Category Archives: The media

VPR tries for diversity

Vermont Public Radio has begun a noble effort in upstream swimming that makes a salmon run look like a splash in the kiddie pool. The overwhelmingly-white-even-by-Vermont-standards service has launched the Diverse Voices Initiative, “a comprehensive approach to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.”

I wish them luck. They are not only battling a history of whiteness that goes back beyond the founding of NPR to the early concept of “educational radio”; they are also trying to foster diversity in a famously non-diverse state, and they are battling the rules of radio programming itself. Kind of a tall order.

Let me pause for a moment and state, for the record, that I’m an old white guy and I’ll probably get some stuff wrong here. What I do bring is experience in public radio that goes back to the late 1970s, which is not nothing.

Public radio has always been a preserve of whiteness. Specifically, of college-educated upper-middle-class whiteness, the kind of people who read The New Yorker and drink wine and do brunch. And listen to classical music, which used to be a mainstay of public radio before news/talk took over.

Many public radio licenses were held by universities. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, I worked for one such organization in another state; its programming largely consisted of classical music plus lectures and commentaries by university professors. That’s tape-recorded, full-hour classroom lectures. The station’s news department made a point of not covering its own community. It ignored campus protest movements that sometimes took place in the plaza below its fifth-floor perch. That would be demeaningly tawdry, and not of interest to their refined audience. (It also might upset university administration, which at the time provided much of the organization’s funding.)

Practically from the beginning, NPR stations were beset by criticism of their pearly whiteness. In 1977 — two years before the creation of “Morning Edition” — the Corporation for Public Broadcasting commissioned a task force on how public television and radio were addressing communities of color. Its conclusion: when it came to serving people of color, “the public broadcast system is asleep at the transmitter.”

And despite NPR’s stated commitment to minority outreach, the task force found that only thee percent of its budget was spent on programming focusing on the nonwhite U.S. population.

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The Poll: A Wake-Up Call for Vermont Dems

Obligatory Vermont Exceptionalism jerkoff question.

The big news in the just-released VPR/VTPBS Poll was below the topline. I mean, the size of Gov. Phil Scott’s margin over Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman was a shock but not a surprise, if that makes sense. Unless something truly dramatic occurs in the next six weeks, Scott’s gonna win, but not by as much as the poll suggests.

For Dems, the alarm bells ought to be ringing loudly over the result of the race for lieutenant governor, which shows Dem Molly Gray with a slight lead, and the hypothetical Scott/Pat Leahy matchup in 2022, which puts Scott in the pole position.

Neither are a cause for panic, but both should inspire the Democrats to stop screwing around and get serious about this politics thing.

As for the LG race, I actually see it as bad news for Republican Scott Milne. He’s been on the statewide ballot twice before and almost became governor in 2014, plus he headed a high-profile business and comes from a storied family of moderate Republicanism. In name recognition alone, he should have an edge on Gray, who didn’t enter the political realm until about eight months ago.

Milne’s 31% shows that he’s enjoyed little carry-forward from his previous sallies. Plug any generic Republican into the LG slot, and they’d get 31%.

Which points to the even bigger problem for Milne: The Republican base is far too small to elect anyone, and he has yet to crack into the centrist/Democratic ranks — his two Dem endorsements notwithstanding. I suspect that all it will take to render a knockout blow to Milne is the likely outcome of the debates. Milne is an awful debater, and whatever you think of Gray, she’s got game.

Still, the Dems can’t be complacent about the race.

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The Necessary News Monster

The news of the day: Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Television are merging. Let me guess. the combined entity will be called “Vermont Public Media,” amirite?

In a time of media consolidation and droopy revenues, this move makes a lot of sense, but it also sets off alarm bells in my mind. The merger means one less independent entity in the Vermont media landscape, and the creation of a player with the resources to dominate the reporting of news — and the nonprofit world.

The latter is not my area of expertise, but I know that VPR has long been seen as a nonprofit monster that makes it harder for other organizations to raise the money they need.

And if you’ve followed my writing about VPR over the years, you know what I think. It’s an organization that does a lot of good work, but falls short in fulfilling its potential and maximizing its use of available resources. Or, in the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

After the merger, you can double that. If there’s any organization that’s played it safer than VPR, it’s VTPBS. I realize it’s harder and costlier to produce video programming than audio, but c’mon, Vermont PBS doesn’t do much to enhance our understanding of our state, ourselves, or current events.

For the new entity to serve us as it must, it’s going to need a significant injection of fearlessness. And generally speaking, the bigger an organization, the more self-protective it becomes.

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Hiatus 2: The Endiggening

For the second time in its brief history, The Vermont Political Observer is headed into the deep freeze. I’ve accepted a gig as a political columnist and contributor for VTDigger. I’ll be writing weekly columns on the website, and contributing daily to Digger’s “Final Reading,” an email newsletter that you can get for free simply by signing up.

