On journalism and blogging

If you’re not following me on Twitter, you missed a downright Pharisaical disputation about journalism and blogging and bias, and what exactly it is that I do.

My end of the argument has been severely restricted by Twitter’s character limit, so I thought I’d address the question in greater length here.

The critics are, quelle surprise, Phil Scott fans. In fact, the most persistent was Hayden Dublois, a nice young man who’s a paid staffer on the Scott campaign.

His complaint, echoed by others, is that I’ve been unfair to Scott because I’ve frequently criticized him while never scrutinizing Sue Minter.

Which is, as a matter of fact, not true. I was sharply critical of her campaign in its first several months; I thought she was getting left in the dust by Matt Dunne. I’ve criticized her for too often following Dunne’s lead and for failing to articulate differences between herself and the Shumlin administration. I criticized her performance in the post-primary debate for missing opportunities to confront Scott and for appearing overly programmed.

It is accurate, however, to say that I’ve been far more critical of Phil Scott. So, why is that?

First, he’s the Republican nominee and I’m a liberal. I generally agree with the Dem/Prog worldview (with some sizable exceptions), so I’m going to be more skeptical of Republicans in general. I believe, for example, that many government programs enhance the economy. Money spent on food stamps and the Earned Income Tax Credit is used immediately to buy goods and services. Getting more students a higher degree would improve the quality of our workforce and, in the long run, more than pay for the cost of lower tuition or higher financial aid. Just f’rinstance.

Second, Scott is the putative front-runner and thus deserves fuller scrutiny. Especially when…

Third, he has failed to articulate specific policies and leaned heavily on a few generalities. I believe that candidates have an obligation to tell voters what they would want to do if elected. Scott’s “principles” are open to extremely broad interpretation: His approach to taxation and budgeting could reflect a mildly cautious outlook, or it could mean Bobby Jindal-style slash-and-cut. Or anything in between. The door is wide open.

Minter has offered specifics on a wide variety of issues. You might not like her ideas, but you can’t say she’s failed to offer any. In many cases, she;s costed out her proposals and identified revenue sources. For example, offering two years of tuition-free education to Vermont students and funding it through tax and fee hikes on the largest banks doing business here.

Fourth, Phil Scott likes to have it both ways. He complains so much about negative campaigning that he’s become a negative campaigner himself — setting himself on the Purity Pedestal while all others are squelching in the mire. He slams others for out-of-state fundraising and Washington-style politics, while he himself has benefited richly from the Republican Governors Association and has paid tens of thousands to D.C. consultants.

Also, while he slams others for misrepresenting his record, he’s been guilty of the same thing. He associates Sue Minter with the carbon tax, an idea she does not support. He cites fishy, and so far unsubstantiated, numbers on Shumlin administration tax and spending increases.

Fifth, the Scott campaign posits him as a paragon of leadership and vision. But Scott the person is nothing of the sort: he’s a cooperator and a compromiser who’s displayed precious little vision and leadership during his long tenure in state government. He brags endlessly of his photo-op-driven Jobs Tour. That is the very model of a modern lieutenant governor, not a chief executive-in-waiting.

I can’t say for sure, but I have plenty of evidence suggesting that when it comes to Phil Scott, the words of Gertrude Stein apply: “There is no there there.” I see an attractive facade, and I wonder if there’s a solid structure behind it. So I poke around. And I will keep on poking around. On the other hand, it’s clear that Sue Minter is just who she claims to be: a moderately liberal Democrat with experience in lawmaking and administration and a portfolio of clearly presented progressive ideas.

Which brings me to point number six. The Vermont media has generally been too soft on Scott. They have not pressed him on his tax and budget numbers. They haven’t smoked him out of his Castle of Bland. They haven’t looked behind the facade to see if there’s anything there. I feel something of an obligation to fill the gap.

Well, that was a lengthy prelude. I’d better get to the actual subject at hand: am i a journalist or a partisan?

I’ve spent most of my life as a journalist. I am familiar with the professional standards and obligations of the profession. I have abided by them when I was a journalist, and I’m sure I could again if I rejoin the field in the future.

That would include representing all sides of an issue. If I were a paid journalist, I would feel a responsibility to my organization and to the principles of journalism. I would want a clear understanding of my employer’s expectations and I would expect feedback on my perfornance.

