Tag Archives: VTDigger

Caution in the face of crisis

Gov. Phil Scott has taken something of a ribbing on The Twitter Machine for saying that when it comes to climate change, “I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, I’m not looking to come out with something dramatic,”

Because heaven forfend we should respond to a crisis with “something dramatic.” I mean, if your house is on fire, do you really want the fire department waking up the neighborhood with their sirens and flashers? Do you want firefighters trampling all over your lawn?

Scott’s comment was in a truly dispiriting article by VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff about how state leaders have given up on meeting Vermont’s near-term climate goals, including a 2007 law which mandates a 50% reduction (from 1992 levels) in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2028 and a goal of weatherizing 80,000 Vermont homes by, ahem, next year. (Of course, the legislature had the foresight to impose no penalties for breaking the GHG law, so no harm, no foul, right?)

More on Our Cautious Governor in a moment. But first I’d like to point out that legislative leadership doesn’t look any better. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, The State’s Most Conservative Progressive, talked of “a pretty serious conceptual shift” that kinda-sorta makes those goals… irrelevant?

As Ashe put it, “And so we might think about things differently today than we did when those particular goals were made in terms of timing and strategies.”

Umm, okay. For her part, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson meets the challenge with a profusion of past participles: “In order to have met that goal, we needed to have been keeping closer track of it all along the way,” said Johnson.

I get it. We’re gonna bullshit our way out of the crisis.

In the meantime, I look forward to the passage of legislation officially removing our climate goals from the law. It’d be honest, if nothing else.

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Bernie’s in trouble! No wait, Bernie’s doing great!

Yesterday, VTDigger reporter Kit Norton posted a story that seemed to indicate flagging support for America’s most senior junior senator, Bernie Sanders. Norton reported that “nearly 200” (he never provided the exact figure) of Sanders’ biggest 2016 donors were instead giving their money to Elizabeth Warren this year. The takeaway, I guess, is that crowds of Bernie backers have fled his campaign.

We’ll get to the story’s flaws in a bit. Right now, we move on to a story posted by Norton today, that shows Sanders doing extremely well in the fundraising department. In fact, during the just-concluded third quarter of 2019, Sanders received $25.3 million — as Norton reported, “the largest quarterly fundraising haul of any Democratic candidate in 2019.”

It was a sharp increase from Sanders’ second-quarter haul of $18 million, and shows that, in spite of recent bad news on the polling and campaign organization fronts, Sanders continues to inspire supporters to put their money where their opinions are. It also shows that Sanders is doing just fine, thank you very much, without those big donations from the faithless “nearly 200.”

Which brings us back to Norton’s first piece. It involved a lot of digging through campaign finance reports which, I can tell you from personal experience, is a depressing slog. I always start doing campaign finance pieces with a sense of optimism and purpose, which at some point turns into my inner voice shouting “Why the hell am I doing this?”

So, good on Norton for doing the spadework — and for reaching out to quite a few of the ex-donors for comment.

And now, the bad news. There is no context whatsoever in the story. Nothing to tell the reader how serious a loss this is for Team Bernie.

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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.

 

Art Woolf, Random Access Almanac

I have been very mean to former UVM economist Art Woolf in the past. I’ve dubbed him Vermont’s Loudest Economist and Vermont’s Laziest Economist, and once referred to him as The Human Almanac for his ability to produce a rash of statistics in lieu of actual insight. I once summarized his output thusly: “Generally, Woolf’s columns present a distasteful combination of lazy analysis, careless oversimplification, conventional thinking, and free-market dogmatism.”

Sad to say, nothing has changed. Well, nothing except Woolf’s media outlet — formerly the Burlington Free Press, now VTDigger.org. I don’t know how much Digger is paying Woolf, but they’re not getting their money’s worth.

Woolf’s most recent essay, to use the term loosely, is a particularly half-hearted effort entitled “Understandably, electric-car conversion is highly charged.” Hardy har har, get it? “Charged”? “Electric cars”? Quite the kidder, that Art.

The entire piece is 15 paragraphs long. The first six are what my editors used to call “throat-clearing” — an overly discursive way of boosting the word count before actually getting to the point. Those paragraphs include a bunch of random facts about automobiles including their invention in 1879, their popularization by Donald Trump’s favorite anti-Semite Henry Ford, context-free statistics on the number of cars and trucks in Vermont and number of miles driven per year — and, as a bonus, the tone-deaf upper-middle-class observation that “today, just about anyone who wants a car can afford one.”

Gosh. Tell that to the folks who struggle to get to work every day or bite their nails to the nubbins whenever it’s annual inspection time. Or the organizers of Good News Garage.

