VTDigger punts on third down

it looks as though Vermont’s best nonprofit news organization has stepped away from the hot-button issue of the Stiles Brook wind farm on the Windham/Grafton border.

From what I hear, VTDigger decided a couple weeks ago that it would stop covering the story. At least until after Tuesday’s advisory vote.

Which is too bad. I mean, from my point of view, better no coverage than the badly one-sided anti-wind stories Digger had been posting. But I’d much rather they examined their product and took steps to improve it. Dropping the subject like a hot potato looks like timidity, not a desirable quality in a journalistic enterprise.

Plus, in calling a halt to its coverage, its earlier slanted material stands as VTDigger’s official record.

On the news side, I understand that Digger editors declined to pursue a story about apparent bias in the Windham town clerk’s office. The clerk is a vocal opponent of Stiles Brook, and was accused of misusing her position to sway the town’s advisory vote on the project. The issue was covered by the Rutland Herald’s Susan Smallheer and Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck; the latter is a fuller account. Nothing from VTDigger.

One other note on the news side. A couple weeks ago I was having my weekly chat with Chris Lenois of WKVT Radio in Brattleboro. The subject turned to my observations of bias in VTDigger’s wind coverage, and one aspect in particular: the lack of local voices supporting Stiles Brook.

Chris related a conversation he’d had with Digger reporter Mike Faher, who explained that it was difficult to get comments from local supporters because they were very reluctant to go on the record.

My response: Well, if one side is feeling intimidated to the point of keeping silent, then isn’t that a story in itself? I’d think so.

And then there’s the VTDigger opinion column, which has had a decidedly anti-wind slant. This isn’t normally in Digger’s control; it publishes whatever essays are offered and posts them without compensating the writers. In the case of ridgeline wind, the opponents are more persistent contributors than the supporters.

However, I have obtained a recent email exchange  indicating that, at least in this one instance, Digger had its thumb discreetly on the scale.

Necessary background: By one count, Digger has run 22 opinion pieces on the Stiles Brook project this year. Sixteen of those were written by opponents, only six by supporters. (Digger has not contested those numbers.) Again, it’s not Digger’s responsibility to generate opinion pieces to redress the balance. However, bear those figures in mind when you read the following.

On October 25, a pro-Stiles Brook essay was submitted by Melissa Belcher, a Grafton resident (and, full disclosure, an employee of Meadowsend Timberlands, which owns the Stiles Brook site). It was written by her husband Theron Fisher, “a ninth-generation native of Grafton.”

The following day, Belcher received this response from VTDigger Copy Editor Cate Chant.

Thank you for submitting your husband’s commentary to VTDigger. At this point, we feel we have thoroughly aired all sides in the Stiles Brook Wind Project debate. It is unlikely that we will run Theron’s commentary, though I will keep it if we do happen to have an open spot.

Later that same day, Digger posted an essay by Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning, an opponent of ridgeline wind. His piece focused on the financial offer made by wind developer Iberdrola to the two towns and their residents.

Having seen this, Belcher wrote to Chant on October 27, seeking reconsideration of Fisher’s piece.

We published Sen. Benning’s commentary because it questioned the legality of the payment offers. It was not simply another pro or con commentary. As for the ratio of pro and con pieces we have published, up to last week we published nearly every piece we received, so that is the ratio they came to us. I recall only one piece that was an anti that I rejected because it was satire and came across as mean-spirited.

That said, I will reconsider publishing Theron’s piece, mostly because of his long Vermont heritage. However, while in a broader sense the industrial wind issue is of statewide interest, at this point only Windham and Grafton residents will be voting so in that sense, the Stiles Brook project is a regional issue.

I don’t know what “his long Vermont heritage” should have to do with it. But otherwise, okay, fine. Digger’s had enough, and it’s “a regional issue.”

And then, on November 2, VTDigger posted an essay by Nancy Tips, one of the most prominent opponents of Stiles Brook.

