Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

Writer, editor, sometime radio personality, author of "Roads Less Traveled: Visionary New England Lives."

The Boys’ Club of Vermont Political Media

In what turned out to be my final column for Seven Days, I wrote about the lack of ethnic and racial diversity in Vermont media organizations. Seven Days and Vermont Public Radio have no people of color in their newsrooms; VTDigger has one; the Burlington Free Press has two.

I had originally intended to cover gender equity as well, but available space would not allow. I would have followed up in a future column if I still had a job, but you know. So I’ll use my available platform instead.

Vermont media score better on gender equity, including in management and ownership, than on race or ethnicity. But there’s one glaring exception to that relatively rosy picture: The people who cover Vermont politics and policy are almost exclusively men.

During the 2019 legislative session, the Statehouse press corps included three men from Seven Days, two men from VPR, male reporters for the state’s three leading TV stations* and a male-leaning group from Digger. Its three Statehouse generalists were men (Colin Meyn, Xander Landen and Kit Norton), as was political columnist Jon Margolis. Digger policy specialists Lola Duffort and Elizabeth Gribkoff were often present, but not usually at gubernatorial pressers. McCullum was under the dome only occasionally, as other duties at the Free Press took precedence.

*Me, Taylor Dobbs, Kevin McCallum, Peter Hirschfeld, Bob Kinzel, Neal Goswami, Stewart Ledbetter and Spencer Conlin.

That’s a lotta sausage.

Feminist champion Gov. Phil Scott pointed out this fact at one of his weekly press conferences earlier this year. The subject was boosting STEM (Science, technology, engineering, medicine) education in Vermont public schools. One reporter asked if the new initiative included any effort to address the broad and persistent gender gap in those fields. Scott looked around the assembled reporters, who included a bunch of men plus McCullum, and commented, “Well, there are a lot of fields that could use more gender equity.”

His observation was echoed by House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington). “When I think about the press conferences I attended, the majority of the time all the reporters were male,” she said. “It’s important that the press corps looks like the people they’re writing about. There can be implicit bias.”

There is evidence of such bias. Krowinski cites the 2020 budget, which included a one-time $6 million boost in chid care subsidies. It was an important step on a key priority — but it got almost no coverage in the press.  Except for an article written by, well whad’ya know, Lola Duffort.

Advocates say the new money for subsidies will make a real difference on the ground. The state’s current caseload for subsidies is about 8,000 kids a month, and 2,700 of them should see their benefit increase, according to an analysis by Let’s Grow Kids.

Nothing to sneeze at. Or ignore, just because mens’ minds are less occupied with child care.

In the category of Digger Giveth and Digger Taketh Away, Krowinski cites an infamous Margolis essay about paid family leave and the minimum wage. Margolis wrote that paid leave “particularly benefits women,” which is horseshit unless you believe that family responsibilities are naturally the province of women. He then went on to assert that Johnson’s support for paid leave over minimum wage was because “she is entirely female.”

Yeah, those darn women, always thinking with their uteruses.

When I asked VPR news director Sarah Ashworth what we’re missing in our coverage because of the lack of women, she replied: “We know that we don’t know which stories we’re not seeing or hearing. It’s a blindspot. You don’t know what it would look like with a more diverse press corps.”

Within the political press corps is the tiny contingent of columnists, which basically consists of Margolis’ part-time gig plus whoever fills my seat at Seven Days. And that position, just like our Congressional delegation, has never been filled by a woman.

“There is not a lack of women who could fill those roles,” said Krowinski. “Do they not apply? Have they not been invited in?”

Good question. My take: It’s not a conscious effort to make political coverage a Man’s World. But even if an employer creates an open, fair process, it’s often not enough. Women face barriers that men do not in all the stages before they get to the door of a prospective employer. That requires conscious action to encourage women applicants and hire them whenever possible.

