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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lesbian superhero Ellen Degeneres has suddenly become a controversial figure for attending a Dallas Cowboys football game in the company of untried war criminal George W. Bush. (She also did so at the invitation of Cowboys owner and human turd Jerry Jones, but she didn’t get her picture taken with him.)
Many on the left were shocked, shocked at this turn of events. How could she sit there and yuk it up with W, the man who not only started two pointless wars but also fought tooth and nail against marriage equality? (Her wife Portia de Rossi is sitting to Ellen’s left.)
I can’t say I was similarly shocked. Not that I buy Ellen’s defense that We All Have To Be Nice To Each Other. She can be “nice” to W without chumming it up with him in the owner’s suite. But Ellen has been doing this delicate moral balancing act since forever. It’s an essential feature of her character. It’s a feature that has driven her political influence — and also made her a morally ambivalent figure.
Recall that before her sitcom made history, it was a goofy, soulless laff-fest right out of the 90s network factory. And before that, she’d been a G-rated, politically chaste standup comic. Her coming out (in character and in life) on national television was arguably even more impactful because she’d established herself as a cheery, benign slice of Wonder Bread.
R.I.P. Sports Illustrated, one of this lifelong reader/sports fan’s favorite media properties. I say “media property” rather than “magazine” because it long ago became a trading chip in the progressive monetization of everything. Yesterday, its new owners basically stripped SI down to the studs, and will soon begin tearing out the fixtures and wiring to sell for scrap. As the great Ray Ratto, himself a past victim of media downsizing, put it:
Sports Illustrated being turned into a title with nothing to support it has been seen as inevitable since Time, Inc. got out of the business, and this is simply the lousy next step. There will be others, and then it will disappear the way Inside Sports did, and before that Sport Magazine, and before that the International Herald Tribune. There will always be soulless brutes who buy, gut and sell things, and die as they lived, without value or memories. May their demises be slow, painful and filled with screams only they can hear.
What will be left behind, the “soulless brutes” hope, is a “brand” that can be squeezed for every last drop of profit before finally being shuttered for good. The media entity’s staff, traditionally a home for the best sports writers in America, will be filled out by contract workers. And we all know how well the “gig economy” treats writers and journalists.
Which brings me to the dying business of daily newspapers. Us olds, who still value curated journalism that tries to reflect the life of its community and provide a window on the world, stubbornly maintain our subscriptions to formerly worthy entities like the Burlington Free Press and Barre Montpelier Times Argus out of the forlorn hope that, thanks to our fingers in the dike, we can help our dailies maintain a shred of their former relevance.
Well, sorry, but that ship has sailed. Daily newspapers are never going to be anything more than a gaunt outline of their former selves. They are never going to fulfill their traditional role in civic discourse. They need to die so that something new might grow.
This would be a bad thing for all the hard-working, talented people who spend their days performing CPR on their own employers. I do not wish unemployment on the Emilie Stiglianis, April McCullums, Steve Pappases and David Delcores of the world. But their fates are not in my hands. Their paychecks arrive at the sufferance of far-away corporate owners who don’t have the slightest interest in the well-being of their minions, let alone the Constitutional duty of journalism. They see media properties as things to strip-mine with no concern for tomorrow.
And they are occupying valuable space in our media landscape for no purpose other than short-term profit.
Award-winning, locally owned Seven Days newspaper is on the hunt for a political columnist or a news reporter to join our state government team.
That’s either/or. They’re going to hire one or the other. Which means they haven’t made up their minds whether they’re keeping “Fair Game.” It’ll depend, one must assume, on the inclination of the best applicants.
Before I begin the uninformed speculation and free advice, let me make one thing clear. I have no inside information. At this point, I have less insight into the inner workings of Seven Days than I do for True North Reports, the ha-ha “news” site bankrolled by reclusive moneybags Lenore Broughton.
When I got the ziggy, I didn’t know whether they intended to keep the column going or kill it. In recent years, Seven Days has sought to distance itself from its hippie-dippie alt roots. Maybe the Peter Freyne Memorial Chair no longer fit in with the highfalutin aspirations of Vermont’s largest organ.
On the other hand, it’s tough to imagine a Seven Days without “Fair Game.” Back in the bad old days, Peter Freyne was their only news guy, to use the term very loosely. The column has been a staple of the paper since practically day one.
Also, at this point it occupies a singular place in Vermont’s news ecosystem. There are no other political columnists, besides the part-time ruminations of VTDigger’s Jon Margolis. “Fair Game” remains incredibly popular — a must-read for anyone in Vermont politics or news media. That’s a lot of legacy and pageviews to surrender. Also, Vermont politics needs a good shitkicker. It’s far too comfortable a space right now.
But if they’re going to keep “Fair Game,” they need to make some decisions about what exactly it is and what their expectations are. Otherwise it’s not fair to the new hire. It sure wasn’t fair to me.