Maine malaise

LIKE THE BLETHENS, the Scigliano clan cherishes its Maine connection. The difference is, we gather at the Penobscot family manse to eat lobster and swim in the quarry; they go back to Maine to buy newspapers—and infuse them with the spirit of their main paper, The Seattle Times. The resemblances are eerie: Jeannine Guttman, editor of the Times Company's Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, writes a Sunday institutional column that uncannily replicates the genial, self-congratulatory tone of Michael Fancher's "Inside the Times." And folks back there groan about it just the way folks here groan about Fancher's column. (You need Michael Kinsley's wit to get away with writing about your own paper.)

Seattle's Times and Portland's Press Herald share something else—bitter divisions between fed-up workers and hardball-playing management. The malaise may run even deeper there: Last month, 44 Press Herald staffers petitioned to withhold their bylines and illustration credits to protest their third year without a labor contract. The paper complied under protest and warned that it would restore the bylines when it, not the writers, chose.

The byline bail-out is indicative of the paper's general listlessness, which isn't surprising: Disappointed workers tend to make disappointing products. "The whole paper has gotten noticeably worse," laments veteran Maine journalist Peter Cox, noting a string of important stories on which smaller papers in other Maine towns have beaten the Press Herald. Last week, the publisher of the Portland Business Journal announced that he would do something unheard-of these days—start a new daily paper to challenge the Press Herald. It will be a free tabloid, with ample pickup material from The New York Times. But I've seen Mainers line up to pay $1.25 for that Times—one more sign of the hometown papers' erosion, there as here.


Back in Seattle, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is moving ahead on one of several charges tendered against our Times by the Newspaper Guild. Last week it returned the equivalent of an indictment concerning the Guild's claim that the paper illegally and coercively forbade ex-strikers from displaying "inoffensive" union pins and slogans. Absent a settlement or arbitration, which the Times has so far declined, the NLRB will issue a formal complaint.


Those in the news trade who bemoan layoffs, ad busts, and callous, underhanded employers forget what real dangers people in other countries face to speak truth to power. I first heard of Daniel Graham's wild ride when a mutual friend called, desperately seeking advice on how to get the U.S. State Department or someone with some say concerned about his plight. Graham was doing his geography master's research in Honduras' remote Gualaco region when he got involved in the local communities' war with a government-backed firm called Energisa. The company is building a dam in nearby Sierra de Agalta National Park that locals claim will destroy a 1,500-foot series of waterfalls, rich wild habitat and ecotourism potential, over 120 organic coffee plantations, one local hamlet, and the chance to bring running water to nine others. Police and company "security guards" had been stomping around trying to cow opposition; on June 30, guards shot a coffee farmer and dam opponent named Carlos Flores—the Chico Mendes of this battle—as he bathed in his yard.

Graham photographed and videotaped all of this, right down to the bullet holes in Flores' body. He joined 200 Gualaco residents and hundreds more urban sympathizers in a demonstration in the capital, protesting Flores' murder, the dam, and the government's failed commitments to indigenous communities. When police charged in busting heads to break them up, Graham shot more footage. When the Honduran papers ignored or whitewashed Flores' murder, he went on national radio and television to tell what he'd seen and broadcast his videotape.

Graham began receiving threatening calls and getting trailed. Someone shot at Gualaco's mayor and parish priest. Graham figured he'd better clear out. He found the U.S. Embassy unsympathetic—"One has consequences for how one acts," one official huffed—but an airline manager whose brother was among Honduras' growing ranks of "disappeareds" hustled him onto a plane home.

U.S. officials see no evil here. One State Department officer who'd examined the Energisa imbroglio says he "didn't see any indication that the U.S. Embassy has a dog in this fight." But in its March report on "Honduran Economic Highlights," the embassy listed the "attacks" against Energisa among recent anti-development "Smear Campaigns" and repeated Energisa's claim that "the Mayor of Gualaco is responsible for the opposition"—not popular discontent.

All this happens just as the U.S. Senate prepares to confirm John Negroponte—who, as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, lied so assiduously on Reagan's and the Contras' behalf—as our new ambassador to the Organization of American States. Seems like old times—only this time, the press isn't watching.

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