Tag Archives: Taylor Dobbs

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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When is a law not a law?

A philosophical question triggered by a specific actuality: a new law intended to inform the public about toxic algae blooms is pretty much a sham.

VPR’s Taylor Dobbs explains how it’s supposed to work:

The new law is know as Act 86, and it requires the Vermont Department of Health to start public outreach within one hour of finding out about a bloom of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria.

Great idea, right?

Here’s the problem: there’s no mechanism to conduct real-time tracking of algae blooms. The Legislature passed a shiny new PR-friendly law — “Look, we’re doing something to ensure your safety!” — but did nothing about turning its good intention into reality. The monitoring effort is entirely in the hands of volunteers, and there’s a huge amount of ground to cover.

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Phil Scott Leadership Watch: Presidential mush

Looks like Marco Rubio has belatedly realized his Comic Insult routine was doing him no favors.

JENKS, Okla. — Someone in the rafters shouted: “Donald Trump has small hands!”

“We’re not talking about that today,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in response. “It was fun while it lasted.”

… He still called Trump “a con artist” but there was little talk of the businessman’s small hands, or spray tan, or his large private plane.

Yeah, they had to take the Rubot into the shop for a little reprogramming. Because making jokes about Donald Trump’s spray tan and dick size were making Marco look… eh… just a tad unpresidential.

They were also devastating to Phil Scott’s endorsement of Rubio, which posits the notion that the Florida Senator “can build consensus” and treats “the process with respect” and “has a calming effect.”

Speaking of Phil Scott, he finally issued an official statement about his endorsement. Which, curiously, has not been posted on his website; it was simply sent out to his email list. VPR’s Taylor Dobbs posted it on his Twitter feed; you’ll find it After The Jump.

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Feeling a little jet-lagged, Governor?

Okay, look. Personally, I don’t have a big problem with the Vermont Gas pipeline. It would mean Vermont is consuming more natural gas — but we already consume quite a bit, so it’s not like we’d be losing our fracking virginity. (Much of our natural gas consumption is in the form of electricity generated in out-of-state gas-fired plants and purchased on the spot market.)

You ask me, I’d say don’t build it. But Vermont faces far greater environmental challenges, and I’m not sure why the Vermont Gas pipeline became the poster child for activists. If they wanted to have a positive impact on climate change, they’d be better off advocating for renewable energy and lower dependence on out-of-state sources including natural gas, nuclear, and ecologically destructive “industrial” hydropower from Quebec.

That said, Governor Shumlin pulled a substantial boner upon being repeatedly interrupted by anti-pipeline activists at the Paris climate summit.

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Cops at the monolith

I have a useful phrase that describes my general approach to new technology: “ape at the monolith.” It refers to the opening scene in “2001: A Space Odyssey” when the apes react to the monolith’s appearance by screaming and throwing stuff. That’s pretty much how I respond to new gadgets and software, except I usually keep the screaming inside my brain.

Well, the Burlington Police Department seems to have the same problem.

VPR’s Taylor Dobbs has a “funny if it wasn’t so sad” report about a shooting incident in September. The incident itself wasn’t funny; a Colchester man was wounded by Burlington police. Today, authorities cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.

From the way the incident was described, it sounds like the right call. But we have to take the officers’ word for it because they turned off their body cameras during the incident, fearing that the cameras’ red lights would compromise their safety.

Trouble is, as Dobbs reports, the users’ manual says the red light can be disabled without turning off the camera.

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Our mental health sandcastle, part 2

And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

— Matthew 7:26

A few months ago I was chatting, off the record, with a former Shumlin administration functionary. The subject turned to post-Irene mental health care, on which I have been very critical of the administration. This person expressed pride in the new Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital, calling it a “showplace” and urging me to take a tour.

And perhaps I will. But here’s the thing.

Building a building is the easy part. You can usually rustle up the necessary funds, with or without auctioning the naming rights. Government money, grant funding, foundation support, private donors — all are attracted to flashy new things.

It’s a lot less flashy to operate the building once the ribbon has been cut. Management, maintenance, operating costs; attracting and maintaining quality staff and motivating them to excel; creating the systems that will ensure performance equal to the bright shiny promise of the new edifice.

Am I talking about the new state psychiatric hospital here? You betcha.

The hospital has never been fully and properly staffed. Hard work and low pay — and a dangerous work environment — have proven to be strong disincentives to recruitment, and VPCH has suffered from a high attrition rate.

I’ve been hearing background chatter about this, but recently we’ve seen two stories documenting VPCH’s troubles.

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The gang that couldn’t dig straight

That was quite a heapin’ helpin’ o’ bad news served up by Vermont Gas this morning. It announced yet another big cost increase for Phase 1 of its pipeline project, and asked state regulators to put the case on hold.

Which is, if nothing else, a sign that they realize how bad their situation is. How bad?

Yeeeesh. Company officials insist the pipeline is still economically viable, but it’s a lot less viable than originally thought. That changes the cost/benefit equation — which should include the environmental questions — quite a bit. In other late-breaking realizations…

Mm-hmm, I’ll bet. As I wrote in early September, Vermont Gas has been its own worst enemy, coming across as bullies with landowners, and as questionable managers with state regulators.

Whether its bumblefuckery is enough to shelve the project remains to be seen. Today’s announcement is the beginning of a new phase in the history of this proposal. Up till now, the economic arguments in favor of the pipeline had been strong enough to overcome resistance from the environmental community and a small number of landowners.

Those arguments are a lot less strong today. Vermont Gas has given the state a big fat excuse to kill the project — at a time when Governor Shumlin (to be entirely political about it) desperately needs a high-profile issue on which he can pander to the left. Well, if he wants one, he’s got one.

Update. The Governor has released a statement, and yes, he sees an open door in front of him.

Although I am pleased that the new leadership at Vermont Gas is taking the time to reevaluate the proposed projects, this further cost increase is very troubling. In the coming weeks my administration will be evaluating all of this new information and looking at these projects as a whole to ensure that they remain in the best interest of Vermont. Meanwhile, I expect Vermont Gas to also reevaluate its communications and negotiations with affected landowners to help improve relations. I trust those steps will continue.