Hannaford Bans Mainer For Exposing Hate Speech

Supermarket chain cites “strong profanity” and “perceived” anti-Semitism for decision to censor news

Hannaford, the giant New England supermarket chain owned by Dutch multinational Ahold Delhaize, has banned the current issue of Mainer from its stores following a handful of complaints by customers allegedly offended by our cover story about hate speech on Maine-based Facebook pages. A mid-level Hannaford executive cited what he called “strong profanity and swearing in the text” for the company’s decision, and a store manager in Saco separately claims a Jewish customer was offended by what the customer perceived to be a “hate symbol” on the cover of the free monthly publication.   

The cover story of Mainer’s December issue, “Hatebook: Facebook provides safe haven for white nationalists in Maine,” exposes racist and anti-Muslim hate speech in a popular Facebook group that’s purportedly about life in Lewiston/Auburn, the twin cities in central Maine that have a large population of African immigrants, many of whom are Muslim. Investigative reporters Nathan Bernard and Andy O’Brien also document Facebook’s poor track record of policing hate speech its site. The cover image is a variation of an Internet meme in which Facebook’s lower-case “f” icon is arranged in a spiral pattern resembling a swastika.

Cover image of the December 2019 issue of Mainer.

Eric Blom, Hannaford’s Director of External Communications and Community Relations, defended the corporation’s decision and accused Mainer of “threatening” the supermarket giant, which has over 180 locations in New England and New York, by writing about its decision to remove the magazine from its stores. Blom, who worked for over 20 years as a reporter for the Portland Press Herald before joining Hannaford in 2011, said he did not read the cover story, but was told that it contained “highly objectionable profanity and racial slurs.”    

It’s unclear exactly which words the corporation finds objectionable — Blom said Hannaford doesn’t have a “lexicon” of verboten verbiage — but he did point to one as problematic: cunt. That word, like all the profanities in the article, is contained in a quote cited as evidence of hate speech commonly found in posts within the private Facebook group formerly called LA’s Journal. (The group, which has over 4,200 members, renamed itself “Whats [sic] Happening In L-A” after Mainer’s article was published.)

Mainer contends that journalists should document hate speech using actual quotes that prove this speech exists and is harmful. Blom disagrees. He said Mainer, which publishes in the tradition of alternative newsweeklies like the Village Voice, should adhere to the editorial guidelines of mainstream daily newspapers, like the Boston Globe, and “characterize” hate speech, rather than quote it. He called that approach “common sense” and in keeping with “community standards.”

Mainer believes that journalistic practice is neither neutral nor objective, because it purposefully obscures the nature of the problem and actively serves the interests of the purveyors of hate, who likewise seek to downplay and obscure the ugliness of their speech when confronted by activists and other critics.     

Blom also said Mainer should make a distinction between different types of profanity, some of which are apparently acceptable to Hannaford. “If you’re telling me your publication cannot discern between words like ‘cunt’ and words like ‘damn,’ I think there may be an issue here,” he said.

Blom said the supermarket chain doesn’t have a specific policy regarding the language used in publications available at its stores. “We listen to our customers,” he said. “If you had not used specific, highly objectionable profanity and racial slurs, then you would be in our stores right now,” Blom added.

On Dec. 1, Mainer received a voice message from a woman named Rebecca, an employee at the Hannaford in Saco, a small city about 15 minutes south of Portland. Rebecca, who did not provide her last name or job title, said they were removing copies of the current issue because it has a “hate symbol on the front of it.” She also asked whether Mainer had received other complaints about this issue, which hit the streets beginning Nov. 27. (As of Dec. 4, we had not received any other complaints.) 

Reached by phone on the afternoon of Dec. 1, the Saco store’s customer relations manager, Dylan Nickerson*, told Mainer that an elderly Jewish man had angrily complained to him about the cover. Nickerson mentioned no other complaints, but expressed concern that more would follow because, according to Nickerson, there are a lot of Jewish people in Saco and Hanukkah is approaching.    

We pointed out to Nickerson that the symbol on the cover is not a swastika, and that the article is actually about efforts to combat hate speech. “I get it,” Nickerson said, but he noted that customers offended by the image on the cover may not actually read the article. Blom, who was unaware of the customer complaint in Saco before Mainer brought it to his attention, made a similar point: “It may be hard to believe, but not all of our customers read your publication from cover to cover,” he said, downplaying the significance of context in this dispute.  

On Dec. 1, Mainer agreed to remove copies of the current issue from the Saco Hannaford in deference to Doyon’s request, and we informed Masthead Maine — the newspaper company that owns and stocks the free publication racks at Hannaford and other Maine supermarkets — of our decision on Dec. 2.

