Tag Archives: Peter Hirschfeld

Who gets to tell the Statehouse story?

This is a follow-up to my recent post about the gender imbalance in Vermont’s political press corps. We’re almost entirely men. And that does have an effect on what stories are told and not told.

Next question: Does it also have an effect on who gets to tell the stories? That is, who gets quoted in articles about Vermont politics and policy? Do we quote men more often than women? Unlike many corridors of power elsewhere, women are well represented in the highest ranks of Vermont government. Three of the four top legislative leaders are women; the four chairs of the powerful money committees are women, as are several other chairs; and the Scott administration is perhaps the most gender-balanced in Vermont history.

There’s one way to check on this, and it involves a ton of scutwork. I went through every frickin’ article written by 11 reporters who regularly cover the Statehouse in one full month, counting up the quotes. I chose May of this year because it included the legislature’s home stretch, a period when interest peaked and coverage was frequent. The 11 reporters included ten men and VTDigger’s education reporter Lola Duffort. She spent a lot of time in the Statehouse in May, and it seemed useful to include a woman even if she’s not technically a Statehouse reporter.

This turned out to be a tougher exercise than I thought. Counting up the quotes is simple enough, but people are often mentioned without being directly quoted. I decided on a standard that involved some subjective judgment: Does the person have agency in the story? Do they play an active role, or are they brought up in passing?

There’s a gray area here, and if anyone tried to reproduce my research they’d get slightly different numbers. But I’m confident that the overall trends would remain.

That’s one caveat. Another is the potential effect of small sample size. Some writers produced more material than others. A month is about the minimum time you’d need to produce representative numbers. If anyone wants to do a full session or a year, have at it.

The month of May was an outlier in some respects. A lot of coverage concerned the House/Senate dispute over issues like minimum wage, paid family leave, cannabis and guns. Stories tended to focus on the two leaders, Speaker Mitzi Johnson and President Pro Tem Tim Ashe. Both were usually quoted, which may have led to better gender balance overall.

Also, Gov. Phil Scott was largely a passive presence in May. He simply waited for the legislature to act — and if they didn’t, he got to stay on the sidelines. Many stories mentioned Scott but gave him no agency. Often, his views were cited by way of spokesperson Rebecca Kelley, which is a score in the female column each time.

Finally, just for the record, no one from the TQIA sections of the LGBTQIA community was quoted. I didn’t keep track of people of color, but as far as I can recall only two were quoted: Rep. Nader Hashim and Sen. Randy Brock.

Enough preliminaries. Let’s do the numbers.

I’ll start with myself, in my former role as political columnist for Seven Days. I wrote five columns in May. I cited 13 male government officials (elected or administrative) and 10 female. In the “other” category of advocates, lobbyists, non-government, I quoted six men and seven women. My overall total: 19 men, 17 women.

My colleague Kevin McCallum was the King of Quotes, citing far more people than any other reporter. (Which is a positive indicator of his work ethic and diligence.) He wrote 17 stories which quoted 44 male officials and 33 female, plus 12 male “others’ and 14 female. Total: 56 men, 47 women.

The third member of the Seven Days Statehouse crew was the now-departed Taylor Dobbs. Officials: 30 men, 21 women. Others: Four men, one woman. Total: 34 men, 22 women.

Gettin’ a little sketchy there.

I surveyed Paul Heintz’ work as well. He was the political editor in May, but he did write eight stores. Small sample size warning applies. Officials: 12 men, five women. Others: 14 men, nine women. Total: 26 men, 14 women. A couple of factors skewed his total: Some of his stories were about Vermont’s all-male congressional delegation, and he wrote a sizable story about an EB-5 court proceeding in which all the principals were men. I think we’d need a larger sample to truly determine whether or not he’s really an oinker.

That’s it for the Seven Days political team. On to VTDigger. And the moment you’ve been waiting for…

Political columnist Jon Margolis wrote eight pieces in May. He didn’t quote very many people, so again, small sample size, but he skewed heavily toward men. He quoted 16 men and seven women, plus five anonymous people — one of whom was identified as male. Margolis already ranked high on the Oinker Suspect List because of his comment about Mitzi Johnson supporting paid family leave because it’s a women’s issue and she’s “entirely female,” plus his anonymous quote about how “Tim [Ashe] has an Emerge problem,” referencing Emerge Vermont, the organization that trains women Democrats to run for office. The implication being, Ashe has to deal with uppity Emerge alums like Sens. Ruth Hardy and Becca Balint. Poor guy.

Margolis’ numbers are too small to be probative, but they confirm the impression that he’s maybe a bit of a pig. I’ll also mention that his first column in June was about the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in which he both-sidesed the mass murder of native people.