The folks at Digger approached me a few weeks ago. I wasn’t particularly looking for a job, nor did I expect any offers, and it took some thought before I accepted. I love the freedom of blogging. And last time around at Seven Days, fitting me into a journalistic enterprise proved to be quite the strain (on all of us).

But hey, paid positions don’t come along every day in the news biz. Hardly at all, in fact. In the end, the offer was too good to refuse.

And when they get tired of me or I get tired of them, I can always come back here. And I will. Stay tuned!

Holy Crap, the Free Press just “both-sidesed” the Confederate Flag

As a person who hasn’t gotten around to canceling their increasingly-irrelevant subscription to the Burlington Free Press, I get its daily briefing in my inbox. And today’s edition greeted me with THIS.

That’s right, the former Best Newspaper In Vermont is peddling Stars “N Bars claptrap right out of the Nikki Haley playbook. “Some argue the Confederate battle flag is racist”??????

And to be clear, this isn’t simply a case of some intern carelessly writing a subhead for the daily email. That same idea is peddled throughout the story.

The flag has come under national criticism in recent years, seen at events such as the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Um, exsqueeze me? “In recent years“??????? That rag has been the banner of racist oppression since Appomattox.

The germ of this idea comes from Paul Searls, history professor at Northern Vermont University (which I will always think of as Lyndon Johnson U, don’t @ me). He asserted that the flag may not carry the same overtly racist message up here that it does in the South.

Some Vermonters might view the Confederate flag as a symbol of ideals and their lifestyles, Searls said, and fly as a symbol of resistance against the existing order and outsiders perceived as threats to their well-being.

Yeah, well, those Vermonters are ignorant of their country’s history and shouldn’t be given a free pass for such.

Searls did also describe the battle flag as “a potently provocative symbol,” so there’s that. And the article does finally come down on the side of “the flag is inherently a bad thing.” But in the process, it sets up a false “debate” that the S&B can be anything other than a toxic instigation. Thanks, Free Press!

ANR Commish Targets the Messenger

The algae isn’t the problem. The problem is, this picture of the algae.

Vermont Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore is blaming the media for reporting on Lake Champlain’s water quality problems. Nice.

During a presentation to lawmakers on Wednesday, Moore displayed a series of articles covering outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae on the lake, and blamed those damn reports for a more than 10 percent drop in visits to certain state parks this year.

“It’s headlines like these that probably played no small part in discouraging people from heading to our parks,” she told lawmakers, according to VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff.

There’s a few problems with this, need I say. First, as you may have discerned from the “probably,” Moore has no actual evidence to back up her assertion.

Second, the drop was reported at eight of Vermont’s 13 lakeside parks. What about the other five?

Third, it’s not cool to blame the media for, you know, doing their goddamn jobs. If there’s a potentially toxic — and spectacularly ugly — algae bloom on the lake, are we supposed to ignore it for fear of inciting tourists to stay away?

Fourth, those blooms have been a regular summertime feature of Vermont life for years and years. Did this past year’s reportage suddenly hit home this year?

Were there more stories than ever before? Moore admitted she doesn’t know.

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Journalism’s obsession with objectivity

Objectivity is the key to good journalism. So they say. So almost everybody says.

I’m not here to deny the importance of objectivity. It’s one of the sharpest tools available for exploring the truth. But it’s not the only tool, and modern journalism is sorely limited by its strict adherence to objectivity.

I’ve been pondering objectivity for some time, and feeling a sense of disquietude about its dominance in the field of journalism. That sense came into sharp focus after I discovered “The View From Somewhere,” a podcast (and book) by Lewis Raven Wallace, a trans journalist who was fired in 2017 by public radio’s Marketplace over a post on their personal blog entitled “Objectivity Is Dead, and I’m Okay With It.” I highly recommend the podcast for those who care about journalism. Haven’t read the book yet.

Some of the facts and concepts in this post are borrowed, in whole or in part, from Wallace’s work. It’s my own interpretation, of course.

Let’s start with some history. The concept of journalistic objectivity is relatively new — almost exactly a hundred years old, in fact. It emerged, coincidentally or not, at a time when newspapers had become very profitable enterprises bought and sold by rich men and corporations. Objectivity was used by those owners as a cudgel against employees’ efforts to unionize. Reporters were often fired for a supposed lack of objectivity — solely because they were trying to organize their workplaces.

From that twisted acorn did our mighty oak of objectivity spring. That’s not the whole story, but it should be remembered that objectivity has been used, not just as a guideline, but also as a weapon.

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A Gloomy Day for Vermont Newspapers

There were two pieces of bad news on the state’s media front today — one substantive, the other more symbolic.

