ANR Commish Targets the Messenger

The algae isn’t the problem. The problem is, this picture of the algae.

Vermont Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore is blaming the media for reporting on Lake Champlain’s water quality problems. Nice.

During a presentation to lawmakers on Wednesday, Moore displayed a series of articles covering outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae on the lake, and blamed those damn reports for a more than 10 percent drop in visits to certain state parks this year.

“It’s headlines like these that probably played no small part in discouraging people from heading to our parks,” she told lawmakers, according to VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff.

There’s a few problems with this, need I say. First, as you may have discerned from the “probably,” Moore has no actual evidence to back up her assertion.

Second, the drop was reported at eight of Vermont’s 13 lakeside parks. What about the other five?

Third, it’s not cool to blame the media for, you know, doing their goddamn jobs. If there’s a potentially toxic — and spectacularly ugly — algae bloom on the lake, are we supposed to ignore it for fear of inciting tourists to stay away?

Fourth, those blooms have been a regular summertime feature of Vermont life for years and years. Did this past year’s reportage suddenly hit home this year?

Were there more stories than ever before? Moore admitted she doesn’t know.

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Bookshelf: Those who forget the past…

Before yesterday, I knew some bare-bones facts about America’s wholesale imprisonment of people of Japanese lineage during World War II. And then I read George Takei’s graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy. (Available here.)

Takei, best known as Sulu on the original Star Trek, was one of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were ripped from their homes in the western U.S. and sent to distant “camps” for the duration of the war. I knew that the internment order was a terrible thing; Takei’s book taught me two important lessons.

First, it wasn’t just a single act. There was a whole series of barbaric actions by the U.S. government that are hard to fathom by modern standards — even given the cruelty of our current administration. And second, the human cost of internment continued long after the war. The story of a single family, told in pictures, brings to life the human dimension of this awful period. Seeing forced relocation through a child’s eyes provides a perspective you can’t get in a history book.

Takei’s story begins with a harsh knock on the door, and an order for his family to vacate their home within ten minutes. They could only take whatever they could carry. Everything else — homes, businesses, possessions — was left behind and lost forever.

America made no effort to determine which people might actually be a threat. All were treated as enemies. Politicians who would become celebrated for their devotion to American ideals — Franklin Roosevelt, Earl Warren — were willing participants in the demonization of ethnic Japanese, fanning the flames of prejudice and advocating legislation that would rob people of their lives, livelihoods, dignity and freedom.

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Journalism’s obsession with objectivity

Objectivity is the key to good journalism. So they say. So almost everybody says.

I’m not here to deny the importance of objectivity. It’s one of the sharpest tools available for exploring the truth. But it’s not the only tool, and modern journalism is sorely limited by its strict adherence to objectivity.

I’ve been pondering objectivity for some time, and feeling a sense of disquietude about its dominance in the field of journalism. That sense came into sharp focus after I discovered “The View From Somewhere,” a podcast (and book) by Lewis Raven Wallace, a trans journalist who was fired in 2017 by public radio’s Marketplace over a post on their personal blog entitled “Objectivity Is Dead, and I’m Okay With It.” I highly recommend the podcast for those who care about journalism. Haven’t read the book yet.

Some of the facts and concepts in this post are borrowed, in whole or in part, from Wallace’s work. It’s my own interpretation, of course.

Let’s start with some history. The concept of journalistic objectivity is relatively new — almost exactly a hundred years old, in fact. It emerged, coincidentally or not, at a time when newspapers had become very profitable enterprises bought and sold by rich men and corporations. Objectivity was used by those owners as a cudgel against employees’ efforts to unionize. Reporters were often fired for a supposed lack of objectivity — solely because they were trying to organize their workplaces.

From that twisted acorn did our mighty oak of objectivity spring. That’s not the whole story, but it should be remembered that objectivity has been used, not just as a guideline, but also as a weapon.

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A state full of fetishes

FETISH, n. An object regarded with awe as being the embodiment or habitation of a potent spirit or as having magical potency. (Dictionary.com)

The notion of obsessing over, or even worshipping, an object, is often thought of as a sign of primitiveness. Here in the modern West, we know better than to believe a mere object can be imbued with magical powers or even divinity.

Funny thing is, we don’t act that way.

This is true wherever you look. Donald Trump’s wall is a fetish for him and his supporters: If we build it, we will be protected from malign influences. The American flag is a fetish; many value its security above the Constitutional rights it is supposed to represent. Heck, the Constitution itself is a fetish for those who carry it in their pockets but, when they open their mouths, reveal a lack of familiarity with its purpose. As is the Bible.

But here in Vermont, hoo boy, we’ve got ’em in spades. And far too often, our fetish fetish* sucks time and energy away from actually, you know, tackling the real problems we face.