Columbus did not introduce slavery to this hemisphere, where the natives had been enslaving one another, making war on one another, torturing one another, and sometimes eating one another for centuries.

True enough. There were wars and conquests and atrocities among the natives, just as there were back in Europe. But the indigenous people never committed actual, how shall I put it, genocide. They never conquered an entire continent by killing or displacing its resident population. That’s a massive difference in scale. And if Margolis had spoken with members of the Abenaki community for his column, he might have acquired a bit more nuance in his views.

But I digress.

As for Digger’s Statehouse reporters, things get a little complicated because there were a lot of co-authored stories. Those pieces had to be considered separately.

Xander Landen wrote 19 stories. Officials: 29 male, 21 female. Others: Six male, four female. Total: 35 male, 25 female. Hmm.

Colin Meyn wrote nine pieces. Officials: 22 men, 11 women. Others: Three men, six women. Total: 25 men, 17 women. Also hmm.

Kit Norton was sole author of only four stories. He co-wrote several, and was also responsible for a chatty daily Statehouse digest distributed by email. I only reviewed his posted articles. Officials: Six men, seven women. Others: Three men, two women. Total: Nine each.

Some combination of Landen, Meyn, Norton and Anne Galloway co-wrote nine stories. Officials: 21 men, 17 women. Others: No men, three women. Total: 21 men, 20 women.

Lola Duffort wrote 16 stories in May. Officials: 11 men, 14 women. Others: 18 men, 12 women. Total: 29 men, 26 women.

I also took a look at Vermont Public Radio’s two Statehouse regulars, Bob Kinzel and Peter Hirschfeld. Their stores are written for radio, but the transcripts are posted on VPR’s website. Kinzel wrote three stories in May (he spent a lot of time hosting “Vermont Edition”). He quoted nine men and two women. Small sample size, but ouch.

Hirschfeld produced 11 pieces in May. He quoted 22 men and 19 women.

That’s about it. Seven Days, VTDigger and VPR are the only outlets that produce significant quantities of in-depth state government reporting. The three major TV stations, to their credit, cover the Statehouse much more frequently than stations in other states. But their reports are usually quick hits lacking the depth or breadth of Vermont’s three top news organizations. (The Burlington Free Press no longer covers the Statehouse on anything like a regular basis.)

Conclusions? Some of the numbers indicate a potential problem with gender balance in some reporters’ work, but none of the results are strong enough to constitute definitive proof. Except maybe SOOOEEE PIG PIG PIG Margolis, who is, at least for now, Vermont’s only regular political columnist. Kinda sad, that.

But I will say that some reporters would be advised to check themselves. Maybe do a deeper dive on their own work, see how they did over a period of several months. If there’s a consistent male/female imbalance of 60/40 or greater, they probably have some implicit bias issues.

Also, the relative gender balance in Duffort’s reporting is one more data point for the importance of increased gender balance in the Statehouse press corps.

 

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Inartful dodges and implausible denials

Must be a new experience for Bill Stenger, having a hard time getting his calls returned. After all, he’s been a major player at the intersection of Vermont business and politics for a long time now, benefiting from sweetheart deals and inadequate oversight (see Postscript below) courtesy of at least two successive administrations.

After years of holding together his massive EB-5 project with chicken wire and spit, Stenger is now embroiled in the sales pitch of a lifetime: portraying himself as innocent in the face of federal and state investigations and an increasingly ugly paper trail.

From VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld, we learn that federal officials “had strong forensic evidence of a massive fraud” at least two years ago, and that Stenger was subjected to an intensive interview by SEC investigators in May 2014.

And from the Burlington Free Press’ Jess Aloe, we learn that Stenger’s top financial executive resigned in 2011 “after [Stenger] failed to address concerns about the use of money from foreign investors.”

It is literally impossible to believe that an experienced entrepreneur like Stenger could somehow remain clueless in the face of all that. But there he was, telling the Free Press last Monday (two days before the SEC raided his offices, seized his papers, and changed the locks) that nothing was wrong. And on Friday, two days after the raid, he doubled down.

“There was a lot of stuff in the presentation that I got on Wednesday that I was not aware of,” Stenger said. “I can’t go any further than that. I’ve got to let it go at that. I’m trying to figure this out as well. I just need to deal with it.”

Okay, I see what we’re doing here: blaming the dark-skinned flatlander.

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A Vermont state of mind

Looks like Garrett Graff hasn’t given up his ambition of becoming Vermont’s next Lieutenant Governor. As VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld reports, Graff is seeking an official ruling on his eligibility for the 2-16 ballot.