However, I don’t think being a journalist means I have to leave my brain at the door. I would want to bring some interpretation, some analysis, to my work. I would aim to represent all viewpoints; but if I think somebody’s full of it, I might well say so.

For instance, since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have argued that cutting taxes will cause economic growth and an actual increase in tax revenues. But we’ve had 30-plus years of trials, and the idea has failed every time. The most recent (and extreme) example is Sam Brownback’s Kansas. He slashed taxes in hopes of sparking a boom. Instead, the state’s economy has floundered, its finances are a disaster and public services are being starved.

I believe I can be a journalist and still point out the context and the evidence.

In truth, there is no clear black line between journalism and opinion. When the profession tries to impose one, it distorts its own product to no one’s benefit.

Here’s an example from today’s news. Yesterday, Phil Scott unveiled his health care plan. VTDigger’s Erin Mansfield wrote a straightforward piece that listed Scott’s ideas and got some reaction from other parties.

Meanwhile, Paul Heintz wrote an account for Seven Days that recounted all the nonspecifics in Scott’s plan and the nonanswers he provided to reporters.

Also the fact that an aide tried to end the press conference after a mere eight minutes of questions. After reporters complained, another ten minutes were graciously allotted.

Now, which story was journalism, Mansfield’s or Heintz’s?

I’m sure Scott partisans would slam Heintz for focusing on the negative. It wasn’t, in the studied parlance of the field, “objective.”

But did it get closer to the truth?

I would argue yes. It’s relevant that Scott failed to answer many of the questions, and it’s definitely relevant that his aide tried to shunt him offstage after a brief back-and-forth. I mean, if Phil Scott can’t offer any specifics (and indeed, actually said “everything is on the table”), how are voters supposed to evaluate his outlook on this crucial issue? And if he can’t handle a few minutes of exposure to reporters, how in Hell is he going to effectively govern the state?

Mansfield’s account may have abided by the mores of journalism, but it fell short of serving the needs of its readers. It failed in the craft’s fundamental duty: to inform.

Information comes in the form of words. It also comes from atmosphere and context, from history and objective evidence.

Reporters too often act as though each event occurs in a vacuum. If their quotes are accurate and the presentation is “balanced,” they’ve done their job.

And often, in so doing, they miss the forest for the trees.

Bloggers like me can provide a counterweight to the excessive timidity of mainstream journalism. My role is not strictly defined, and I don’t have a problem with that. And really, this is nothing new. Peter Freyne performed a valuable service at Seven Days despite his lack of “objectivity.” You may have noticed that my rotating banner gallery includes such nontraditional journalists as I.F. Stone and Ida Tarbell.

My only currency is my credibility. If I had none, I’d have no readers. Instead, I’ve developed a substantial following (by Vermont political standards). In the process, I’ve become a focus for Republican attacks. Their attention gives credence to my work: if I were nothing more than a partisan hack, they wouldn’t feel the need to pay so much attention.

And honestly, I’d love to see a conservative blogger of equal talent and credibility around here. It’d create a healthier dialogue. (I was an avid reader of the late Vermont Tiger.) But I can’t do anything about that.

I do what I do out of love. I don’t get paid. I don’t have any institutional support, like editors or associates. I don’t have time to make a lot of phone calls; I react to what I know or what I read. I write when I’m moved to do so, not because of an assignment or event. For good and for ill, my blog is the product of those restrictions and those freedoms. It’s journalism, and it’s not.

You don’t like it, you’ll stop reading.


18 thoughts on “On journalism and blogging

  1. Dorothy Flash

    Thank you for the perspective you bring to what is happening around our state. I appreciate that you are taking a careful look at what the front-runner for governor is saying and – more importantly – what he is not saying. We need to know from politicians not just what they think is broken but how they intend to fix it. And we depend on news outlets to ask those questions and help us better understand what their positions mean to our state, which is why I appreciate the news coverage comparison you make here. I prefer reading articles by folks like Mr. Heintz or Neal Goswami who go beyond a basic telling of what happened/what was said and provide insights into how it fits into the larger picture. Like you say – context. A key difference between reporting and journalism, to my mind. You take the same approach, which is why I like popping in every morning for your latest.