Hmm. Double standard, much?

If there’s anyone whose views have been “thoroughly aired” on VTDigger, it’s Nancy Tips. She alone has had five essays published by VTDigger this year; the entire pro-Stiles Brook community has had six.

And yet, no room for a seventh.

By the way, Fisher’s piece was published by the Rutland Herald on October 28.

I’m sure the very hardworking staff at VTDigger is up to its neck in election coverage right now. But it’d be nice if, sometime soon, it conducted a thorough review of its wind-energy coverage. There seem to be some unresolved issues.

Please understand, I am generally a huge fan of VTDigger. I’m a financial supporter. It’s a great institution that becomes more invaluable with every cutback by a traditional media outlet. But as I often say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I don’t think Digger has been very responsible on this subject.

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5 thoughts on “VTDigger punts on third down

  1. Rob Furstoss

    I took an interest in your charge of VTDigger bias in its lack of balance in running guest commentaries on the Stiles Brook Wind Project, particularly given copy editor Cate Chant’s apparent brush off in her refusal to publish the piece by Melissa Belcher’s husband, Theron Fisher. One look at Fisher’s column in “The Rutland Herald,” however, vindicates Cate Chant’s editorial decision not to run a piece that so closely echoes the language and tired talking points of his wife’s employer, Meadowsend Timberlands, and its surrogates.

    In identifying Melissa Belcher as a resident of Grafton, you wrongly suggest that her husband is also. “The Rutland Herald” indicates that he is a resident of Rockingham, which puts Fisher at a sound remove from the blasting of the industrial wind project construction and any aggravated storm water run-off resulting from the ecological disruption and the additional acreage of impervious surface atop the Stiles Brook Forest. Where he is closest to the issue, however, is in the recycled phrasing and talking points of other surrogates of the wind developer and of Meadowsend Timberlands. A high school English teacher would not be out of line for grabbing Theron Fisher by the ear and marching him down to the principal’s office with a charge of plagiarism.

    His column in “The Rutland Herald” presents the same talking points, in remarkably similar language, as those in a VTDigger commentary by Jeremy Turner (September 6, 2016), a twenty-year employee of Meadowsend Timberlands as a company forester. We can also detect the DNA of the talking points and phrasing in a VTDigger commentary (October 9, 2016) by Jameson French, “Meadowsend is Part of the Solution” (October 9, 2016), speaking for the New Hampshire based family that owns Stiles Brook Forest.

    The decision not to run Theron Fisher’s commentary in VTDigger might well be warranted simply by sound editorial judgment: as another repetition of familiar talking points emanating from a business entity with a direct financial interest in the public issue, the column offered no fresh voice or nuanced perspective on the proposed wind project.

    Reply
      1. Rob Furstoss

        Not arguing the absence of repetition, John. Of course that’s bound to occur on a contentious issue generating vigorous public debate.

        If you can identify, however, two selections among the sixteen anti-wind commentaries that reflect the close resemblance, in language and talking points, as those of Theron Fisher and Jeremy Turner, I would support the withholding from publication the second submission.

        One point we do agree on, given that more than a hundred Windham residents and more than a hundred-fifty Grafton residents voted for the defeated wind project, it is regrettable that there were not more than six commentaries from among those advocates. I am less inclined than you, though, to see anything fishy in the disparity of submissions or publications.

      2. John S. Walters Post author

        I think there were two factors that kept down the supporters’ commentaries. Well, three.

        1. Motivation gap. Supporters were more like, “Yeah, okay,” while opponents were “NO NO NO NO.” That’s a more powerful incentive for writing and speaking out.

        2. Some supporters felt intimidated into silence. When the other side is so vociferous, why paint a target on yourself? Please note, there may or may not have been actual intimidation, but there was definitely an atmosphere.

        3. If local supporters weren’t going to step forward, then pro-wind environmental groups could have done so. They could have done more to present the case for Stiles Brook in particular and ridgeline wind in general.

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