*See what I did there?

Our latest inanimate fixation is a dying maple tree (link to article behind the Valley News‘ paywall), the last vestige of the Ascutney farm owned by Romaine Tenney. When the interstate freeways were being built, his land was in the path of I-91. Tenney repeatedly refused to sell out. When the farm was seized via eminent domain in 1964, he burned down the farmhouse, killing himself, rather than move away.

Only the maple remains. A state-contracted arborist recently concluded that the tree is beyond saving. Due to a local outcry, the state has postponed plans to cut it down and is consulting a second arborist. This isn’t the tree’s first health crisis; as the Valley News reports, “About 10 years ago, cables were installed to stabilize the tree.” Which is a lot of time and expense devoted to an organism with a lifespan that will inevitably end in death.

You know where I’m going with this.

C’mon, folks. It’s just a fuckin’ tree. Let it go. Death with dignity.

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Way Down In The Hole

[Not Exactly As Illustrated]

Brookfield Asset Management, the alleged developer of Burlington’s infamous hole in the ground, continues to be frustratingly vague about its plans and its timeline for actually building something on the former site of the Burlington Town Center. And folks, this could turn out to be the defining issue in the March 2021 city elections, when incumbent Mayor Miro Weinberger is expected to seek a third term.

And, to craft the ultimate in mixed metaphors, that hole may become a millstone around his neck.

Demolition of the old mall began nearly two years ago. Original developer Don Sinex began boasting of big plans for the site way back in 2014. He tapped out earlier this year, and Brookfield stepped into the void.

(Sorry.)

(Although Sinex’s grand vision for Burlington CityPlace can, for shits and giggles, still be seen on its splashy website. Maybe cityplaceburlington.com been declared a historic monument or summat.)

City leaders are pressing Brookfield for some measure of certainty about its plans. Brookfield has failed to miss planning benchmarks since it took over the property. It presented sketches of a site plan to for the site to city council last month, but many crucial details remain to be filled in.

Weinberger, who was a loud and vocal supporter of Sinex and has now, a little more cautiously, tossed his hat into the Brookfield ring, is sounding a little antsy. Seven Days:

“We are looking for them to do more, quickly, to prove … that, in the end, it’s going to succeed,” Mayor Miro Weinberger said. “We are looking for some further confirmation on that.”

Good luck with that, Mr. Mayor. And good luck running for re-election if the hole is still a hole in early 2021. Which is not terribly farfetched; every step on a project of this scope is going to take time, especially in a micromanaging community like Burlington.

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A Gloomy Day for Vermont Newspapers

There were two pieces of bad news on the state’s media front today — one substantive, the other more symbolic.

The latter is the departure of Rob Mitchell from the Rutland Herald and Barre Montpelier Times Argus. The former is the fully-consummated merger of Burlington Free Press owner Gannett with GateHouse, forming the largest (by far) newspaper chain in the country. The combined entity, now saddled with $1.8 billion in debt and facing continued declines in circulation and ad revenue, is set to go on a cost-cutting spree that could eliminate more than 10 percent of its workforce.

Mitchell had continued to serve as general manager of the papers after their 2016 sale to Pennsylvania-based Sample Newspapers. His resignation marks the end of more than 80 years of Mitchell family involvement in the two papers.

If he’s being in any way forced out by the new owners, he’d doubtless keep that to himself. He did say that “I started to realize that I wasn’t growing in this role anymore,” which could be taken to mean that he didn’t see a future under outside ownership.

The Mitchells’ tenure wasn’t perfect, but they were at least local owners answerable to their own communities. Sample, whose properties include a few dailies and a lot of weeklies and free shoppers, has no such ties. So far, its tenure has not seen noticeable cuts — but neither has there been any tangible sign of strengthening the Herald and Times Argus, which have been bare-bones operations for years.

The Gannett/GateHouse deal creates a true industry monster that will control 18 percent of America’s dailies. Ken Doctor, news industry analyst who writes the Newsonomics column for the Nieman Foundation, expects that one in eight G/G employees will be out of a job by the end of 2020. And that’s on top of a fresh round of layoffs expected to come even before the GateHouse bloodletting begins.

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Where is TJ going?

Much speculation has surrounded Democratic Attorney General TJ Donovan this year. Will he run for governor in 2020, or won’t he?

Maybe the real question ought to be, Which primary would he contest?

Donovan has taken a couple more rightward steps in recent days. Last week, Gov. Phil Scott directed his officials to allow people inspecting state documents to take photographs or otherwise record images without incurring any fees. Afterward, Donovan doubled down on his position that fees should be charged to anyone getting copies of public records — whether the copies were made by state employees or not.

Congratulations, TJ. You’re now officially to the right of our Republican governor on a key transparency issue.

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