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Watchdog Whistle: This Vermont News Website Tilts to the Right

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Lou Varricchio, Vermont Watchdog bureau chief - COURTESY OF LOU VARRICCHIO
  • courtesy of Lou Varricchio
  • Lou Varricchio, Vermont Watchdog bureau chief

Don't look now, Vermont, but there's a watchdog behind you to the right. Vermont Watchdog, to use its full name.

For the last three-plus years, the online media outlet has occupied a curious bit of journalistic real estate, cranking out articles with a tangibly conservative slant.

Oh, pardon me. "Free-market, limited-government sort of perspective," says Lou Varricchio, Vermont Watchdog bureau chief. "If you want to define that as 'conservative,' so be it."

Well, let's see here. Recent stories have referred to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "notoriously heavy-handed enforcement"; characterized the Vermont House's attempt to conduct an election recount as a plot "to reverse the victory" of the Republican candidate; accused the Scott administration of an "intimidation" campaign against a conservative critic; asserted that Vermont was beset by "years of overspending" by the state; and painted S.79, a mild countermeasure against federal immigration policy, as "obstructing immigration enforcement" and promoting "a sanctuary attitude, regardless of what's explicitly stated."

Huh. I guess that "sanctuary attitude" part of the bill must have been written in invisible ink.

So yeah, conservative, Tea Party, far right, free-market, limited government (except when it comes to immigration?) ... choose your own descriptor.

To be fair, Varricchio doesn't try to mislead anyone. He'll flat-out tell you that Watchdog has an agenda. He makes no bones about the fact that his operation is funded, entirely, by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity — part of what the Center for Media and Democracy calls a "right-wing web" of nonprofit organizations including the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network, all funded by politically active corporations and billionaires such as the Koch Brothers.

The Franklin Center was founded in 2009. One of its projects has been the establishment of state bureaus for reporting on policy debates — from its own perspective. Or, as Laurel Patrick, the Franklin Center's director of communications and media outreach, wrote in an email, "We are committed to creating non-partisan journalism primarily focused on waste, fraud, and abuse at the state and local government level."

I hear dog whistles.

At the moment, the center has seven active bureaus in states ranging from Florida to Arizona to Ohio. Vermont is its only outpost in the Northeast.

Vermont Watchdog opened for business in late 2013 with one staffer. It now employs two full-time reporters, Varricchio and Emma Lamberton, plus freelancer Michael Bielawski. It doesn't sell advertising or raise money from in-state donors, it claims, instead depending entirely on the Franklin Center.

Which is more than a little ironic. This "free-market" publication doesn't even try to make it as a capitalistic enterprise. Instead it relies on subsidies from an out-of-state nonprofit. The Franklin Center espouses "limited government" principles from the tax-shielded, government-regulated status of a nonprofit.

It's impossible to say where the Franklin Center gets its money because it's all funneled through two "investment" funds: Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund, according to the CMD. These entities allow big-money donors to effectively launder their contributions so they're not on the record as backing any particular cause. Or, as Varricchio puts it, Watchdog is insulated from donors who might try to throw their weight around.

Not that any weight-tossing is necessary. The staffers at Vermont Watchdog are comfortable with their mission. True believers, you might say.

"Personally, I think limited government is a good thing," Varricchio says. In Vermont, he adds, "It's gotten out of control."

Varricchio has been a journalist or writer almost his entire adult life. He started at a small paper near Philadelphia, did communications work for high-tech companies, worked a 10-year gig as spokesperson for Champlain College and lived out West, where he earned a master's degree in space science. After returning to Vermont, he ran the Addison Eagle (now the Vermont Eagle) until the end of 2016. He joined Vermont Watchdog in January.

Between leaving Vermont and coming back, he spent three years producing a public television series funded by NASA that focused on climate change. Which looks a bit paradoxical now, considering that Vermont Watchdog routinely pooh-poohs climate issues and renewable energy.

Point is, Varricchio brings solid reporting chops to the job, as well as an unabashed point of view. But is what he's doing actually journalism?

"Sure, why not?" he says. "What I do is journalism. I report, and I may pick up on things that other reporters don't." In fact, most Watchdog stories will quote people on all sides of an issue — although the folks who agree with Watchdog routinely get most of the space.

David Mindich, professor of media studies at St. Michael's College, agrees with Varricchio — sort of. "It's journalism," he says. "It's partisan journalism."

Both men point to an American tradition of partisan reportage. The idea of journalistic objectivity, Mindich notes, didn't really spread until the mid-19th Century. Later giants of journalism, such as Hearst and Pulitzer, weren't above using their power to push an agenda. And, Mindich adds, "We still see things like Fox News and certain programs on MSNBC to be partisan."

