We love dirty laundry

It’s a strange time for the newspaper industry — especially here in Maine, where we recently witnessed several seismic shifts in the media landscape.

Hedge fund financier and philanthropist Donald Sussman said he wanted to save a Maine institution and will keep his hands off the wheel of editorial decisions. (Bangor Daily News Photo)

Yesterday it was announced that Donald Sussman’s investor group will now own a 75 percent stake in the company that publishes the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Waterville Morning Sentinel and the Maine Sunday Telegram.

That’s all fine and dandy, except for one small twist: Sussman’s wife just happens to be Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, and she shows no sign of leaving Maine’s First Congressional District anytime in the near future.

Sure, Sussman says he has only the best  of  intentions, and adamantly vows that he will not interfere with the newspapers’ editorial process. Yeah, okay…whatever. For the record, I actually have a full-head of hair.

I was lucky to work for a family-owned group of weekly newspapers. David & Carolyn Flood gave me a very long leash, but I was never foolish enough to forget that I was on a leash. The Courier was not my paper.

There were many times when my editorials and opinion columns came nowhere close to matching the opinions of my employers, but they sighed…rolled their eyes…and kept giving me a paycheck. For better or worse, I was promoted three times during the seven years I worked for David and Carolyn.

My salary steadily increased and the newspaper thrived. The Courier was the paper of record in Biddeford and Saco, but I always knew I had a boss…heck, sometimes I even paid attention to David.

But all good things come to an end, and it remains to be seen whether the Press Herald or smaller weekly papers such as the Courier will continue to survive in this brave new world of digital media.

Regardless of the financial implications of producing dead-tree news, the Press Herald and its sister publications have crossed a murky line, despite the financial necessity of the decision.

It’s a tough call. Do you fold, and allow a historical institution to become nothing more than a memory? Do you surrender and send hundreds of employees to the unemployment line?

Or do you hold your nose and make a deal with the devil?

I’m sure Donald Sussman is a nice enough guy. I’ve never met him. But regardless of his Boy Scout oath to be ethical, every story that involves his wife, her decisions or her detractors will now be tainted with lingering doubt.

In November 2010, the Portland Press Herald surprised many of its readers by endorsing Republican Dean Scontras over Pingree during her campaign for a second term. If that happened now, we would have to wonder whether such a stance was motivated by an editorial board trying to make a public statement about its objectivity.

Journalists bristle when discussing ethical standards, so I do not envy the dilemma now faced by the reporters and editors at Maine Today Media.  No matter what lines they feed themselves before going to bed each night, each one of them also knows that they also are on a leash . . . a very tenuous leash.

But before you criticize reporters being on a leash, consider the plight earlier this month for the more than 50 employees at the Village Soup newspaper who were laid off when that group of weekly newspapers suddenly closed.

Being off the leash feels good, right up until you discover that you no longer have a bone to chew.

I don’t wanna be right

The most vocal supporters of President Obama’s push to reform our nation’s health care system will invariably say that health care is a “fundamental right.”

The so-called “right to affordable health care” has become the mantra and favorite talking point for those who say health care in the United States ought to look a lot more like it does in other countries, including Canada, Norway, Sweden or Denmark.

These folks generally support a single-payer system of health care, which resembles the current Medicaid program and effectively eliminates the need for private insurance.

But is health care — or even access to health care — a right?

In our first installment (Money for Nothing), we followed up on questions posed by Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant on his Facebook page:

So the moral question is: What should a society do in such situations? What should government do? Do we act, or do we allow the laws of Darwin to supersede our compassion, integrity and our humanity? The system is broken. . .”

Although we previously discussed the difference between health “insurance” and health “care,” Casavant’s questions also beg a discussion about where morality and government should — or should not — intersect.

Casavant’s questions also prompt a more focused pondering of how our nation defines “rights.”

The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence is probably a good place to start when examining the concept, definition and limitations of “rights” held by the American people:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Reading that sentence it becomes crystal clear our nation’s Founders understood basic rights come from a higher power than government. And this is a fundamental point.

Government cannot bestow rights; otherwise government can take away rights.

Your rights are yours, with or without a government.

The government’s limited role, as defined by both the Declaration and the ensuing Constitution, is to secure and defend your individual rights as part of a much larger group.

