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.