And lest you scoff at the idea of implicit bias, let’s take a brief visit to the world of symphony orchestras. The Guardian:

As late as 1970, the top five orchestras in the U.S. had fewer than 5% women. It wasn’t until 1980 that any of these top orchestras had 10% female musicians. But by 1997 they were up to 25% and today some of them are well into the 30s.

What changed? One very simple thing. In the late 70s, those orchestras began holding blind auditions for musicians. Those with hiring authority couldn’t see the gender or race of any applicant. And suddenly, a lot more women were getting hired. Just like that.

Funny thing about Vermont’s gender imbalance is, if you go back a few years the equity picture was a lot better.

“We’ve lost Candace Page, Nancy Remsen, Terri Hallenbeck, Alicia Freese [all from Seven Days], Elizabeth Hewitt, Erin Mansfield [Digger] and now Jess Aloe [Free Press], just in the last couple of years,” Ledbetter said.  “Most have been replaced by men.”

This is a problem for Ledbetter as host of Vermont Public Television’s “Vermont This Week.” He usually ends up with male-heavy panels because of the male-heavy pool he draws from. “It’s not intentional,” he said. “I’d love to have [the panels] be perfectly balanced. It’s up to the people who hire in our news organizations.”

Yes, it is. Our own recent past is proof that women can write about politics, and write damn well. The hiring decisions for this relatively small pool of jobs is spread over several separate entities, which makes it difficult to single out any one as a special offender. But we do need more women covering state policy and politics. Starting with my replacement as “Fair Game” columnist. The boys have had that perch to themselves for far too long.

 

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Career’s End

So yeah, I lost my job.

What follows is my perspective on the events of recent days — well, the past two and a half years, really. Call it Blogger’s Privilege — the freedom to tell a story on my own terms.

I was hired as Seven Days’ political columnist at the end of 2016. I think they were looking for a combination of my journalistic background with the humor, snark and edge of this here blog.

In practice, this was an extremely delicate balancing act. Perhaps impossible. And the time constraints were punishing. I did some of the reporting and all of the writing each Monday, often staying up well past midnight. I’d do some final polishing Tuesday morning and turn it in at 10:00 a.m. And then the editing process, which is fraught at best, would carry on through most of Tuesday.

That’s a hell of a workload under highly stressful conditions. I had trouble achieving the paper’s exacting standards for accuracy. I also had trouble distilling all the information and producing a strong point of view on deadline.

Whine, whine, whine.

I always knew I wouldn’t last forever, or anything like it. I often thought seriously about resigning. But the end, when it came, was swift and unexpected. What turned out to be my final column went to the printer Tuesday evening August 6. By the time the paper hit the streets, I’d been given the choice of quitting or being fired. Immediately. By the time my exit interview concluded, my Seven Days email account had already been canceled. (Apologies to those who’d contacted me and never got a reply.)

They had their reasons. I have a hard time believing my trespasses were severe enough to warrant immediate expulsion. But hey, it’s their beeswax.

(I will point out that, in recent years, Seven Days‘ news staff has seen a remarkable amount of turnover. Reporters are expected to produce top quality in large quantity, and to work on print stories while also cranking out content for the website. It’s a grind. Editors don’t think it’s a problem, but the sheer numbers suggest otherwise.)

It was nice to get a paycheck. Otherwise, the primary sentiment is relief. I’ll be happier writing this blog.

I was the fifth occupant of what I liked to call the Peter Freyne Chair of Instigative Journalism. But the column, and the paper around it, changed dramatically over time. He had free rein to do stuff that would get a writer shitcanned today. You can trace the changes in Seven Days through the succession of columnists.

Shay Totten was the closest thing to another Freyne, but with better journalism. His successor, Andy Bromage, was a newsman first and foremost. Paul Heintz had a background in flackery and a sharp tongue, but his column was grounded in solid journalism.

And then there was me. I think they hoped I would combine the best of the two — the attitude of a Freyne with the journalism of a Bromage. As I noted above, that proved to be an impossible high-wire act.

