A cup of weak tea… with Kristin Carlson

Last week, I reacted to the news of Vermont PBS’ new program, “Connect… with Kristin Carlson” with a measure of skepticism over the host’s dual role — as host of the show, and as lead spokesperson for Green Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility.

Since then, the show has had its premiere. And sorry, I didn’t watch. I did, however, listen to Carlson’s July 9 interview with WDEV’s Mark Johnson about the new show. During the interview, Johnson quizzed her about the conflict of interest questions. And her answers were surprisingly weak and one-dimensional. Uncharacteristically so, for a person with double digits’ experience in TV news who’s now one of the most prominent corporate spokesflacks in Vermont. I presume she does a better job when she’s representing GMP.

Anyhoo, kind of an underwhelming performance. Her fallback position, expressed several times, was that this is not an “issue” show, but a show about “sharing the stories of Vermonters.” She’ll avoid talking with people who would create an obvious conflict — which could include quite a swath of Vermonters, depending on how you interpret “conflict.” She wouldn’t interview GMP President Mary Powell — or anti-renewable activist Annette Smith, for that matter. But how far does she take it?

Is anyone involved in energy issues, or environmental issues, or business, on the no-show list? To be on the safe side, they probably should be; but the bigger that list becomes, the more incomplete the show becomes.

Johnson asked about potential guests who don’t have an obvious conflict, but “you never know where a conversation is going to go.” Her response?

… I do a lot of the pre-interviews with people, talk to them about what we’re going to talk about, and if I get into an area where I might think ‘Okay, this might be a little, mmmm,’ then we just won’t do it.

My prediction? If she plans to err on the side of caution, this will by necessity be a pretty toothless show. Or at best a deficient reflection of Vermont’s character.

But that’s not the real problem.

Carlson assured Johnson that Green Mountain Power is not underwriting the show. And I’m sure that’s true. But even if no money changes hands, GMP is getting a nice little deal. After all, Kristin Carlson is the public face of GMP, and she’s just become a very prominent local face of Vermont PBS. Even if no dollars change hands, even if no words are spoken, that’s some very valuable cross-promotion.

Beyond that, it’s possible that GMP is indirectly underwriting the enterprise. Two examples, one real and one entirely speculative.

1. When Carlson was approached by Vermont PBS about hosting the show (so she tells it), she contacted her boss at GMP:

I emailed Mary Powell, the CEO of GMP and said, ‘I have this opportunity. It will take me away from work sometimes. It will mean some divided focus at times.’ And she said, ‘I know you have a passion for this, and I support it.’

Powell is granting Carlson an unusual degree of schedule flexibility. Will she pick up the slack by working extra hours, or will some of her work get shunted to others in the PR office? It’s no stretch to imagine that part of her GMP salary is indirectly underwriting “Connect.”

2. I don’t know if GMP is otherwise a public television underwriter. If so, there may be a quid pro quo — spoken or tacit. If it was deemed inappropriate for GMP to underwrite “Connect,” it’d be easy for the company to give to Vermont PBS’ general fund or to support a different program. Simple case of money laundering. Also, this new, mutually beneficial relationship may make Vermont PBS a more attractive recipient for GMP’s future giving.

I’m getting close to the conspiracy-theory line here. I don’t think there’s any overtly evil intent. And unlike some of my lefty compadres, I have a generally favorable opinion of Green Mountain Power. But there are obvious potential conflicts of interest. And there is definitely a mutual, and ethically squicky, benefit to having Carlson as the public face of both institutions.

During the interview, Carlson expressed a complete lack of curiosity about the financial arrangements behind the show, which is being launched at a time when Vermont PBS has lost a big chunk of its state funding and may soon lose the rest. “I’m not financially motivated,” she said. “I’m motivated by the opportunity to do the show.” Which is not to say that she isn’t being paid. I’m sure she is.

Overall, Carlson laid a few concerns to rest, opened a few others, and left a lot of questions unanswered. At this point, the best people to answer those questions are Holly Groeschner, CEO of Vermont PBS, and Mary Powell. My questions:

1. How much is Carlson being paid by Vermont PBS?

2. Is she continuing to draw her full salary at GMP?

3. Is any of her work at GMP being shifted to others, or could it be if the need arose?

4. Who decides whether a potential guest is too close to the line?

5. Does GMP give money to Vermont PBS?

6. Since Vermont PBS approached Carlson, how was that decision made? Why was she the nominee?

7. Were others considered? Specifically, was Fran Stoddard considered? (She hosted “Profile,” a very (VERY) similar program until a couple of years ago, when it was cancelled for financial reasons.) She wouldn’t have brought Carlson’s ethical baggage, and she’s a familiar face to Vermont television watchers.

