By: Mark Fitzgerald
Bangor (Maine) Daily News Executive Editor Mark Woodward says anybody who’s at all politically active in Maine has known for years that his wife Bridget Woodward is a staff assistant to incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
But suddenly this week the blogosphere is buzzing about the relationship, and accusing the editor of twisting the Daily News coverage and editorials to favor Collins over her likely opponent in the 2008 race, Democratic Rep. Tom Allen.
A posting by Eric Kleefeld on TPM Election Central — at one of the most popular and influential political blogs, TalkingPointsMemo.com — is typical of the play bloggers are giving the relationship:
“The allegations seem to have a great deal of merit, as it turns out. They turn on the fact that the paper’s executive editor, Mark Woodward, is married to Bridget Woodward, a staffer for Collins in the Senator’s Bangor district office. In other words, if Collins were to lose the election, the wife of the executive editor of a major newspaper in Collins’ home state would be out of a job – which would cause some serious inconvenience for that household. …
“The conflict-of-interest accusations came to light after the Daily News published an editorial backing up Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), who has denounced Democratic Congressman Tom Allen’s campaign for sending a tracker with a video camera to follow her around campaigning, specifically at a recent parade.”
In addition to a front-page story on Collins’ complaints about the videotaping, the Daily News ran an editorial mostly critical of the practice. It is an increasingly common campaign tactic to send a videographer to an opponent’s every public appearance, hoping to tape a gaffe or flip-flop.
But Woodward says there is no conflict of interest, he is not directing slanted coverage or opinion — and that the “revelation” of his wife’s work for Collins is way old news.
“It really is kind of fanciful for anyone to try to pretend this connection is some kind of revelation,” Woodward said in a telephone interview.
Woodward — currently board chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce — is a public figure in Maine, whose connection to Collins is well-known in the state, the editor said. Woodward first joined the Daily News in 1971, and when, in 1997, he went to work as the newly elected Sen. Collin’s press spokesman, the story “was front-page news” in the paper. A 1998 feature in The New York Times, about his family’s decision to take in a troubled teenager, also prominently mentioned his job as executive editor and Bridget Woodward’s position with Collins, he said.
Ironically, the blog spotlight on his wife’s position comes just as she prepares to resign, something Woodward said the couple had discussed for nearly a year and had decided before the “conflict” allegations arose.
The blog attention, Woodward believes, is political payback for running the story about the campaign tracker videographer.
“In the game of politics once side whacks the ball into the other side and something else comes back,” he said. “This is kind of a dog-eared card to play because it’s been around a long time — and there’s absolutely nothing to it.”
Woodward said he did not even know the paper was preparing an editorial slamming the videotaping. The executive editor is not a member of the editorial board, under a structure change Woodward, a long-time editorial page editor, imposed when he took the top newsroom job.
The Daily News has been a consistently pro-Collins paper — but it has also always endorsed Democrat Allen in previous races, Woodward said.
“I have never and would never direct people in a way that would do anything but encourage the development of the most objective story,” he added.
Another curious wrinkle — or proof that Maine is like a small town — is that the paper’s political editor, Tim Allen, is a first cousin of Collins’ opponent, Tom Allen.
But given that perception is often reality, especially in politics and journalism, Woodward said he has asked five newsroom editors to investigate the conflict-of-interest issue, and report on whether any changes are needed.
The paper also raised the issue in a column (http://bangordailynews.com/news/t/viewpoints.aspx?articleid=153768&zoneid=227) by Editorial Page Editor Todd Benoit that was published today in its Saturday edition, the biggest seller of the week, according to Woodward. “Allen and Woodward each has more than 30 years’ experience in journalism and both have succeeded based on their reputations; they know they have a professional stake in being, ahem, fair and balanced. You would hear about it if they weren’t: Fortunately, a sufficient number of online critics are eager to announce our shortcomings,” Benoit wrote.