In Depth

Maine Station Manager Takes the Heat

Think Globally, Cover Locally

It was a story that made waves last October, just days after the close of the 2006 SEJ conference in Burlington, Vt.

The New York Times reported that the general manager of a television station in Bangor, Maine, issued an edict that his news department could no longer do stories on global warming.

The newspaper quoted an e-mail memo from Michael Palmer, the general manager of television stations WVII-TV and WFVX-TV, ABC and Fox affiliates, respectively, in Bangor, to his seven-member news staff that said when "Bar Harbor is underwater, then we can do global warming stories. Until then, no more."

The e-mail message went out in May 2006 after the stations broadcast a live report from a movie theater in Maine where "An Inconvenient Truth" was opening. It began: "I was wondering where we should send the bill for the live shot Friday at the theater for the Al Gore commercial we aired."

But Mr. Palmer told TelevisionWeek that he was misunderstood. He said there was never a ban, that he was simply using humor to make the point that he is only interested in local angles on national and international news.

"I was selectively quoted. Everyone was universally misinformed on the truth," said Mr. Palmer. "It was a joke to illustrate an absurd example. There's no ban on these stories. That's the story. I don't have a policy on global warming as it relates to my station. I don't actively manage the news, I manage the business. I don't tell them what stories to cover and not cover."

Mr. Palmer said the story that aroused his ire was done by a young reporter and did not contain a local angle that pertained to the Bangor market.

The station's news director and operations manager, George Thomas, concurred with his general manager, and said the hot-button topics in the community are the economy and jobs; the biggest environmental stories concern the controversy over proposals to expand nearby landfills, he added.

"Mike very rarely enters into any editorial judgments, and we didn't have any restraints put on us," Mr. Thomas said. "When he mentioned Bar Harbor underwater, that was a joke, and he was trying to drive through a point to concentrate on local news. He's very adamant about that, considering we have on ABC News programming for six hours a day and only one hour of local news."

As a result of the New York Times article, SEJ President Tim Wheeler called Mr. Palmer, had a cordial conversation in which he was told the ban did not exist, and was referred to the news director, Mr. Thomas.

Mr. Wheeler then sent Mr. Thomas a letter that read in part: "SEJ strives to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy and visibility of environmental reporting. Toward that end, I encourage you to visit our Web site, www.sej.org, for useful background on climate and other environmental stories your staff might cover."

After a pitch for membership in SEJ, the letter continued: "If you'd like, I'd be glad to ask board member Jeff Burnside or another of our veteran TV reporter members to visit Bangor and present a workshop on covering climate and other environmental news for TV."

However, Mr. Thomas told TelevisionWeek he did not receive the letter, which was part of a packet containing a Maine newspaper's award-winning series on climate change and several broadcast segments, and Mr. Wheeler said he neglected to follow up with a phone call.

Said Mr. Wheeler, who plans to present several workshops for journalists across the country in the coming year: "The offer still stands, and we would like to be in touch with them soon."

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