People occasionally ask me how I keep coming up with ideas. My answer is, there are always far more ideas than I can actually cover. This week, there were a few that I just couldn’t get to, but they seem worthy of note in short form. So, the first-ever Veepie Awards. Possibly a continuing series, but no promises. Or threats. The envelope, please…
Most Desperate Pushback Against Negative News Coverage. The winner is the Vermont Department of Corrections, which was on the bad end of a New York Times article outlining the toll of its Covid policies. In order to prevent outbreaks (at least a couple halppened anyway), DOC locked away exposed inmates in solitary confinement, the most extreme form of incarceration.
For weeks at a time… inmates were locked in 8½-by-10-foot cells in near-total isolation. They ate meals a few feet from their toilets, had no visitors, and spent as little as 10 minutes a day outside cells.
The strategy made the Vermont prison system one of the safest for contracting Covid, which is a dispiritingly low bar. But the cost, as the Times put it, has taken “a heavy toll on many inmates’ mental health, and driven some to psychological despair.”
And at least one to suicide. But hey, no Covid deaths!
Wow, Seven Days really dropped a turd in the Molly Gray punchbowl, didn’t they?
The story by Colin Flanders, the most can’t-miss piece of political journalism so far this season, provided a ton of insight into how Gray came (seemingly) out of nowhere to dominate the inside game in the race for lieutenant governor. But in terms of the piece’s political impact, Flanders definitely buried the lede.
The part that has Democratic tongues wagging can be found (by dedicated readers) all the way down in paragraph 27. That’s where Flanders reveals that Gray didn’t cast a ballot in a Vermont election between 2008 and 2018.
(Update. Turns out this wasn’t the scoop I thought it was. On July 21, VTDigger’s Grace Elletson posted a profile piece that reported Gray’s voting record. In all their infinite wisdom, she and her editors consigned this tidbit to paragraph 32. But still, she had it first. Also, I didn’t go into it at the time, but the other revelatory aspect of Flanders’ piece was the through exploration of Gray’s family connections. That went a long way to explaining her rapid political rise. Elletson got into some of this, but not nearly as deeply or clearly as Flanders.)
Now, if Gray missed one or two votes, that could be written off as the preoccupation of a busy young professional. But ten years between votes? That’s a dereliction of a citizen’s duty unbecoming in one who would occupy one of Vermont’s highest political perches. Gray expressed regret for missing so many elections, especially the 2016 race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. “It’s something that I’ve learned from,” she said.
One thing I know for sure: None of the other Democratic LG candidates bothered to do any opposition research. I mean, this didn’t require a deep dive — just basic political prudence. And although oppo research has a bad name, it’s a legitimate aspect of politics. If a candidate, especially one so little-known, has any skeletons in the closet, the voters should know. Hell, Gray’s own campaign should have known about this. All those smart people who signed onto her candidacy should have known about it.
And considering that voting records are, well, public records, I’m surprised it took this long for a reporter to look into Gray’s nonparticipation. But it’s been, for journalists, a seriously compressed campaign season. Coronavirus dominated their work from mid-March on, and the Legislature’s extended session took up the rest of the oxygen.
Lucky break for Gray, who may well have dodged this potentially fatal bullet.
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.