I have no idea if “Fair Game” has a future. If so, I think the Powers That Be need to decide what its purpose is. Is it informed analysis and commentary, or is it journalism? The failure of the Walters Experiment suggests they can’t have both.

(I did offer one parting suggestion. If they hire a new columnist, I urged them to hire a woman. The Freyne Chair has been the exclusive province of men, and that ought to change.)

They say if you work long enough in the world of media, sooner or later you’ll lose a job with breathtaking suddenness. Ownership, management, format and mission are subject to change at any moment. Ultimately, talent is a fungible commodity. Nobody is irreplaceable, including Yours Truly.

Back to mom’s basement.

 

 

The Dems Come Clean, Sort Of

On Sunday afternoon, the Vermont Democratic Party issued a thorough and putatively transparent explanation for the Brandon Batham case. Unfortunately, it raises quite a few questions — and its effort to exculpate party leadership rings a bit hollow.

Batham is the former party staffer who resigned suddenly last month. A couple of weeks later, the VDP issued a press release stating that Batham had embezzled close to $3,000 in party funds. But toward the end of last week, I learned that the actual amount was much larger — although I was unable to find out how much. Lips were tightly zippered, and information was closely held by a handful of top officials. Not even the party’s executive committee was informed.

So I wrote what I knew on Friday. Less than 48 hours later, the party issued a press release stating the Batham had taken an additional $15,629 — bringing the total to roughly $18,500. The embezzlements took place between January and June of this year. The statement acknowledged that the total could go even higher, as a third-party audit of the VDP’s books is underway.

Well, that’s comforting. How bad is the bookkeeping system anyway?

The party explained that the original $2,931 was skimmed from party funds, and the remaining $15K-plus was taken by Batham by way of the payroll system. He gave himself an “unauthorized raise,” and also issued “unauthorized additional paychecks and ‘bonuses’ between official pay-periods” to himself.

Which, as the party itself states, he shouldn’t have been able to do. Batham, the release states, “did not have signing powers on the party accounts.”

Who did?

From January through April, it was then-executive director Josh Massey — who goes unnamed in the party’s release. After Massey’s departure, party leaders chose not to name an interim E.D. Instead, party chair Terje Anderson took on many of the duties. As did Brandon Batham, heh.

According to a fact sheet accompanying the press release, Anderson and party treasurer Billi Gosh repeatedly tried to get answers from Batham. They failed to do so.

For more than two months. 

Either Batham is a master of deception, or Anderson and Gosh didn’t try hard enough.

Anderson uncovered the non-payroll takings in early July. He shared his findings with precisely two other people — treasurer Gosh and party vice-chair Tess Taylor. “Documentation was carefully gathered,” says the fact sheet in its characteristic passive construction, and on July 17 Anderson, Taylor and the VDP’s attorney confronted Batham with evidence of the $2,931. At this point the payroll fraud hadn’t been detected — not, if you believe the VDP’s statement, due to any dereliction on the part of Anderson or Gosh, but because of Batham’s deft deployment of Jedi mind tricks.

Batham resigned rather than being fired, but the information was kept close to the vest by party leaders.

The payroll theft was discovered near the end of July, when Anderson was finally “able to access the payroll accounts.” Apparently Batham left the books well-hidden? Finally, on August 8 the matter was referred to police, who supposedly asked party leaders to keep it quiet.

That’s the explanation offered for the complete lack of disclosure until Sunday — two days after I spilled the beans.

The fact sheet says that the party has already reformed its system for cutting checks and documenting expenses. In other news, the barn door has been locked after the horse was stolen.

The party also issued a “Memo to the Vermont Democratic Community,” which is copy-and-pasted below. I’ll note a couple of key passages.

After a brief statement of fact, the memo says, “We will be doing everything possible to move beyond this very discouraging set of circumstances and to regain or retain your trust. We will do so in a spirit of humility and honesty.”

