Okay, so Vermont Public Radio got my worst grade for its coverage — or should I say “complete absence of coverage” regarding the campaign finance scandal threatening to engulf Vermont Eternal General Bill Sorrell.
VPR didn’t even send a reporter to Tuesday’s Senate Government Operations Committee hearing, at which Sorrell reversed course and endorsed the idea of an independent investigation of his campaign activities. Something he had consistently refused to do since the fall of 2012, mind you.
And then today, the big guest on “Vermont Edition” was none other than Bill Sorrell himself.
I gave VPR its bottom-of-the-barrel grade before I head the Sorrell interview.
Now I have. And VPR just fell below the bottom of the barrel.
First of all, having devoted no perceptible airtime to the allegations against Sorrell, they give him the VPR platform for a solid half hour?
And then, even worse, they spend the first 20 minutes of the interview NOT talking about campaign finance, but the GMO labeling law and this week’s developments in the case. Jane Lindholm’s intro didn’t even mention Sorrell’s troubles; there was a single passing generic reference to “campaign finance.”
Talk about ignoring the elephant in the room. We have one of our top elected officials having to accept an independent investigation of his activities — something that has rarely or perhaps EVER happened in Vermont history — and you don’t lead with it? You didn’t even mention it?
After the program’s first break, Lindholm finally addressed the questions facing Sorrell. She bundled ’em all up in a single question, actually, which is a great way to get a non-answer. And Sorrell came through.
All of my contributions under Vermont law have been legal in amount and reported. And yes, a number of the contributions are from those who either want to do business with the state or whatever. The reality is, it’s not just the contribution, it’s what I’ve done, and you know I think in my time, 18 years tomorrow I think, as Attorney General, there’s just a handful of times that I’ve retained outside counsel and given them sort of my enforcement authority. And that’s probably less than one-tenth of the cases that have been pitched to me. And so more than 90% of them I’ve rejected.
We’re right now, one I filed was the tobacco suit. Vermont’s received hundreds of millions of dollars from that successful lawsuit. Another one was related to tobacco, we got, I think, between nine and ten million dollars from that successful case. And now we have this recent one that is, uh, relates to groundwater contamination by oil and gas companies. And pollution of our groundwater is a major environmental issue, I’m proud that Vermont is in that litigation.
Lindholm did a sharp redirect about whether out-of-state law firms that have donated to his campaign may have gotten favorable treatment. Sorrell issued a blithe denial. Twice.
I give Lindholm credit for the follow-up effort, but it went downhill from there. Lindholm read a listener comment that seemed to accuse Seven Days’ Paul Heintz of “sensational journalism,” and a caller who asked about Sorrell’s overzealous prosecution of Dean Corren. You can listen to all of it on the VPR website. None of it shed a bit of light.
Lindholm waited until her second-to-last question to ask about the independent investigation — which she referred to as an “independent evaluation,” which is a much softer way of putting it. He responded that he’s “tickled” that Governor Shumlin is appointing an independent investigator. Which, yeah, sure.
The last question was about online dating scams. Which, please. Talk about irrelevant.
I don’t know why VPR conducted the interview this way. It was, except for Lindholm’s follow-up, a complete clusterf*ck in journalistic terms.
And after the show, Lindholm put together a piece for VPR’s afternoon newsblock about Sorrell’s response to the campaign finance questions.
Need I remind you, that was the first and only time VPR has devoted significant newstime to the issue. And it was pretty much a softball affair, presenting Sorrell’s views on his own scandal without rejoinder from anyone else.
Combined with the lack of coverage beforehand, it was a shameful performance that causes me to question the soundness of VPR’s news judgment.