Somebody’s ethical compass needs a tune-up

Congratulations to Governor Shumlin for finding the time in his busy schedule to do something about Eternal General Bill Sorrell.

Like Sorrell, the Governor couldn’t see the seriousness of the situation on his own; he had to be dragged kicking and screaming. I hope his moral compass is truer in other areas, though I fear not.

Also, the next time he pleads a lack of time to deal with an inconvenient issue, we’ll know it’s bullshit.

But that’s not my primary topic for this missive. No, that would be the Vermont media’s widespread failure to address the Sorrell story until it smacked them between the eyes.

Not all are equally guilty, and I’ll offer a ranking below. But their failure in the Sorrell case is sadly typical of the Vermont media’s myopia when it comes to the foibles of the powerful. There’s a presumption of innocence, a reluctance to challenge, that’s uncharacteristic of the media at its best.

Let’s take John Campbell, for instance. In late February, Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck wrote about the Senate President Pro Tem having “quietly increased his office’s staffing and more than doubled his payroll.”

The response from the Vermont media? Crickets.

Admittedly the dollars involved are not large — we’re talking roughly $55,000 before and $110,000 after — but big stories have been spun out of smaller stuff. Usually involving a nameless functionary, not an elite officeholder. (Anybody ever hear of William Goggins until this month?)

Why did Campbell get a free pass? I have no idea, but it reflects poorly on our fourth-estate watchdogs.

And I’d be willing to bet there’ll be little or no follow-up to today’s jaw-dropping Seven Days revelation — that Campbell lobbied heavily for the funding of a job in the Windsor County State’s Attorney’s office and then landed the job himself without going through a hiring process.

If that’s not the appearance of corruption, I don’t know what is. I hope my media brethren don’t let this one fall into the same chasm as Campbell’s payroll-padding.

Back to Sorrell. His public depantsing happened in a series of three Heintz columns earlier this month. During that entire time — indeed, up until April 20 — the rest of the media did nothing to advance the story. I have to infer that all those newsrooms decided the story wasn’t worth pursuing. That’s a remarkable collective misjudgment.

On April 1, Heintz reported on Sorrell’s sweaty-palm prosecution of Dean Corren for a trivial (and arguable) campaign law violation, and compared it to the much more substantial questions about Sorrell’s 2012 re-election campaign, in which a huge out-of-state contribution saved his bacon in the Democratic primary.

One week later, Heintz reported that Sorrell had routinely flouted the rules in reporting reimbursements for campaign expenses, and that Sorrell “took $9,000 from a Texas law firm as its representatives requested a meeting — and later hired the firm to sue on behalf of the state.”

Finally, on April 15, Heintz reported that a 2014 lawsuit over the gasoline additive MTBE was filed after “a meeting at the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton with a pair of rainmakers who stand to make millions if Vermont prevails.” That single incident was an open invitation for reporters to further examine Sorrell’s lavish travel habits and his routine acceptance of campaign cash from out-of-state law firms seeking to do business on Vermont’s behalf.

The rest of the media? Silence. Nothing. Not a peep.

The first non-Heintz reporting on l’affaire Sorrell didn’t come until April 20, when VTGOP Vice Chair Brady Toensing filed a formal request for an independent investigation of Sorrell’s campaign finances. Even then, the coverage was perfunctory — a “he said, he said” kind of thing that allowed people like Gov. Shumlin to dismiss the complaint as politically motivated. (If Toensing had not filed that complaint, presumably the Vermont media would still be ignoring this scandal.)

After that, there was precious little coverage until Sorrell made his dramatic announcement yesterday calling for an independent probe, and the Governor’s lightning-quick decision to appoint one.

And now, your Sorrell Scandal Hall of Shame, a subjective ranking of media failure. From worst to least bad:

Vermont Public Radio. As far as I can tell from VPR’s wonky search function, its only original reporting came the day Toensing filed his complaint. VPR didn’t even have a reporter at the Sorrell hearing yesterday, and depended on rip-and-read for its coverage. And today, who was the guest on “Vermont Edition”? Bill Sorrell himself. He was given ample airtime to explain his side of the story, after VPR’s news operation had completely muffed the whole thing.

So does VPR have its head up Sorrell’s fundament, or was it “merely” a massive and embarrassing failure?

The Burlington Free Press. Last year it eliminated its Statehouse Bureau in favor of a public accountability team — and its team did nothing to hold Vermont’s top law enforcement official accountable. On April 20, the Freeploid ran an Associated Press story about Toensing’s complaint. On the 28th, It ran another AP story announcing that Sorrell would testify before the Senate Government Operations Committee the following day.

Finally on the 29th, it sent reporter April Burbank to cover that hearing. Her story, in today’s paper, was the first original piece of journalism about the Sorrell scandal to grace the Free Press’ pages or website.

The Vermont Press Bureau (Rutland Herald, Barre-Montpelier Times Argus). Minimal coverage. There was an April 21 story on Sorrell rejecting the Toensing request, and then nothing until the Sorrell hearing. And then, the two papers simply ran the Associated Press article. I give VPB a bit of a pass because it’s such an under-resourced operation. But they didn’t distinguish themselves on this story.

VTDigger wins the coveted “least bad” award, but its performance wasn’t great — especially considering that Digger has more boots on the ground than any other news operation. Its first story wasn’t posted until April 24, when it reported on the Toensing complaint and Sorrell’s reaction to it. Digger was the first to report that the Legislature had taken a hand in the matter, which was a nice little scoop. After that, nothing until the Tuesday hearing and Sorrell’s sudden turnaround.

I’m sure all these organizations would have explanations for their actions — or should I say “inactions.” But the last couple of weeks have seen a truly historic series of events: a previously untouchable, unchallenged state official comes crashing to earth in a matter of days.

If you think “truly historic” is a stretch, then I’ll mention this: One person at yesterday’s hearing wondered aloud if Sorrell is the first statewide elected official in Vermont history to face an independent investigation. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ll bet it’s an extremely rare event.

It’s all happened at warp speed. And our Vermont media, with the sole exception of a dirty little free tabloid, absolutely missed it.

1 thought on “Somebody’s ethical compass needs a tune-up

  1. Dave Katz

    Yep. Sounds about right for the Good Ship Maplepop. Gad. Wadda bunch of consensus-stricken mirror gazers, Vermont’s political class and press. Are our public officials and the opinion shaper claque here so convinced that their good fortune to be a) an elected official or b) the editor of a newspaper, or c)news director of public radio, in this benign, poor-ish, white-ish little backwater state, is akin to the divine right of kings, and must not be shaken or stirred? Dr. Pangloss, your table is truly ready.


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