But the Declaration of Independence also opens the door for a legitimate discussion and debate  about other “rights” beyond Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, which are described as being “among” other, non-specified rights.

The argument for health care as a right gained further legitimacy when our Founders drafted the Constitution. It is within this document that our Founders more fully explored the concept of government’s appropriate role in promoting the “general welfare.”

Although the subject of health care is not discussed in either the Declaration or the Constitution, it could be reasonably construed as much of a “right” as public education — another topic not specifically discussed in those documents.

During our nation’s formative years, there was no such thing as public education. Education was reserved for the privileged few who could afford it.

Today, however, most people generally agree that our nation is better off when our citizens have — at minimum — a certain level of education.

Although our nation continues to grapple and debate public education funding, those costs and the ensuing delivery system is much easier to control than the cost and delivery of health care.

And here’s where it gets really tricky.

If we declare health care as a “right,” how does that impact your other rights as an individual?

If the government provides your healthcare from cradle to grave, then does it not follow that the government can dictate your health choices and even many of your lifestyle choices?

If we allow government to take care of us, are we not abdicating our individual pursuit of happiness?

I moved out of my parents’ home because I was ready to enjoy my adult freedoms. I wanted to come and go as I pleased. I wanted to make my own choices about what I eat, when and where I sleep and all the other benefits of freedom.

If my pursuit of happiness includes a poor diet that includes a daily regimen of Big Macs and French Fries, are you responsible to help pay the cost of my inevitable need for a heart transplant?

We have established standards and limitations for public education.

We accept the fact that not every child will be able to attend Harvard or Yale. Of course, you have the “right” to apply, but those universities also have the right to reject your application.

If you want to make the moral case for public health care, what happens when your health care contradicts your neighbors rights to his/her religious beliefs?

During the Vietnam war, even our military made accommodations for drafted citizens to be conscientious objectors. If you are Catholic, should you be required to help pay for abortions and contraceptives?

Where do your rights as an individual end — or start — in a society that provides you with health care?

How much of your liberty are you willing to sacrifice for your safety?

One of the most ardent opponents of smoking was Adolph Hitler, a man who envisioned a nation of supreme and physically fit citizens. Mentioning Hitler in this debate is intended to be inflammatory, only if to give us pause.

If you have the right to health care, does that mean that other people should financially support that right? If so, are there any limitations to how much health care any one individual wants or needs?

These are legitimate questions and not very convenient for either side of the debate.

If we propose that health care is a right, then we will need to completely reconstruct our health care system. We would have public doctors and nurses, whose employment contracts and salaries are negotiated by the government — just like teachers.

We would also have public health care clinics that are less desirable than their private counterparts.

In the end, those with money would have better access to service than those without money.

Sound familiar?

The hypocrisy found in these arguments is overwhelming.

We want our choices. We want our freedom, but we would prefer that the consequences of our individual choices are funded — at least in part — by other people.

Maybe it’s just time to move back in with mom and dad.

If you would like to further explore the arguments for and against the concept of health care as a right, you may want to visit this website.

Money for nothing

August 2009: Large crowds in Portsmouth, NH, protest outside a high school where President Obama speaks about the need for health care reform.

Anyone with a pulse and an IQ exceeding room temperature can likely agree that our nation’s health care system is seriously flawed.

But that’s generally where the agreement stops.

That’s why I was impressed when Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant posed a series of observations about Maine’s own raging health care debate on his Facebook page.

Casavant is also a member of the Maine House of Representatives, and his comments were based on his observations during a legislative hearing about how best to address rising health care costs.

“Clearly, resentment [of] the Obama plan drives a lot of these bills,” Casavant noted, referring to the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2009.

“For some, the costs of treatment and medicine exceed their ability to pay,” he said. “So the moral question is: What should a society do in such situations? What should government do? Do we act, or do we allow the laws of Darwin to supersede our compassion, integrity and our humanity? The system is broken. . .”

I applaud Casavant for raising the topic, but submit that our health care system is NOT broken, it is fixed . . . meaning it is rigged.

Our current system is either outdated and ineffective, at best ; or it is favorably geared toward an ever shrinking pool of those who can afford to keep up with skyrocketing costs.

Are you with me, so far? Good; because this is where the debate gets tricky.