He seems to have run afoul of an oddly-worded Constitutional provision that appears to require four years of Vermont residency preceding the election. Graff, however, had lived in Washington, D.C. for ten years before returning to Vermont, uhh, two months ago.

By the way, is it just me, or does it seem like our Constitution was written by a bunch of drunks? (I mean, “he shall have resided in this State four years next preceding the day of the election,” WTF?) There’s a lot of stuff in there that I’d change if I had a magic wand. Unfortunately, Our Framers devised a maddeningly difficult process for amending the Constitution, so I think we’re stuck with it.

Anyway. First problem with Graff’s request? There is no process for an official ruling. (That darn Constitution again.) Secretary of State Jim Condos says it’s a matter for the courts to decide. Which would involve (a) Graff formally launching a campaign and (b) someone filing a court challenge against him. And even if that process began tomorrow, would the courts deliver a ruling in time for Graff to pursue a credible candidacy? Seems unlikely.

The impression is that Graff failed to do his homework.

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The Eternal General bows to the inevitable

It only took him about five months to figure it out, but Bill Sorrell finally announced today that he will not seek an eleventy-billionth term as Vermont’s Attorney General.

The end has been obvious to all since the early May appointment of former State Rep. Tom Little to head an independent investigation of Sorrell’s illegal (or at least thoroughly squicky) campaign finance activities.

SorrellZevonReally, the end has been all but obvious since Sorrell’s disastrous decision last March to throw the book at Dean Corren for an insignificant-at-best violation of the public financing law. Sorrell had alienated a lot of people over the years with his overzealous prosecution of campaign finance law and his underzealous pursuit of just about everything else in his purview. L’affaire Corren left him friendless in Montpelier and in Democratic and Progressive circles (he long ago lost the Republicans), with the possible exception of Sorrell’s political godfather, Howard Dean.

Today, the end came not with a bang, but an emailed whimper. Paul Heintz:

For a man who has spent much of his adult life in public service, Sorrell made his announcement in a remarkably low-key fashion. Rather than holding a press conference, he delivered the news in a terse, five-sentence statement emailed to reporters Monday afternoon.

Unsurprisingly, he couldn’t see any advantage to be gained from taking questions at his own political funeral.

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Ways of seeing a blind trust

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott’s announcement that he will run for governor came with a side dish of confusion, for those who scanned more than one account of the event.

At issue: what he will do with his half-ownership of Dubois Construction, which frequently bids on state contracts. Keeping an active hand in the business would be a pretty clear conflict of interest; the still-hypothetical Governor Scott would, after all, be filling positions in the Agency of Transportation and could presumably bring influence to bear on his firm’s behalf. Or even, perish the thought, provide inside info that would help Dubois submit winning bids.

But we all know Phil Scott, the golden boy of Vermont politics, would never do such a thing. Everybody knows good ol’ Phil, right?

Yeah, just like the State Senate didn’t know it was harboring a[n alleged] serial rapist until state troopers arrested good ol’ Norm McAllister on the grounds of the Statehouse. Point being, you never really know, do you?

That’s why we have ethics rules and laws. Well, most states do, anyway.

Apparently, when asked about the conflict question, good ol’ Phil gave different answers to different reporters.

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Bruce Lisman needs to work on his poker face

After his disastrous attempt to answer a simple question, our favorite Wall Street panjandrum made a strategic retreat and worked out a new story. With rather hilarious results.

For those just joining us, VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld discovered that someone was doing opposition research on Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. Hirschfeld asked the obvious suspect, Bruce Lisman, the only declared Republican in the race.

And Lisman basically soiled his britches. He said “it’s possible,” then denied contracting with anyone, then admitted “it could be,” and closed with “A note to self: I’m going to go find out.”

Apparently, even Lisman realized how much of a disaster that was. Because shortly after Hirschfeld’s story went up online, Lisman called him back with Version 2.0.

Which was a little more coherent, but barely credible.

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Bruce Lisman: unclear on the difference between transparency and opacity

Hoo boy. VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld got himself some red-hot sound bites from our newest gubernatorial candidate, Bruce Lisman.

Hirschfeld discovered that an out-of-state right-wing “opposition research firm” named Jackson Alvarez “was fishing for information on Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, including transportation contracts on which his company, Dubois Construction, had bid.”

Hmm. Who could possibly be searching for skeletons in Phil Scott’s closets? His potential Republican opponent, Bruce Lisman?

Well, Hirschfeld put the question to the retired Wall Street wizard. And the reply was an amazing display of political fumblemouth.

“Yes, it’s possible. We haven’t contracted for anything,” Lisman said Tuesday.

Whuh?

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