OK, well, good luck with that. You’re going to have a hard time convincing folks of your “honesty” when you kept all this information secret until you were essentially forced to reveal it. I’m sure the police asked you to keep it quiet — but did you feel a countervailing obligation to the people’s trust? Perhaps you had a higher duty than to accommodate the police?

The memo closes with a plea to move beyond this scandal because it “cannot distract from the pressing work that lies ahead” — the 2020 election, etc.

Good luck with that, too. Especially if party leaders continue to hew to the line that everyone other than Batham (and perhaps the unnamed Massey) is completely blameless, did their best at all times, and should not face any sort of sanction or, perish forbid, removal from their positions of trust.

Is the party’s executive committee likely to be so forgiving? Or the larger state committee, which includes multiple representatives of each county?

If not, then we’re likely to see some consequences. For starters, new leadership may be needed to restore trust in time for the 2020 campaign. After all, the VDP has had major fundraising troubles for the past three-plus years. Now it’s facing a significant financial scandal that raises questions about oversight of party spending. The party has just given every potential supporter one more big fat reason to say “no” when the VDP comes calling.

 

Memo to the Vermont Democratic Community

FROM: Terje Anderson, Party Chair; Tess Taylor, Party Vice Chair; Billi Gosh, Party Treasurer

TO: The Vermont Democratic Community

On August 8, 2019, the Vermont Democratic Party filed a formal criminal complaint against Brandon Batham, former Director of Party Operations, for misuse and embezzlement of party funds.

The report alleges Mr. Batham, over the course of calendar year 2019 until his departure from the Party in July, embezzled, fraudulently obtained, or misused approximately $18,500 through various means, including payroll fraud. While these numbers are accurate to the best of our current knowledge, we may not know the total amount stolen until the close of a complete and thorough third-party audit.

This is, certainly, a difficult and painful time for the Party. We believe that an absolutely essential part of addressing the situation is a full and transparent explanation of what happened, and what comes next, to our supporters, donors, and friends. To that end, we hope the attached fact sheet will begin to address your possible questions and concerns.

We will be doing everything possible to move beyond this very discouraging set of circumstances and to regain or retain your trust. We will do so in a spirit of humility and honesty,

But we also want to make sure you know that this cannot distract from the pressing work that lies ahead — the essential business of electing a new President and a new Governor in 2020, electing Democrats at every level, and the urgent need to stand up for the interests of the people of Vermont, the United States and the world. We cannot lose sight of the urgency of that mission.

 

 

 

Trouble Brewing for VT Dems

Hey, how ya doin’? I’m back at the old popstand after two and a half years of professional journalism and/or whoredom, depending on your POV. There will be more to say about all of this, but right now I’ve got some news to break.

Two weeks ago, my old colleague Paul Heintz at Seven Days reported that Vermont Democratic Party staffer Brandon Batham had resigned suddenly over allegations that he had embezzled slightly less than $3,000 in party funds.

Well, from what I’ve heard, the amount in question is actually much higher than that, and the case is likely to break wide open very soon.

Batham’s departure has roiled the waters in Demville. According to multiple sources familiar with the event, party leaders held an emergency meeting of the VDP’s executive committee earlier this week. Attendees were sworn to silence. The entire meeting took place in executive session, closed to outsiders. The meeting was brief, and little concrete information was on offer. The subject of the meeting appears to have been fresh developments regarding Batham’s embezzlement.

If the amount embezzled was higher than earlier reported, Batham may be in hotter water legally. But even more pertinent for the organization and Vermont politics, the case will cast a longer, deeper shadow over party leadership. I mean, $3,000 might be written off as carelessness. But if it’s, say, $20,000? That begins to look like dereliction of duty for people like party chair Terje Anderson, former executive director Josh Massey and party treasurer Billi Gosh.

