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?