Category Archives: The media

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, math*) 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.

*”Math” was originally, and wrongly, written as “medicine.”

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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.

 

 

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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Movin’ on up

Got some news — about myself, this time.

In early December, I’ll be joining the staff of Seven Days as political columnist. I’ll be writing Web content for the first month; after the New Year, I’ll take on “Fair Game,” the paper’s weekly political column.

Rest assured, I did not depose Paul Heintz in a palace coup. In fact, they approached me, because Paul wants to be a full-time editor and reporter. (He’ll tell you more himself in this week’s column.) In fact, my hiring is one of several additions to the news staff at Seven Days. They’re building quite an operation, and I’m glad to be part of it. Check out Paul’s column online or in today’s print edition for more.

The bad news: once I join the 7D staff I won’t be writing The Vermont Political Observer anymore. They want my full energy and attention. Plus, it’d be weird to do political commentary in two places at once.

And they want me to do pretty much what I do now. They appreciate my voice and my writing skill.

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I seem to have struck a nerve

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.

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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.

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