Before we proceed any further, we must agree to at least one basic fact, regardless of our individual political/cultural/socio-economic viewpoints.

Health “care” and health “insurance” are completely different topics that are too often linked at the hip.

Let’s start with health insurance.

If you drive a vehicle in Maine, you are required by law to have a minimum-liability insurance policy. This law exists to protect drivers who are harmed by another driver’s neglect or carelessness.

Driving, as the state of Maine tells all new drivers, is a privilege, not a right.

I will take that a step further and say that health “insurance” is also not a right.

Laura and I scored tickets to see President Obama speak about the need for health care reform in 2009. Then, just as it is now, we both had reservations about the president's plan. Laura tried to ask a question, but she and many others did not get picked.

The argument about whether health care is a right remains a bit more ambiguous, but let’s remember we’re now discussing health “insurance,” not health “care.”

The discussion about rights and expectations have only been muddied by the nation’s new health care law, which mandates individuals to purchase health insurance in the private marketplace.

The so-called “individual mandate” is one of the more controversial aspects of the health care reform law signed by President Obama. That issue is scheduled to be deliberated by the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

Interestingly, critics of the individual mandate can be found from both the left and right side of the political spectrum.

Conservatives argue that the individual mandate further erodes personal liberty and crosses the sacrosanct line between personal choice and government mandates.

On the other hand, more progressive Democrats — especially those who pined for a public option or a single-payer system of healthcare reform — describe the individual mandate as nothing more than a very big gift for evil insurance companies that stand to gain millions of new customers.

But all that debate and Constitutional introspection pales in comparison to the more fiery rhetoric associated with the subject of health insurance profits.

Left-leaning groups, such as ACORN and HCAN (Health Care for America Now) say that corporate, for-profit health insurance profits are skyrocketing and have quadrupled over the past few years.

It’s a favorite talking point of progressive Democrats and very handy when whipping up grassroots mobilization to support the president, but it’s not entirely accurate — although rated as “mostly true” by PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning organization established by the Tampa Bay Times to fact check political rhetoric.

Meanwhile, the health insurance industry is crying poverty, saying their profit margins are among the lowest of any industry in the United States — ranging between two and four percent.

So, which one is right?

Unfortunately, the inconvenient truth is that both groups are a little bit right, and a lot wrong.

And that is bad news for those of us trying to navigate the turbulent waters of this complex debate.

But simply blaming “greedy” insurance companies conveniently ignores too many other factors that drive health care costs. Moreover, such rhetoric is debatable, at best; and intentionally misleading at worst,

Rick Newman, chief business correspondent for US News & World Report, makes a compelling  case about why health insurance companies make lousy villains, pointing out that profits are hardly the root of a much larger and complex problem.

“Overall, the profit margin for health insurance companies was a modest 3.4 percent over the past year, according to data provided by Morningstar. That ranks 87th out of 215 industries and slightly above the median of 2.2 percent,”  Newman reports.

Despite my right-leaning, free-market beliefs, I admit to being somewhat conflicted on this issue, and that’s probably because my household is knee-deep in our own health-insurance nightmare.

Laura does a good job of managing her illness, but there is no escaping that MS is a progressive illness that will never go away and only get worse over time.

My wife, Laura, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just three days after Christmas in 2008. Her disease is never going to go away. It is never going into remission. It takes a little piece of her each day, even when we don’t notice it.

I also have a chronic disease, one that gets a lot less sympathy than MS, cancer, epilepsy or diabetes. For more than 25 years, I bounced in and out of psychiatric hospitals all across the country, ringing up thousands of dollars in debt because I had no health insurance.

Neither of us asked for our respective illness. We both work full-time. We pay our taxes, but we are also a health insurance company’s worst nightmare…we take out a lot more than we put in to the system.

If you’re a conservative, Tea-Party Republican, you are advised now to reach for the duct tape because otherwise your head may explode when I offer up this next tidbit:

You are paying a portion of our health insurance.

Laura is a state employee and thus, we are more than lucky to have an outstanding health insurance plan that is offered to all state employees and their immediate family members.

But even if Laura lost her job, and we relied upon a more traditional (and much more expensive) private health insurance plan, you would still be paying for our health insurance.

Why? Because in our current system, healthy Americans subsidize the costs of treatment for the ill. That is the fundamental core of the individual mandate: we need more young, healthy people in the system to offset the cost of treating older and sicker Americans.

