Did this topic deserve all the sound and fury?

It appears the Portland Press Herald will not stop its continuing campaign to make a laughing stock of itself by inflating a minor political brouhaha to an issue of gargantuan proportions. The paper's now in a defense mode, featuring letters applauding its position.

As all PPH readers must know, the newspaper has been having a cow over something called "The Cutler Files," the internet effort last fall of a pair of political operatives -- Dennis Bailey and Thom Rhoads -- to assure the defeat of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler.

The paper has been unrelenting in its attempt to portray "The Cutler Files" as the epitome of iniquity. Take this sample of condemnatory words and phrases:

"One of the sorriest chapters in Maine's mostly proud political history," "sleazy election website." "crude injustice," "relentless internet assault," "more disgraceful than legitimate."
"deplorable undertaking," "shoveling garbage," "unfair tactics," "shameful," "disgraceful,"
"embarrassing."

Whew. Some ugly fusillade. And all from one, just one, editorial.

It's but a small sampling of the invective that has appeared in PPH news stories and columns as well as editorials during the weeks since Cutler was defeated. Each time readers were thinking the barrage might be over, new stories full of sound and fury topped Page 1.

And now some readers are reacting and letters are pouring in. After reading enough critical news stories, overblown opinion columns and over-the-top editorials it's no wonder some readers have become concerned that something sinister might be happening.

So what has all this noise been about? Why is the state's largest newspaper so upset it has devoted more staff time, more news space, more strident columns and more "end-of-the-world" headlines to "The Cutler Files" than to any other any other current news story?

That's something readers (and the editors of the PPH) should be asking themselves.

The paper's editorial assault on "The Cutler Files" has been very loud but desperately thin. It all started when, for whatever reason, Bailey and Rhoads, who were opposed to Eliot Cutler, decided to ramp up opposition to him. So they established an anonymous website and loaded it with critical information about Cutler, much of which they had found on the web.

This aroused a curiously intense level of ire on the part of the Cutler backers at the Press Herald. They mounted a counter-attack using all of the persuasive artillery a newspaper can command, including repetitious articles, clamorous columns and some of the biggest headlines in their inventory.

While this onslaught may have convinced some readers (and the state Ethics Commission) that the website operation was snarky, which perhaps it was, nobody has effectively contradicted the contention of Bailey and Rhoads that the everything they aggregated was accurate.

Nor was the website itself unduly dastardly by today's standards. Like it or not, such attack websites are becoming facts of political life. Just ask Sen. Susan Collins who long has had a website entirely devoted to attacking her. "Collins Watch" is the work of a critic who remains anonymous.

So lets's zero in on the anonymous part, which seemed to particularly enrage the folks at the Press Herald -- despite the fact that the paper itself vigorously defends the anonymous editorials it carries every day.

Obviously, readers will find nothing critical of anonymity here. Nor should they.

Anonymous commentary has been a staple of the American political scene ever since Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, using the pseudonym "Publius," combined to write a series of newspaper articles urging their countrymen to accept the proposed U.S. Constitution.

"Publius" has been used on many other occasions. A half century ago, for example, a distinguished University of Maine professor wrote newspaper articles under that pseudonym in an effort to persuade voters to unseat a powerful U.S.senator. Which they did.

The fact is, some anonymous posts are effective, some are not. The same applies to newspaper stories and editorials. In most cases it's the content, not the name of the writer, that counts. The public can make up its mind on that without the help of some (also anonymous) folks gathered around a table in a newspaper's conference room.

Their time and money would be better spent figuring out how to cover real stories, stories that have much more relevance for their readers. Like the DHHS computers, for example. Or DirigoChoice. Or vernal pools. Or the Wiscasset by-pass. The list of important subjects crying for media scrutiny goes on and on and on.

But for the Press Herald, at least, none of these highly consequential topics has reached the level of attention accorded "The Cutler Files." Very strange indeed.
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