On Dec. 3, Hannaford executive Ryan Blessing sent an e-mail to Masthead Maine announcing the company’s decision to remove the current issue from all 24 stores that carry it, “due to strong profanity and swearing in the text.” Masthead, which publishes the Portland Press Herald and most other news publications in Maine, shared that e-mail with Mainer upon our request.

Corporate supermarkets like Hannaford and Shaw’s are unique among all the businesses in Maine that make free publications available to their customers, in that publishers must pay a private contractor to stock papers there. The Bollard, the free “alt-monthly” that morphed into Mainer last summer, had been distributed at those supermarkets since 2007, largely without incident, despite publishing material containing profanity on a semi-regular basis.

In the fall of 2013, the company that owned the free-publication racks in Hannafords at that time, Virginia-based Dominion Distribution (a Bible-thumping outfit with ties to far-right groups), pulled The Bollard from Hannaford supermarkets in Maine due to similarly vague concerns about vulgarity. Executives at Delhaize America’s corporate headquarters in North Carolina initially backed that decision, but it was reversed shortly after I notified Blom, who works at the corporate office in Maine, that I intended to write about the matter in my weekly column for the Bangor Daily Newswhich I did, expressing gratitude to Hannaford’s Maine-based executives for that decision.

Our stated intention to again report on Hannaford’s decision to ban this magazine is apparently what Blom was referring to when he spoke of “multiple times that you specifically have threatened us after customers complained about your free publication.” (Aside from the dust-up six years ago, neither The Bollard nor Mainer has had any problem distributing issues at Hannaford supermarkets until this month.)

Blom was combative and dismissive throughout our brief phone conversation on Dec. 3, which he cut short to attend a “meeting.” “You’re being snarky and writing a story that will benefit your own personal and financial business interests,” he claimed.

The loss of distribution at Hannaford supermarkets would be a significant blow to the Mainer News Cooperative, the worker-owned business that publishes over 18,000 copies of Mainer each month. Our free magazine is available at over 400 locations in Maine, but supermarkets account for over half of our circulation, and the lion’s share of our supermarket distribution is done via those two dozen Hannaford locations. Our cooperative pays Masthead Maine to stock those locations, and Masthead pays Hannaford for the opportunity to place its racks in their stores and thereby make money from the free papers, most of which Masthead also owns.      

As of this writing, Mainer is not permanently banned from Hannaford supermarkets, but our ability to continue to distribute there is tenuous, at best, contingent upon the subjective judgment of store managers and executives who respond to anonymous customer complaints. As this incident indicates, complaints by even a couple of our tens of thousands of readers are sufficient to justify a blanket ban at Hannafords statewide.    

I asked Blom why, if Hannaford is concerned about responsible journalism, it sells tabloids like National Examiner, National Enquirer and Globe in their stores, and gives those titles the best possible placement: at nearly every checkout, placed at child’s-eye level. Blom replied that those publications don’t contain profanity.

That may be true, but even a cursory review of copies of tabloids obtained this week at the Hannaford in Brunswick reveals racism and tawdry titillation amid the usual celebrity gossip and slander.

For example, the lead story in the Dec. 9 edition of Globe is headlined “Brit-Bashing Barack Hates Malia Fiance!” It claims that former President Obama “hates the Brits SO MUCH that he can’t stand his daughter’s blue blood English boyfriend” [emphasis theirs]. According to an anonymous source, Obama’s deep disdain for the U.K. “goes all the way back to Kenya, where his father was born — Kenya was a colony of Britain. The way Barack sees it, the Brits have thought themselves superior to the world and he’s got a real chip on his shoulder because of it.” The former president is said to be so resentful of England’s colonial past that he may refuse to walk his daughter down the aisle should she marry the white son of an English investment banker. 

The news brief next to that story declares: “Wild Child Gayle [King] Did Nude Pics!” The network TV morning show anchor, who is also African-American, is quoted recalling a photo shoot she did back in college: “I was nude … I’m posing, I’m doing all the things. I mean, you stick your butt out, you stick your boobs out.” A few pages later, a headline screams “Sicko Pours Hot Poop Over Woman!” — “A homeless crackpot dragged a woman out of her car in L.A. and dumped a bucket of steaming poop on her head.” The news brief ends by noting that the “suspect … was charged with battery and shipped to a mental health facility for two months.”

Before Blom hung up, I asked him if Hannaford pays to advertise on Facebook, despite its well-documented tolerance for hate speech. “Yes,” he said testily, “and so does pretty much every business in America.”

For the record, we’ve never paid Facebook a dime, and we never will.

*An earlier version of this post misidentified the surname and title of this employee.