8. How does Carlson’s pay compare to what Stoddard used to earn?

This may bother me more than it should, but I’m a lifelong journalist and participant in the marketplace of ideas, so I’m sensitive to the appearance of conflict. When I started identifying myself with liberal blogging, I realized I might be locking myself out of other media. That’s turned out to be true in at least one case that I know of.

Which is fine. But it bugs me when other people merrily skip across ethical lines — going from journalism to flackery to advocacy to politics and, sometimes, back again. It makes me wonder: are there real, hard and fast lines on ethics? Is it okay to cross the lines as long as you’re getting paid for it, but if you do it for free it’s somehow worse?

Or is is a matter of whether or not you’re In The Club? Vermont’s a clubby kind of place, and familiar faces can get away with stuff that outsiders cannot. It’s why our public and private sectors are fertile fields for the embezzler’s arts. How many times do we have to be shocked by a Joyce Bellavance (or a Norm McAllister) or made queasy by a Bill Sorrell before we realize that “being in the club” is not a healthy basis for deciding ethical questions?

19 thoughts on “A cup of weak tea… with Kristin Carlson

  1. NanuqFC

    A suggested amendment to your question about whether GMP gives money to VT-PBS: Does GMP or its parent company Gaz Metro or any of its subdivisions (such as Hydro Quebec) give money to VT-PBS?

    1. vialeggio

      VT PBS corporate sponsorship page is not currently available:

      According to VTPBS audit (p. 26), Public Television Assoc. of Quebec provides annual contrib’s to the tune of $500-600K (’13 & ’14, respectively.) Hard to know who corporate partners of PTAQ may be but a good place to begin would be Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec which owns, partially or outright, Gaz Metro, HydroQuebec, Enbridge, GMP, etc, etc.

  2. Dave Katz

    I called in to this episode, after reading your post. “Those are very good questions!” was the chirpy response. I mean, Jebix behind the WCAX building with a Riunite box and a carton of Virginia Slims, I know she ain’t Murrow, but such unabashed flackerv is nauseating.
    I gave you total credit, but the Westinghouse/NBC bit was mine.

  3. Richard W.

    I’ll bet at some point she’ll bring on Jim Douglas to talk about his underwhelming book, chronicling his Vermont experience. I miss you Jim. I miss you too Kristin.

  4. Sen. Joe Benning

    Re: “anti-renewable activist Annette Smith”

    John, you describe yourself as a “lifelong journalist” in this essay, which appears to be a plea for ethical purity in the field. I applaud you for the effort. But I’m wondering why you would then undermine your own credibility in such a quest by painting Annette Smith with such a broad brush. Last time I heard, she lives off the grid- surviving with renewable energy. Did you not know that?

    While I recognize she is a determined proponent of Vermonters having more say in the siting of industrial-sized renewable energy projects, and certainly she despises one particular tool (industrial wind) in the renewable energy portfolio, she is hardly “anti-renewable.” I do know she has been labeled as such by certain proponents of “industrial” renewable energy who clearly have their own agenda. But in my book, any journalist describing her as “anti-renewable” ought to be automatically suspected of the same type of funky connections you are implying exist here with Ms. Carlson.

    I too despise industrial wind because I feel it does not fit Vermont’s history of protecting our environment. (Remember the soldier in Vietnam interviewed in front of a blazing village, saying they had to burn the village in order to save it?) In raising that flag, I too have been dismissed as “anti-renewable.” Nothing could be further from the truth. When journalists enter that fray with knee-jerk descriptions, Vermonters get split into a polar divide that is completely unnecessary. So I pose this question: don’t you think describing Annette Smith as “anti-renewable” is over the top?

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      No, because if we implemented her policies, the process would be so cumbersome, expensive, and time-consuming that renewables would be effectively hogtied. Smith has called for, among other things, renewables to be deployed only on already-developed land. She also supports setback requirements to limit the “damage” to Vermont’s viewscapes. If you limit renewables to (1) already-developed land that’s (2) completely out of sight, then you’ve excluded virtually all the potential sites. So we would continue to be dependent on fossil fuels and continue to export our environmental damage to other places, like northern Quebec.

      Yes, Annette Smith lives a praiseworthy lifestyle. But the vast majority of us (including you, Senator) would not choose to live that way. We need renewables in Vermont, and she is the number-one opponent of the renewable effort. I calls ’em like I sees ’em.