I am not a big fan of the individual mandate – beyond the Constitutional arguments, I think the system unfairly penalizes healthy people and will do little to drive down the costs of health care.

There is a lot more to cover, but I will end this installment here and borrow Casavant’s closing observation from his Facebook post: Stalemate [on this issue] is unacceptable.

Next installment: Health Care: Is it a right?

Like a bridge over troubled waters

If one could only be a fly on the wall inside the offices of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree

Gov. Angus King (Bowdoin College photo)

Today, former Maine Governor Angus King officially took his big toe out of Maine’s political pool, climbed a 15-story ladder and then did a quadruple jacknife dive (with a twist) into the deep end of the pool.

The ensuing splash was felt in places as far away as Madawaska, and in less than six hours — King received more media attention than Pingree has gotten since the last time Donald Sussman bought a group of newspapers.

Until today, Pingree was the commonly accepted front-runner to fill Senator Olympia Snowe’s moderate, size 6 shoes, despite the fact that every Maine resident with at least one vowel in their last name was considering a run for either the First Congressional District or the US Senate.

King’s gravitas, combined with his popularity and solid polling numbers, has Democrats across Maine wondering aloud tonight whether Chellie should just sit tight in her First District House seat rather than risk splitting the vote, allowing a Republican to capture Snowe’s seat.

The balance of the entire US Senate is in play. The stakes are high, and the potential consequences are severe.

But the Republican candidates, a bench which so far includes the Secretary of State, the State Treasurer and the Maine Attorney General, should also be paying attention.

King’s entrance into the race could impact Republicans and Democrats equally, and that’s because King is much more centrist than his independent counterpart, Eliot Cutler.

Many Democrats remain bitter about Cutler’s independent bid for the Blaine House in 2010, speculating that his candidacy split the Democrat base and allowed Republican Governor Paul LePage to win with 38 percent of the vote.

If Republicans are banking on a repeat of that 2010 split-the-Democrat vote strategy, they may want to consider a Plan B . . . because Angus King is no Eliot Cutler.

For starters, King is likable and he also appeals to right-leaning independents.

Sure, King has plenty of detractors and vulnerabilities…but minimizing his candidacy will be a tall order for any of the usual suspects, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats.

RELATED: An interview I conducted with Governor King during his final days in office .

My shirt looks good on you

You know a political nerve has been pinched when Rush Limbaugh apologizes for comments he made on his national radio show.

Rush’s outrageous comments about Sandra Fluke ignited a deafening outcry from women’s groups and reproductive rights advocates this week, and several of his advertisers are now distancing themselves.

Because this is a presidential election year; and because Rush is an unabashedly conservative pundit, his comments are being used by Democrats to underscore the notion that Republicans are waging a war against women.

Nothing like a bit of hypocrisy just a few days before Super Tuesday.

Check the cheering and applause that HBO talk show host Bill Maher received when he described Sarah Palin as a “dumb twat.”

A few nervous giggles, but applause nonetheless…

So, if a Republican commentator demeans women with vitriolic commentary we gather the pitchforks and demand his head on a stick.

But if a liberal commentator does the same thing, we laugh or just look the other way. Is that how it works?

Make no mistake, both Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher are pigs, and their outrageous comments should be condemned by everyone with a pulse, regardless of political affiliation.

California Governor Jerry Brown, a former presidential candidate, apologized for comments that were attributed to him and/or his staff, describing Republican opponent Meg Whitman as a whore during the gubernatorial campaign.

From my perspective, an apology doesn’t cut it.

George Will got it right when he said the word “inappropriate” is far too tame for describing Rush Limbaugh’s comments.

“Inappropriate is when you use your salad fork for your entrée,” Will quipped on ABC’s Good Morning America, saying Republicans are too tepid in their response and afraid of Limbaugh and his massive audience.

Violence against women begins when we give ourselves permission to demean them with our discourse.

As the father of two young men, I have an inherent obligation to speak out about the pervasive nature of gender violence and misogyny.

As an amateur pundit, I just wonder why it’s somehow funny when Bill Maher calls a woman a twat, yet outrageous when Rush Limbaugh infers that a woman is a slut.