After all, the party isn’t exactly swimming in cash. As I recently reported, the VDP is still struggling to overcome a 2017 financial crisis that involved missed or delayed payrolls for party staff. Fundraising efforts were either nonexistent or not working.  The party has avoided actual red ink since then, but its finances remain in rebuild mode. This year, in fact, it’s been been heavily dependent on generous giving from the Democratic National Committee and some of its leading donors — to the tune of over $100,000. That’s uncomfortably close to half of the party’s overall takings for the first half of 2019.

If financial oversight has been lax enough to permit embezzlement on a significant scale, the repercussions are likely to be swift and severe. There’s also the question of how party leaders put this story out there when they apparently had yet to figure out the scope of the problem. That speaks to incompetence, carelessness or both. We may well see some notable resignations — triggering another round of the instability that’s hamstrung the VDP since the tail end of the Shumlin era.

It’s not a great way to ramp up to the 2020 campaign season, that’s for sure.

 

 

Change of address

 

 

On a hill under a raven sky
I have no idea exactly what I’ve drawn
Some kind of change, some kind of spinning away
With every single line moving further out in time

— Brian Eno, “Spinning Away”

It’s been a hell of a ride.

I started blogging almost exactly five years ago, out of a kind of professional desperation. There’d been some dead ends, a seeming lack of opportunity in the ever-shrinking media landscape. So, on the invitation of John Odum, I joined the gang at Green Mountain Daily and started blogging about Vermont politics.

And I loved it. I loved using my brain and my experience to reflect on the political scene. I loved playing with language and form. So I just kinda kept on doing it, slowly building a reputation and an audience.

In the summer of 2014 I went solo, launching this blog out of a feeling that I was too dominant a voice at GMD. Too much of me, not enough of the variety of viewpoints that the blog was designed to provide.

And I wanted to captain my own ship.

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Buy my book!

Ye Olde Blogge is about to go into cold storage. It shall remain intact, but as long as I serve as political columnist for Seven Days, I won’t be posting new material here.

A farewell message will follow. But first I’m exercising a bit of Blogger’s Privilege and posting a shameless plug for my book, which has nothing to do with Vermont politics. Indeed, it stems from an entirely different chapter in my life.

From 2000 to 2005 I worked at New Hampshire Public Radio as a news anchor, reporter, and host of a daily interview show. “The Front Porch” was resolutely unpolitical. Its tagline was “Interesting people from New Hampshire” — by which I meant the NHPR listening area, including parts of Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts.

When I launched the show, the joking response was, “So how long before you run out of interesting people in New Hampshire?” My answer, timidly at first but with more conviction as time went on, was ‘I honestly don’t think we ever will.”

And I was right.

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The case for wind

Most of Vermont’s media coverage of wind energy tells a David-and-Goliath story: the plucky locals and underdog activists going up against a corporate developer and the state regulatory system.

The pro-wind case usually gets short shrift. But even when it gets equal time, it’s almost always in response to anti-wind arguments. Rarely, if ever, is the positive case for wind given a fair hearing. As a result, there’s quite a bit of stuff about large-scale wind that most Vermonters don’t know. Here’s a list, with details to follow.

— For all our bluster about fossil fuels and gas pipelines, Vermont remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

— Wind is a necessary component of a renewable system. There is no way we can reach our “90 percent by 2050” goal without large-scale wind.

— Wind has huge economic benefits, including tax payments to local and state governments and a healthier trade balance.

— Large-scale wind cannot be replaced by residential  turbines. It just doesn’t work. And replacing large-scale wind with more solar would dramatically increase solar’s footprint on our landscape.

— Thanks to recent advances, large-scale wind no longer has to be sited on the highest mountaintops. Lower ridges and hills are now suitable sites.

— Siting on developed land and rooftops is good, but it’s only a fraction of what we need. There aren’t nearly enough developed sites and roofs in Vermont.

And now for the details.

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