Watchdogs aim to hold government accountable

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LEWISTON — John Christie and Naomi Schalit figure too many people mistake price for value, skepticism for cynicism and wind for substance.

It skews the news, the husband-and-wife team says. So, almost five years ago, they founded the nonprofit Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.

With funding from foundations and small private donations, the longtime journalists went to work. They began investigating Maine’s government and crafting news stories. Then they give them away on their website, pinetreewatchdog.org, and to Maine newspapers and radio stations.

“What we’re trying to do is allow you to hold public officials accountable, by looking at the record, by looking at the purpose they’re supposed to be serving, (and) by looking at whether they’re carrying out the public service,” Schalit told attendees at the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library on Friday.

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Part of the problem is a lack of investigative journalism in Maine, said the couple, who praised some of the Sun Journal’s work.

“There’s so much to do now in our business and too few people,” Christie said. Staffs have been cut and the pace in newsrooms has been increased.

It has left a need for the kinds of stories that may take months to develop, if at all.

“Every story that you start does not end up getting done,” Schalit said. “You can go down a lot of dead ends.”

More than 200 have been produced, though.

There have been stories about dam safety, problems in the bail commissioner system at the state’s county jails, drug thefts by pharmacists and losses by towns due to tax increment financing deals.

There have also been analyses of lots of Maine’s politicians.

On Friday, the center’s website featured a story about a Sanford legislator who used political action committee money to pay himself and his family $17,000.

“Our goal is really to have you understand better what is going on in government and politics and elections in Maine,” Schalit said.

The center has only four people on its staff. Schalit serves as the publisher and senior reporter. There is a chief operating officer and a reporting fellow.

Christie serves as the editor in chief.

“We’re just regular, classical journalists,” Christie said. “The only ‘ism’ we have is ‘journalism.'”

And though they reject cynicism, they try to be vigilant skeptics, Schalit said.

With children, Christie shows his suspicious nature by asking them how their mother says “good night.”

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” he said.

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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