Race, the reporter, and the rest of us

Some facts, lessons and concerns


On Tuesday, January 3, 2012, reports emerged about a Maine statehouse reporter.

Leif Parsell, a writer for the news outlet of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, had written posts on-line that a blog said indicated “white supremacy.” Moreover, that blog reported that:

Parsell has said that elections are overrated and that repressive dictator Augusto Pinochet “saved Chile” from democratically elected Allende. Parsell also rants about voting laws doing too much to promote “turnout.”

Another blog found that, “Parsell has also taken his belief in European ethnic superiority to Facebook and to blogs across the internet.”

Later that day, the blog that broke the news reported that Parsells “appears to have a DWI conviction on his record.”

After the story was covered that evening by Maine Public Radio, the Maine Heritage Policy Center fired the reporter; Parsell was interviewed by public radio’s Tom Porter the next day.

What lessons should be drawn from this?

One way to answer that question is to look at the reasons given for firing Parsell.

First, here’s a portion of the statement from the Maine Heritage Policy Center:

Earlier today, it came to our attention that a recently-hired staffer had engaged in online discussions that were completely out of the bounds of our value system. MHPC is a strong advocate for the liberty and prosperity of all Mainers, and we deplore the concept of race-based politics. Though these comments were made prior to his employment with our organization, the rift between our value system and those expressed in this pattern of online behavior is significant enough to require an end to our employment of this individual.

And here’s commentary from Al Diamon:

Reporters and editors are generally big supporters of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. They bristle at any attempt to limit the information they can convey to the public. But those same journalists are also often firm believers in certain limits on their personal right to express their opinions. They feel a responsibility to keep their own views to themselves to avoid appearing biased. . . [Parsell made] repeated public claims of white superiority and of the inferiority of other ethnic groups that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Ku Klux Klan rally.

As repulsive as this stuff is, there’s no question Parsell has a First Amendment right to say it. But for any news organization striving to achieve some measure of respect, having a staff member with that sort of baggage is unacceptable.

For the MHPC, the lesson is that reporters shouldn’t be working for organizations when there is a major disjuncture between their views. For Diamon, the lesson is that openness about one’s political views can compromise a reporter’s impartiality.

These positions make sense.

Moreover, a key element of the First Amendment — freedom of the press — involves the right of those who own and edit publications to make their own decisions about what they want to publish and, of course, who they want to publish and work on their behalf.

And, truth be told, firing Parsell quickly was good crisis management by Mr. Dutson and the MHPC.

Yet I have some concerns.

For one, is it really fine with everyone to scrutinize and report upon a reporter’s posts on Facebook and various message boards? There are some who argue that anything you write anywhere is effectively public, but is that truly the standard by which we all must live?

I rather doubt that there is anyone has been on-line for awhile who hasn’t written something on-line that didn’t look good.

I certainly do not agree with what Parsell wrote about race and diversity. I definitely agree that it goes beyond most contemporary political discourse (although, frankly, at least some of Pat Buchanan’s writings are in the same ballpark).

But despite this, I worry about where the line will be drawn in the future.

Second, is it appropriate for information to be posted about a reporter’s driving record?

He is not a public official nor a candidate for office. Why is it anyone’s business?

I am not comfortable with the prospect of opposition research being performed on reporters.

Third, in general, in nearly every case, criticisms of reporters ought to focus on what they do — on their work.

A previous blog post of mine criticized an article of Parsell for its view that there is something inappropriate for groups representing the poor to lobby the Maine Legislature.

In my view, arguments made by Parsell in The Maine Wire and the limited vetting of him suggest the need for more oversight by his employers and for them to take a hard look at their operations. This assessment should include other news stories and its reports on policy studies that have significant methodological and conceptual flaws.

If the Maine Heritage Policy Center wants to do more than provide content that is supportive of their policy positions and excites their base, it should up the quality of both its policy work and its news outlet.

As Diamon contends:

[The MHPC] didn’t explain why an organization that frequently promotes itself as research-oriented was so casual about checking the background of an applicant. In short, it damaged the already questionable credibility of its news site and did nothing to mitigate that damage.

It would be a contribution to the state for this group to offer higher quality work, both from its news and research sides.

Well-done research, with strong methodology and proper evidence, is useful to citizens, the press, and decision-makers, as is excellent journalism.

All Mainers might take to heart what Benjamin Franklin said: “”Our critics are our friends; they show us our faults.”

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.