Dean Scontras, the Republican who challenged Chellie Pingree in the 2010 First District Congressional race, is also bothered by the crystal-clear hypocrisy.

On his Facebook page, Scontras said that until those who sympathize with the left express equal outrage over Maher’s remarks about Palin, they should remain silent about Rush Limbaugh’s comments.

I disagree.

Although I despise the hypocrisy, remaining silent about Rush Limbaugh’s vile  commentary just because Bill Maher was equally (or arguably more) offensive, only serves to amplify and allow a very real war against women to fester – – if only beneath the surface.

Thus, it is now time for my own public apology.

Last week, I penned a post entitled I’m Done Sharing My Wife.

Although I am confident that people who know me understand the context of my satirical commentary, my words were immediately thrust onto the stage of public discourse via the power of the internet.

A very wise woman once told me that words are like toothpaste. Once you squeeze them out, it is virtually impossible to put them back in their container.

So, I will not edit or delete that post. I will leave it where it remains as a constant reminder of my own hypocrisy.

And, hopefully, my willingness to at least acknowledge my own boorish behavior will serve as an example for how not to behave.

A communications crisis? Gimme a break!

Some people say that our national political discourse is out of control and filled, more than ever before, with the rancor and tension of partisan politics that threatens to destroy the fabric of our united nation.

Take, for example, this bit of tripe from today’s Portland Press Herald:

“If Sen. Olympia Snowe is really retiring from the U.S. Senate because she can’t stand the poisonous partisanship in Congress – and we have no reason to doubt her word on that score – then Maine is paying a terrible price for the rancor that has become business as usual in Washington, D.C.”

Still others say that Snowe’s departure signals the extinction of so-called “moderate” Republicans.

Hogwash!

We only need look just beyond Maine’s borders to find moderate Republicans, such as Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire or Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

Not to mention that no one could reasonably say Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Utah’s Orrin Hatch or John McCain are anywhere near Tea Party favorites.

Hatch was a close personal friend of the liberal lion, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and they worked closely on several pieces of legislation.

If anything, there is far too much moderation in the Senate and not enough people to stand up and cry foul when necessary. But the media won’t tell you that.

Why? Well, have you ever watched C-SPAN? It’s more boring than watching paint dry.

More than 99.9 percent of the time, both parties in Congress are working cooperatively and doing a super-duper, stand-up job of figuring out how to further screw the people they supposedly represent.

The system is not broken. It’s fixed.

But the media likes to focus on the Rand Paul’s of the world, or the banality of Rep Joe Wilson (R-SC) who shouted, “You lie!” during a State of the Union Address by President Obama.

That kind of partisan hype makes for better Facebook updates and newspaper headlines than the recent bipartisan push to reauthorize the Defense Spending Act; or last month’s transferring of budget line-item veto power to the president, a scary proposition for all of us, depending on who is sitting in the Oval Office.

Did you see that in the newspaper or on your favorite blog?

And let us not forget what happened just a few days after the “history calls” moment, when Snowe voted along party lines to ultimately reject passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.

That nugget seemed especially important for Snowe to mention during last month’s Republican caucuses in Maine, where she was facing primary challenges from more conservative candidates.

Reportedly, Snowe votes along party lines nearly 75 percent of the time. Good for her! She’s a Republican, what do you expect? But does breaking ranks one out of four times make you a moderate? Please.

We have become a nation of sheep, bleating for civility and warm, fuzzy sentiment.

But what about Nancy Pelosi’s statements when the House was finally able to pass the controversial health care reform bill? We won…deal with it. Should Democrats be a bit more moderate and side more often with Republicans?

We conveniently forget the rancor that dominated the Continental Congress, the Burr-Hamilton duel, the partisanship that led to the Civil War, the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, the communists-hunting era of Joe McCarthy or the vitriol expressed by Barry Goldwater, not to mention the more recent call for President Clinton’s impeachment.

Maine people, especially, should be mindful of those lessons and our place in history.

Look at how the GOP slung mud at Ed Muskie; or consider the wisdom of Margaret Chase Smith as she chastised McCarthy: “Have you no shame, sir?”

Instead of heeding the mindless, perfunctory analysis of media pundits, maybe we all should crack a history book every once in a while.

For a fun, yet historically accurate, reminder about our nation’s political discourse and the angry words used by our founding fathers, check out this video.