The latter is the departure of Rob Mitchell from the Rutland Herald and Barre Montpelier Times Argus. The former is the fully-consummated merger of Burlington Free Press owner Gannett with GateHouse, forming the largest (by far) newspaper chain in the country. The combined entity, now saddled with $1.8 billion in debt and facing continued declines in circulation and ad revenue, is set to go on a cost-cutting spree that could eliminate more than 10 percent of its workforce.

Mitchell had continued to serve as general manager of the papers after their 2016 sale to Pennsylvania-based Sample Newspapers. His resignation marks the end of more than 80 years of Mitchell family involvement in the two papers.

If he’s being in any way forced out by the new owners, he’d doubtless keep that to himself. He did say that “I started to realize that I wasn’t growing in this role anymore,” which could be taken to mean that he didn’t see a future under outside ownership.

The Mitchells’ tenure wasn’t perfect, but they were at least local owners answerable to their own communities. Sample, whose properties include a few dailies and a lot of weeklies and free shoppers, has no such ties. So far, its tenure has not seen noticeable cuts — but neither has there been any tangible sign of strengthening the Herald and Times Argus, which have been bare-bones operations for years.

The Gannett/GateHouse deal creates a true industry monster that will control 18 percent of America’s dailies. Ken Doctor, news industry analyst who writes the Newsonomics column for the Nieman Foundation, expects that one in eight G/G employees will be out of a job by the end of 2020. And that’s on top of a fresh round of layoffs expected to come even before the GateHouse bloodletting begins.

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R.I.P. “Fair Game,” 1995-2019

So they did it. My former bosses have pulled the plug on Seven Days’ political column, a staple of the weekly since its inception in 1995. I was, apparently, the last occupant of what I liked to call the Peter Freyne Memorial Chair in Instigative Journalism. So maybe I killed it, or I was irreplaceable, your choice.

After my very sudden departure slash defenestration in August, the paper posted a curious job listing. It wanted to hire either a new columnist or a new reporter. At the time, I thought the odds greatly favored “reporter,” which would mean the death of the column. Also at the time, I gave my sure-to-be-ignored-and-you-betcha-it-was advice: Hire a columnist, preferably someone from out of state (for fresh perspective) and preferably a woman, a person of color, or both. Because the Statehouse press corps is almost exclusively white and male, and the few political analysts/commentators we’ve got are all white men.

Also, there are tons of columnists and would-be columnists with lots of experience across the country, because many dailies have been cutting local and syndicated columns. A suitable candidate could learn the Statehouse ropes in time for the new session.

Instead, we get a Vermont reporter: Colin Flanders, most recently of the Milton Independent, Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun — where he worked with editor Courtney Lamdin, who signed on with Seven Days as a Burlington city reporter earlier this year. (The weeklies are owned by a skinflint out-of-stater who maintains a single tiny staff to feed all three papers.)

In a way, I get it. In our ever-diminishing news ecosystem, adding another reporter who can do Seven Days-style in-depth journalism is a solid move. But “Fair Game” occupied a singular niche in political coverage. Not to mention that the paper is giving up a significant asset; “Fair Game” was one of the most-read features in the paper. (Not because of me, but because of the column’s long tradition of insight, fearlessness and sharp writing. I stood on the shoulders of my predecessors.) The end of “Fair Game” is a sad moment in the decline of our media.

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Metapost: On bad words

We get comments, we do, we do. Of late, they’ve included a couple of complaints about my occasionally salty language. To be fair, that language appeared in the headlines of two recent pieces, not buried somewhere in the text, so the offending words were hard to ignore.

I appreciate the feedback and I take it seriously, but I can’t promise to cut it out. There are times, especially these days, when a good Anglo-Saxonism is absolutely the appropriate response to some bit of political bullshittery or ratfuckery.

Oops, I did it again.

Besides, the only benefit of having A Blog Of One’s Own is that one gets to set The Rules Of One’s Own. I ain’t in this for the money, Lord knows.

Also, I find Vermont politics to be a little too reserved. This is fine, for the most part; I’d hate to cover that mess in D.C. where everyone’s hackles are permanently on Code Red. But our politicians commonly back away from any kind of real confrontation — or exposure of disagreements behind the scenes — out of an overly developed sense of politesse.

Which, up to a point, is a virtue. But there are times when differences that affect policy outcomes warrant a bit of sunshine. Or when a little vinegar improves the flavor.

I see myself as the vinegar. Or, in the words of my Twitter bio: “Political analyst, poo-flinging monkey.”

So yeah, I fling some poo from time to time, and I will continue to do so. Somtimes I’ll even call it “shit.” If you don’t like it, I will defend to the death your right not to read it.