Over the past week, many have faulted the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy organization with close ties to Gov. Paul LePage and Republican leaders in the Legislature, for the words of Leif Parsell, a so-called reporter the policy center hired for its new “news wire.”

Parsell was found recently to have a history of making racist and white supremacist comments online.

It may bear some blame for not vetting Parsell — even a simple Google search would have revealed his comments, many of them made under his own name. It should be noted, however, that it acted quickly to fire the man when his views and statements became more widely known.

Neither should it bear particular blame for setting up its right-leaning news operation in the first place. Its website, and its aspirations to use it to shape (and, in some cases, write) news coverage, is a reaction to the declining emphasis on solid political and policy reporting by traditional media. In addition, thanks to the Internet, people can easily seek out and consume coverage that fits their ideological predisposition and ignore what doesn’t. MHPC has recognized these trends and is seeking to take advantage.

The famous Buddhist koan comes to mind, wherein we learn that one shouldn’t blame a scorpion for stinging, for that is simply its nature. The same is true of MHPC. It is to be expected to take every advantage offered to push its political agenda and that of the undisclosed corporations and individuals that provide its funding.

Of course, it’s going to exploit institutional weaknesses in our media. It has done the same thing in the field of policy research, where it has a long history of releasing reports using skewed or misleading statistics, and in public opinion research, where it released an analysis of a poll conducted before last November’s election. Its analysis about Question 1 (the people’s veto of the Legislature’s repeal of same-day voter registration) could hardly have been more biased or, come Election Day, more wrong. Why should the institution of journalism be any different?

What should not be tolerated, however, is legitimate journalists and media outlets accepting its product as news.

It’s obvious from Parsell’s background not as a reporter but as a conservative activist and from his own admission that his views about immigration and other political issues were part of the interviewing process for his job for the Maine Wire and that the website and wire service wasn’t built for purposes of journalism, but advocacy.

As Al Diamon, my fellow blogger at DownEast, notes in a recent post, other media outlets also have points of view. He cites the Portland Phoenix, an often progressive-leaning weekly newspaper as an example. The difference is that the Phoenix is first and foremost a newspaper. Its main mission is to entertain and inform its readers and provide value for its advertisers.

Another example is Fox News, which despite its many biases, is still at its core a TV channel, not an interest group.

There is a thin but important line between news, even slanted news, and that of advocacy groups, including the one I work for, which often run their own blogs and newsletters and attempt to influence broader coverage by sending out news releases, but don’t pretend to replace traditional reporting.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center is an advocacy organization, created and funded not to reflect and inform opinion, but to shape it, and it has crossed over that thin, important line in two ways.

First, it claims that it provides balanced coverage. “A fair, high-quality political news product” is how the website describes its coverage. Second, it attempts to replace the coverage of politics by traditional reporters in Maine media outlets with its own fundamentally biased work.

The whole point of running a newswire is to have other outlets pick up and reprint or rebroadcast the stories. And the MHPC’s effort is already beginning to work. One weekly newspaper chain, Hometown Newspapers, already carries its articles. Rather than attributing it to the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a byline in a recent edition of one of those newspapers reads simply “by Leif Parsell of TheMaineWire.com.”

And here is where we should place the blame: On media outlets that aid, abet and disguise this kind of biased reporting. You can’t blame the scorpion for stinging, but if a guy starts throwing scorpions at you, it’s OK to get mad.

Mike Tipping is a political junkie. He writes the Tipping Point blog on Maine politics at DownEast.com, his own blog at MainePolitics.net and works for the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine People’s Resource Center. He’s @miketipping on Twitter. Email to [email protected]

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