The Vermont of the imagination is a powerful thing, especially when you’re unencumbered by reality. We’ve all chuckled at out-of-state reporters who parachute into our state and go back to their urban newsrooms to hack out a feature story about how Vermont is smaller in scale, slower in pace, neighborly in demeanor, and just generally downright happier than whichever benighted hellhole they call home.
This is the Hallmarkization of Vermont. There are several Hallmark Channel flicks set in fictional small Vermont towns where the people are uniformly neighborly, everybody helps each other, the main streets are vibrant places without a speck of litter but chock full of charming shops and eateries, and no one is poor, disabled, or in the throes of substance use disorder. They are places where busy Big City professionals come to discover What Really Matters In Life.
A particularly heinous example of Hallmarkization was published by the Christian Science Monitor back on December 7. It just came to my attention thanks to the Twitter feed of Dr. Michael Shank. The story is about how Vermont is beating Covid-19 through sheer unadulterated niceness.
It’s obnoxious in a whole bunch of ways. Let me count them…
The writer is Gareth Henderson, a reporter who lives in Vermont, so he should know better. Of course, his home is in Woodstock, so his viewpoint may be askew. Either that or he sold his big city editors on a tale of Vermont Exceptionalism Overcoming All, and by God he was going to deliver, facts be damned.
Let’s start with the title: “Can neighborliness fight off pandemic polarization? Vermont says yes.” It’s all about community and neighborliness and caring and cooperation and generosity and pitching in in times of need. It’s about how Vermont is a uniquely civil place unmarred by the political and social and economic divides that beset the rest of America. Vermont, Henderson writes, “stands in stark contrast with other states, where the pandemic has further frayed the fabric of community that defines people as neighbors and fellow citizens.”
You know, this kind of horse hockey is good for unintentional humor most of the time. But when you’re whitewashing an entire pandemic? It’s a bit much.
Not only whitewashing, but mansplaining. Here are the people quoted in the story: Paul Costello, Mike Smith, Phil Scott (from a press conference), Steve Perkins, Anson Tebbetts, and Tom Donahue.
Oh, there was one woman: the co-owner of the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock appeared along with her male business partner to talk about how community support has kept their store open.
Otherwise? Not only a bunch of white men, but a bunch of white men in high-profile official positions. Smith, Scott and Tebbetts you know; Costello is the former head of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Perkins is head of the Vermont Historical Society. Donahue is CEO of BROC Community Development in Rutland.
Well, if Mr. Henderson didn’t manage to discern the real complexity of Vermont, I think we know why. When you only talk to people like that, you’re almost certainly going to get an airbrushed view of the Vermont of our imaginations. Especially if nearly half your sources are in the Scott administration, that faithful geyser of Vermont Exceptionalism. In fact, this entire article reads like an administration press release.
There is a single passing to anti-maskers, but only to dismiss them as a tiny ineffective minority. Otherwise, we’re all working together. There is no reference whatsoever to those who want tougher measures. Henderson mentions the Legislature enacting a law allowing towns to impose their own mask mandates, but there’s not a hint of the sometimes fierce debate over the mask issue or Scott’s resolute refusal to change course despite Delta and Omicron. No skeptics of Scott policy are quoted or even identified.
It’s pandemic as barn-raising, is what it is. It’s Vermont as the last shining exemplar of the mythical Good Old Days when we all cared for one another and no one ever went hungry or died alone.
It does Vermont no favors by eliding our imperfections, failures, and yes, divisions. And it’s a perversion of what journalism is supposed to be about.