Finally, in paragraph seven, Woolf begins to address his point: the state’s policy goal of shifting personal transportation to electric vehicles. Woolf is concerned about “a number of implications,” including the higher cost of EVs, the relative lack of charging stations and the time it takes to recharge an engine. All of which, it must be pointed out, are being addressed through market forces — a concept that a professional economist might be familiar with.

But those are mere warmups. Woolf’s real concern is the need for much greater supplies of electricity and how those kilowatt hours will be generated. He dismisses solar and wind as impractical to meet the demand — which is true enough, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be significant contributors. It also doesn’t mean that all the turbines and panels need to be sited inside Vermont.  Woolf then switches to Trump Mode, pointing out the need for backup power “on cloudy and windless days and windless nights.”

His only other idea for renewable power: Hydro-Quebec. No consideration of other potential sources, no mention of the ever-improving state of battery technology. No apparent awareness that EVs can be conveniently charged overnight, when power demands are much lower and can be easily met without massive new sources.

He then spends one paragraph on the problem of de-carbonizing our heating systems, again slamming the shortcomings of wind and solar. And that’s about it.

Here are two words you won’t find in the essay: “Climate change.” Woolf makes no effort whatsoever to address the massive costs of dealing with the carbonization of our atmosphere — which far outweigh the relative annoyances of transportation and heating electrification and boosting non-fossil-fuel power production.

You also won’t find any consideration of changing technology. Our energy system is apparently in stasis according to Woolf, with limited renewable options and power storage technology and unacceptably higher costs all around. Which is nonsense; technology is improving all the time and costs are coming down.

All in all, it’s a tiny unappealing bowl of intellectual gruel. Which is a shame, because Woolf occupies a place of some distinction in the realm of public thought. Is he really the best that Digger can do?

 

Bernie’s gift to the Trumpers

In the campaign of 2016, Bernie Sanders offered a progressive critique of our economic/political system that resonated with a broad swath of the electorate. He articulated things that many of us had been thinking for a long time, and did it in a way that cut through the white noise of political discourse.

He did a lot of things right. There’s one thing he got wrong — well, let’s say he got it partly right — and as it turned out, that one thing may have made a crucial difference for Donald Trump.

Bernie’s analysis of trade and domestic job losses focused mainly on one element: international trade agreements.

He’s about one-fourth right. We’ll get to the other three-fourths in a bit.

His simplified message proved very powerful in his fight for the Democratic nomination, and was a core argument in his case against Hillary Clinton. But afterward, it became a potent weapon in the Trump arsenal. One could argue it won him the election, since his extremely narrow victories in Rust Belt states were due to economic anxiety focused on those evil trade deals.

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I seem to have struck a nerve

In my roughly five years of blogging about Vermont politics, I’ve criticized just about everybody at one time or another. Even our sainted Congressional delegation has come in for a bit of bashing here and there. For the most part, my targets handle it well. (Either that, or I’m beneath their notice.)

But there’s one group that is more easily offended than any other, and more likely to react badly. It’s not politicians or operatives or lobbyists or bureaucrats.

No, it’s media organizations.

Curious, if you think about it. The media is accustomed to dishing it out, but has a harder time taking it.

The touchiest media outlets in Vermont are the Burlington Free Press (blocked my access to its Twitter feed) and VPR (one staffer told me I “hate VPR”, which is not true; I hold it to a high standard because it’s so richly resourced in an age of media shrinkage).

To that list we can now add VTDigger. Which is a shame because I respect and support ($10 per month) its work. But this year, Digger has failed to live up to its own standards on the subject of ridgeline wind. I have recently written three pieces exploring Digger’s apparent bias on the issue; the most recent was posted last weekend.

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Do campaigns matter anymore?

On the national level and in Vermont, the Democratic Party had the vastly superior organization. They were solidly networked from grassroots to leadership. They had more paid staff, more field offices, bigger phone banks, more robust GOTV efforts.

Now that it’s all over, those seemingly bulletproof advantages didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

Here in Vermont, as I wrote (and VTDigger’s Jon Margolis sees it the same way), you might as well have had no campaign whatsoever. If we’d had the election a year ago, Phil Scott would have beaten Democrat X by five to ten percentage points on the basis of (a) his popularity and name recognition, and (b) the unpopularity of Governor Shumlin.

And after a campaign of unprecedented length and expense, Phil Scott won by eight percent. Big whoop.

Elsewhere, the 2016 election shuffled some names, but the political landscape remains virtually unchanged. The Dems continue to hold the non-Phil Scott statewide offices and the Legislature’s partisan balance barely moved. For all of Scott’s assertions to the contrary, this was no mandate for his agenda — it was a mandate for him personally. The Republican platform got precisely nowhere except for his candidacy.

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