In my roughly five years of blogging about Vermont politics, I’ve criticized just about everybody at one time or another. Even our sainted Congressional delegation has come in for a bit of bashing here and there. For the most part, my targets handle it well. (Either that, or I’m beneath their notice.)
But there’s one group that is more easily offended than any other, and more likely to react badly. It’s not politicians or operatives or lobbyists or bureaucrats.
No, it’s media organizations.
Curious, if you think about it. The media is accustomed to dishing it out, but has a harder time taking it.
The touchiest media outlets in Vermont are the Burlington Free Press (blocked my access to its Twitter feed) and VPR (one staffer told me I “hate VPR”, which is not true; I hold it to a high standard because it’s so richly resourced in an age of media shrinkage).
To that list we can now add VTDigger. Which is a shame because I respect and support ($10 per month) its work. But this year, Digger has failed to live up to its own standards on the subject of ridgeline wind. I have recently written three pieces exploring Digger’s apparent bias on the issue; the most recent was posted last weekend.
On Monday, VTDigger’s founder and chief Anne Galloway took a break from election coverage to issue a defense of its coverage and a veiled attack on “a left-wing blogger” who’d made “off-base allegations,” i.e. Yours Truly
I was going to let it pass, but then the piece was reposted to the top of the queue on Friday. After the repost, I felt compelled to respond.
Galloway asserts that “VTDigger does not take sides.” Okay, fine. I withdraw my statement that VTDigger is biased against wind. Let’s just say that VTDigger has published a series of one-sided stories in which wind opponents were given far more space than supporters, and has allowed a gross imbalance in its opinion column on the issue.
The explanation for the opinion imbalance is simple: VTDigger publishes “commentaries from both sides — reflecting the ratio of those submitted for and against.” I can understand that Digger can’t spare the time to actively solicit opinion pieces so a semblance of balance is achieved. But when it publishes 16 pieces against a wind project and only six in favor, I don’t care if it reflects “the ratio of those submitted.” It looks like bias.
But the opinion imbalance by itself would not have merited my attention. My more serious critique concerns the stories written by Digger journalists and published in the news section. As I have shown, story after story has allotted far more space to opponents than to supporters. And, while virtually every story features quotes from the two (count ‘em, two) groups that lead the charge against ridgeline wind energy, you rarely if ever see quotes from the many environmental groups that support ridgeline wind.
Indeed, the underlying narrative of the stories is a modern take on David and Goliath: local residents and small groups face off against a large corporate entity.
The details can be read in this October 21 blogpost. Just as a reminder, here are a few of my topline findings:
An October 19 story allotted 19 paragraphs to wind opponents, and only four to supporters. Those four paragraphs contained quotes from the developer’s spokesman.
The previous day, a dispute over noise levels at a wind farm made room for 15 paragraphs from a single complainant and only two from the operator.
A September 15 story included 21 paragraphs from a small group of protesters outside a newly-opened wind farm, to six paragraphs from the opening ceremony and two from the developer.
In none of these stories was there any reference to the many environmental groups that favor ridgeline wind. In every single story, plenty of space was given to the two (count ‘em, two) groups opposed to ridgeline wind. In none of these stories was there any attempt to fact-check the outlandish claims of wind opponents.
There’s a lot more detail in my October 21 post, but that’s enough for here.
Galloway’s defense made no reference whatsoever to any of my findings regarding VTDigger’s wind journalism. Instead, there was a generic response:
We seek comment from corporate and government officials. We interview activists and people who are affected by a given policy or action by a business, court or government official.
Reporters sift through the information and synthesize as many points of view as possible. VTDigger editors review the stories for accuracy and fairness. And then we publish.
Well, if they interview the relevant activists on both sides of the wind issue, then somehow the supporters are consistently left out of the final product.
Galloway opens her essay with a popular shibboleth:
They say when people on both sides of an issue are complaining of favoritism in your news coverage, you’re probably getting it just about right.
There’s a lot of truth in that. But it assumes the two sides are equally valid and equally likely to complain. This is not the case with ridgeline wind. Opponents are a small but very loud and persistent group that complains constantly about unfair treatment. Supporters are less vociferous and, frankly, less obsessed.
And, frankly again, the facts and the science are on their side. The claims of wind opponents are based on fringe science from a small number of outspoken advocates. Many of them are in the pay of the fossil fuel industry. The rest are borderline kooks — the energy equivalent of anti-vaxxers or climate change deniers.
Treating the two sides as equals, and assuming their complaints are equally valid, is another form of bias. It’s false equivalency.
I’m sticking to my guns. VTDigger’s coverage of wind energy is unbalanced. Galloway’s counterclaims are unconvincing.
And I’ll continue to give ten bucks a month to VTDigger (and recommend that others do the same) because its work is so important.
Postscript. Near the end of her essay, Galloway bemoaned the fact that I wrote “without contacting VTDigger to get our side of the story.” Yes, that’s correct. I freely acknowledge it.
C’mon, folks. I’m a blogger. I don’t get paid for doing this. There are other things I have to do. If I worked for a news organization, I would have the time and resources — and responsibility — to contact relevant people. But I don’t. I write based on what I see and hear. That’s the charm, and the limitation, of blogging.
(Oh, and VTDigger never contacted me before Galloway wrote her piece. Sauce for the goose, I suppose.)