The former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, who’s now a fulltime media personality covering travel and outdoors issues in the state, got a lesson in disclosure last week after failing to mention a conflict of interest in a post touting windmill tourism on his blog at the Bangor Daily News.
The question is, will the lesson stick?
In addition to running the Sportsman’s Alliance, from which he retired in 2010, George Smith has been a weekly columnist for two other Maine newspapers, the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel, for 20 years, and it’s not the first time he’s been called out for a lack of transparency. This time, at least, he responded to criticism with a follow-up post apologizing for his oversight.
The latest episode began on February 28, when Smith added a post to George’s Outdoors News—the Bangor Daily News blog he launched in July—under the headline, “Wind Towers Maine’s New Tourist Attraction.”
He reported that:
First Wind, working with local snowmobile clubs and the Maine Snowmobile Association, has linked its wind towers in a 590-mile circuit through some beautiful Maine country.
First Wind, a renewable energy company based in Boston, also hosted an annual event called the Stetson Wind Snowmobile Ride-In on February 16 in which 200 people participated, Smith noted, including a quote from First Wind’s local director of development that was taken from a press release about the event:
We routinely hear from snowmobilers and ATV users that the first three questions heard from visitors to towns located near wind projects are Where is the Gas? Where is the Food? And How do I get to the wind farm?
The catch, as a local group concerned about the impact of wind-power development on Maine’s outdoor-recreation areas quickly pointed out, is that First Wind is listed as a “Premium Level Supporter” on the home page of Smith’s website, GeorgeSmithMaine.com.
The “Advertising & Sponsorship Opportunities” page on the website explains that “Premium Level” supporters contribute at least $5,000 per year, and are entitled to various forms of promotion on Smith’s website, on Wildfire (his TV talk show), and on his blogs. It’s unclear which blogs this refers to (he has a few), but Bangor Daily is included on his website’s menu bar.
I called Michael Dowd, Bangor Daily News’s Metro/Standards Editor*, to ask about the apparent conflict of interest, and he asked for some time to review the evidence. The next day, I got a call from Anthony Ronzio, the paper’s director of news and new media, who said that at the editors’ urging, Smith had addressed the issue in a follow-up post that morning.
“I made a mistake…” Smith wrote at his blog. “So let’s head this off by letting you know that I agree with the anti-wind folks and my editors at the BDN, that I should have disclosed that First Wind is a sponsor of my website, georgesmithmaine.com. I do not hide that fact. Their sponsorship is highlighted right on the home page of the website and repeated in my Outdoor News Blog there.”
In the post, and in a follow-up phone call that I made, Smith said he’d originally intended to publish the offending post on his personal website, where his connection to First Wind is clear. When he made a last-minute decision to put it on the Bangor Daily News blog, he forgot to add the disclosure.
The paper now hosts almost 100 unpaid bloggers on its site, and leaves it to them to remember such details, according to Ronzio. Bangor Daily News has been building up the community in earnest for two years, and continues to solicit new additions on a variety of topics. It vets bloggers before they join, but once onboard, the paper doesn’t edit or review their posts before they go live.
“Our terms of service clearly say that bloggers are not allowed to use their blogs for their financial, material, or political gain,” Ronzio said. “We do expect them to adhere to basic journalistic standards, but there is a line between what the bloggers do and what the BDN does, and yeah, it’s part of that new-media ecosystem, with non-traditional content for newspapers and that sort of thing. But there’s a net gain for us in hosting these bloggers. From time to time we have to make ‘em own up to what they do, and we do.”
Ronzio added that editors respond to complaints rather than actively policing the blogs, however, and that when it comes to enforcing the rules, they merely “suggest” a redemptive course of action rather than impose one.
Smith seemed to recognize the responsibility that comes with such leeway—“I don’t want to abuse the privilege of posting this blog on the BDN’s website, so I will be giving the issue of conflicts a lot of thought,” he wrote in his follow-up post. But this wasn’t the first time he’d been called out for failing to disclose a conflict.
In a post published before Smith’s mea culpa, local media critic Al Diamon pointed out that earlier admonitions had had no effect:
I’ve had some e-mail correspondence with Smith about this issue over the years, since I’ve pointed out his ethical shortcomings again and again and again. It’s plain from his responses that he doesn’t consider his business relationships with companies he writes about—several of them sponsor his website, in effect paying him to say nice things about them—to rise to the level of requiring disclosure.
The links in Diamon’s post lead to complaints he’s made over the last two years about conflicts of interest in Smith’s writing for Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel, none of which seem to have elicited any form of correction. Yet when I asked about Diamon’s latest criticism, Smith readily admitted, “He was right, and it’s not the first time he’s been on me about it.”
Smith said he tries to be attentive to the need for disclosure, not only in his articles about wind power, but also in his writing about policy issues related to fishing, hunting, and other forms of outdoor recreation in Maine. “I was a lobbyist at the legislature for 20 years, and I’m still very involved in covering the legislature, so I try to keep it in mind,” he said, referring to his time at the Sportsman’s Alliance.
Still, both he and Ronzio fell back on the argument that people in Maine “know” him and are familiar with his background. But the Web is flat, and with so much “non-traditional content” floating around, transparency is more important than ever.
*Clarification: The original version of this article referred to Michael Dowd as the editor-in-chief of Bangor Daily News because he is still listed as such on the paper’s website, and he did not clarify his position when first contacted about Smith.