Which is fine by Mindich as long as it's clearly labeled as such. For example, I have a point of view and make no bones about it, but Seven Days makes sure to describe my writing as that of a political columnist — not one of its straight-news reporters.

On the Vermont Watchdog website, the viewpoint is impossible to miss.

It might be different, though, if you came across a Watchdog story nestled in the news columns of your local newspaper. The organization invites any publication to use Watchdog content free of charge. The only requirement is giving credit to the source.

"There's a vibrant weekly newspaper presence in our state," says Varricchio. "Our plan in the future is to try to get into more of those weekly papers and provide them — provide us with an avenue, but also be those papers' eyes in Montpelier."

For Mindich, the idea rings some alarm bells.

"You wouldn't want that content to be picked up by, let's say, the Hardwick Gazette or Rutland Herald and put forth as a piece of nonpartisan journalism," he says. "You'd want it to be on the opinion page, or labeled as partisan."

But principle doesn't put food on the table. "It is a very difficult time for journalism and for small local papers," says Mindich. "The worry is a local paper strapped for cash will make compromises that it shouldn't."

Seven Days sought information from Varricchio and the Franklin Center about Vermont Watchdog's online readership and which newspapers have carried its stories. Varricchio professed not to know the answers. In an emailed reply, Patrick failed to answer questions about audience metrics and claimed to lack complete information about newspaper placement.

As for Vermont Watchdog itself, well, it's out there for one and all to see. In a virtually limitless online marketplace of ideas, having a free-market voice isn't in itself a bad thing.

It's just one more reason, in the age of the internet, to keep your eyes open and your critical judgment engaged.

Six Minutes With Bernie

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made another swing through his home state last Saturday. The biggest event of the day was a town meeting in Hardwick with the rest of Vermont's congressional delegation: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.).

Before Hardwick, Sanders stopped at the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Montpelier to speak to members of the Vermont-National Education Association, the teachers' union. Afterward, he paused in the lobby, where an NBC News producer had arranged a brief on-camera interview. I couldn't help wondering how far she and her cameraman had traveled just to get a few Bernie-isms on tape.

Sanders was fitted with a lapel microphone as Your Correspondent and VTDigger.org's Erin Mansfield stood by. The producer asked him about the previous day's failure of the Republicans' health care plan.

Sanders talked about "a real victory" for the people, slammed the bill and expressed willingness to work with Republicans on "good legislation to improve Obamacare."

Then the producer asked if the defeat diminished President Donald Trump's political influence.

"That's an inside-the-Beltway gossip question," he huffed, changing the subject to infrastructure.

Then I jumped in.

"Are you concerned with the potential for—"

"You are?" Sanders interrupted.

"John Walters from Seven Days."

"Yeah."

"Are you concerned with the potential for the executive branch taking action to torpedo the Affordable Care Act?"

"Yeah, well this is a problem," Sanders replied. "If you have a president who apparently is wishing and hoping that the health care program, which provides health insurance to tens of millions of our people, fails, and if he uses his political power to make it fail, that is a terrible thing to do."

Mansfield grabbed the opening. "Can you say how—"

"You are with?"

"Vermont Digger."

"Yeah."

"Can you say how Trump's budget will affect the Department of Labor and workers?" Mansfield asked.

"Look, Trump's budget is a — if you were a greedy billionaire and you wanted it all, that's what Trump's budget looks like," Sanders replied, and then charged into a litany of talking points: "tax breaks for the wealthy," "the military industrial complex," and the decimation of programs "for the lowest income and most desperate people in this country.

"You'll excuse me, I have to—"

"Can I ask one more question?" the NBC producer begged. Sanders assented.

And how did she use her last chance? She repeated her earlier "has this defeat weakened the President?" thing.

Sanders yanked at the microphone, which dropped inside his sweater. "No, that's media issues," he growled. "That doesn't interest me." He fumbled with the microphone cord. "It's not a question of victory or defeat for Trump. Who cares? The question is — I'm sorry — the question is—"

"There's a microphone down there somewhere," the NBC producer interjected.

"Souvenir," I offered.

"I don't know where it is," said Sanders.

An NBC staffer located it in the senator's pocket.

The microphone emancipated, Sanders unloaded the Full Bernie: a moment with echoes of his famous "your damn emails" line from the presidential campaign.

"That's just inside-the-Beltway stuff. Who cares whether it strengthens or weakens? That's a game. That's the Red Sox versus the Yankees. I don't care about that. What you should care about, this was a disastrous piece of legislation. It should have been defeated. It was defeated. Let's see what they bring up next."

And that's the thing about the junior senator from Vermont. He doesn't give a damn about political gamesmanship. That, I think, is at the heart of his appeal: He cares about winning the issues, not the game.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Watchdog Whistle"

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