      1. Annette Smith

        I am always entertained when people who I have never met nor had a conversation with think they know what I support. John, you seem to have developed an attitude towards me that goes back to the write-in Progressive guber campaign of 2012. If you would like to come visit and get to know me, I’m happy to show you around, and tell you what I believe rather than you having to make it up. Or ask the wonderful musician and composer and incredible proponent of new music Larry Polansky who you interviewed (he was a college roommate) if I am as horrible a person as you seem to think. For the record, you are wrong about characterizing me as anti-renewable. And I thank Walter Moses and Sen. Benning for correcting the mis-impression, because I am decidedly not anti-renewable, and it is most likely that more people will choose to live the way I do as technology increasingly makes that possible. What is unworkable is the process we currently have in place for approving renewable energy, and what will slow things down is keeping this process. Want to speed it up, bring communities together, and build real renewable energy for Vermonters? That’s what I want. Want to see citizens try to participate in a PSB hearing, come to the hearing room on Thursday at 9:30.

        As for GMP’s Kristen Carlson, you are right on in everything you wrote.

      2. John S. Walters Post author

        Oh, my “attitude” toward you goes further back than the 2012 campaign. Simply put, I’m in favor of renewable energy, including solar farms and ridgeline wind, and I see your hard-core opposition and (at times) demagoguery as counterproductive.

  5. Annette Smith

    People who support all renewables everywhere, when I follow the trail, seem to be influenced by their friends who are benefitting financially. If you want to label me “anti-renewable”, then I will label you and your friends “anti-environment” and “anti-health” and “anti-community”. Nope, no concerns for the bobolinks at the proposed solar field site in Sudbury, no concern for the bears that use the ridgeline that is full of beech trees (i.e. food), no concern for people who can’t sleep at night, who wake up with racing hearts, who have headaches and ringing in their ears. Toss all those creatures out, that’s what the anti-environment, anti-health, anti-community friends of yours are advocating for.

    This labeling of people as antis is counterproductive and fuels a conflict mentality. New energy, new opportunities. My work results in building communities, as people get engaged in what is happening, and they often join planning commissions or run for select board as a result of dealing with one or another development proposal. Keep the blinders on, keep the ear plugs in, and have a nice beer with your buddies. Sorry you are not interested in meeting or discussing how we can move forward in a constructive manner.

    1. Dave Katz

      When the clean, limitless, safe supply of renewable electricity becomes available, as it may, one hopes before we kill ourselves off, then we can apologize to the earth and dismantle the relatively low-impact solar and wind infrastructure and let what species remain rebound. Restoring flooded alluvial plains, filling in strip mines, or reinventing an atmosphere fit for breathing, not so much. Can we agree that maybe we might have to knowingly take a few on the chin, to eventually beat the Axis? Or is that not identity-based enough?

      1. John S. Walters Post author

        Right now, we get most of our “renewable: energy from the Seabrook nuclear power plant and from giant-scale hydro projects in northern Quebec. Those projects have had a vast impact on ecosystems, wildlife, and the First Nations people who live there. We are, truly, exporting our share of our energy’s environmental impact. That’s not right.

      2. Annette Smith

        I would reply to John’s last comment but there is no “reply” icon. Right now and into the future, most all of Vermont’s “renewable” energy will be from Hydro-Quebec. Whatever sun and wind power is generated in Vermont, most of its Renewable Energy Credits are being sold to Mass. and Ct. With the recently-passed legislation, H-Q “non-RECs” are now allowed to be used to meet Vermont’s renewable energy goals. There is a small carve-out for distributed generation that requires the retirement of RECs. Before you go yelling at me for being anti-renewable again, know that both CLF and REV testified that there should be a schedule for retiring RECs from existing projects. The legislature didn’t do that, so Lowell, Sheffield, Georgia Mountain wind, all the big solar arrays and many net metered solar projects cannot legally be called renewable energy for Vermonters. They are all renewable energy for other states. This state’s policy makers have turned the whole renewable energy business into such a twisted mess, most Vermonters have no idea that when they attend a SunCommon “Community Solar Array” pitch, unless they ask if the RECs are being sold it won’t be disclosed, and they will be buying grid power instead of the renewables they think they are getting. And as Kevin Jones of VLS has repeatedly pointed out, this is not making Vermont’s energy profile greener and instead is making it dirtier. I support renewable energy built close to the source and used locally in our communities. That is not at all what is happening under the GMP/REV/VPIRG regime that is controlling our state’s energy future. I’m glad I’m off grid.

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