  2. walter h moses

    Nice blog. You are what you are. Count me in with Jack R’s reply on 9/2/2016.
    When I was very young my father took me to Barnum and Bailey’s last production under the big top in Menans, NY. Great show, but even as a kid I knew there was something wrong with lions and tigers made to sit on platforms and elephants marching around in the dust and heat. And then there was that unhealthy stink of feral animals caged. Entertainment for the masses.
    You are also entertainment. I get really angry when you denigrate people like Annette Smith and Wendy Wilton that have more integrity in their little finger than your corpulent body. I want to tell you to return to Ann Arbor and stay, but that is stupid. You are right where you belong in Montpelier.
    Problem is, there is still that stink.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Why, exactly, do I lack integrity? I write what I believe with no oversight or censorship. No one gets to approve my words. I’m not on anyone’s payroll. I don’t even solicit direct advertising. (I get an extremely small return on the WordPress ads posted on my site, whose content I do not get to review.)

      You may disagree with my views, but you can’t question my integrity.

      My weight, however, is fair game if you really want to go down that road. Myself, I have always avoided commenting on people’s personal appearance.

      1. walter h moses

        My reference to your corpulence was a wild guess. Sorry about that. Never laid eyes on you.
        I question anyone’s integrity that is so far right or left, and you are waaay out there, my humble opinion of course.

  3. Jimmy Fordham

    I always appreciate your commentary John. It’s refreshing and I like your zest for telling it like it is. You really give the “Phil Scott koolaid drinkers” a reality check and attempt to keep him honest. Its too bad that he will be our next do-nothing governor…aka Jim Douglas. Thanks for all you do.

  4. Eddo

    Moses says, ” I question anyone’s integrity that is so far right or left, and you are waaay out there, my humble opinion of course.”
    In this blog John Walters has been a big supporter of Hillary. That alone should prove to you that he’s not “waaay out there”. To me, who *is* waaay out there, to the left, his posts are sort of middle-of-the-road liberal, not that there’s anything wrong with that. 🙂
    What I mostly get from this blog is more information, more in-depth background, than the Yellow Rag Free Press gives, more than the Milquetoast VPR gives, and because it’s in print, it’s less painful than watching the always annoying anchor woman on the local Fox News, and the new equally annoying new anchor woman on WPTZ.

    1. walter h moses

      No Eddo, my way out there comment was not a right or left reference. Walters is all over the place. He likes secrecy in politics, (the Rutland immigrant thing). He likes corporations that swindle the taxpayers and the politicians they corrupt. He likes the Ritche Burger way of doing things to panic people.
      By the way, do you have a name? Or is Eddo all you go by?

  5. infibelle

    I do follow the #VTpoli but missed thet one. Should warn the not-so-much ultra-left to fasten seatbelt before reading VPO blog. Tho disagreeing with majority of your opinion, personally value differing perspective and very muchly fan of your unique scribbling style and wild wit — literally lmao & in stitches upon reading your commentary. And have watched you surgically extract truth, also gifted deconstructer breaking difficult to grasp issues into bite-sized pieces.

    You’re very much in lockstep with alt-left as the all-things-liberal talking point memos manage to find their way to the VPO at a dizzying pace on a routine basis. Which seems be the reason VPO acts as flypaper for fire-breathing Tasmanian devil-like crazies from time to time & misunderstandings which have prompted FYI warnings from the rigidly authoritarian PC police dept. But this is the blogosphere way — because blogs don’t cater to helmet-wielding soccer-moms, middle class snobs or polite society the truth is often brutal.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Those on the alt-left certainly don’t think I’m in lockstep. Let’s see… I voted for Hillary Clinton. I’m in favor of growing Burlington, including the 14-story Town Center plan. I’m not opposed to the Route 4 exit development in Randolph. I could go on.

  6. Paula Schramm

    Thanks for great article – it has inspired most entertaining comments yet !
    Question : what is a definition of “alt-left” ? Is it filled with lefty racists and nationalists, and the place where extremists are so extreme they find themselves back to back with each other ? Why do we need “alt-right” and alt-left” anyway – they’re such innocuous words they sound like keyboard settings. Are we too nervous these days to just use the fairly adequate words we have, like ” racist, white supremist” and “socialist”. What, they’re too descriptive and not cute enough anymore ?


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