could come a point where an editor says, `I'm sick of hearing this guy tell his story,' " says Cohen. "If they come to me and say, `Come in, we have something to talk about,' I'm going to say, `Talk to my lawyer.' "

O'Meara says the paper doesn't feel one way or the other about Cohen's speaking out on the decision not to publish the Bush story. He believes that management acted forthrightly. And, he says, "Morale is fine. Obviously, everybody would like to get [contract negotiations] over with, but I don't think it's affecting the quality of the paper. From where I sit, from what I see, I think things are fine."

Sam Smith can be reached at ssmith[a]