- File: Jeb Wallace-brodeur
- Chris Richardson
This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2020.
I had misgivings about covering the "excessive quarantine" protest in Montpelier in April, not least because I figured many participants wouldn't be wearing masks. It was also snowing and windy, and I hadn't yet figured out how to prevent my mask from fogging up my glasses whenever I breathed.
But mostly I was conflicted about the merits of the story. The event was bound to make for interesting copy, but was it really responsible for Seven Days to highlight a small number of fringe, even potentially dangerous, viewpoints during the early days of a pandemic? I wondered, Aren't there more important things to be covering?
My reservations mounted once I made it to the Statehouse lawn. The protest was a circus — a media circus, with local television, print and online reporters outnumbering the protesters themselves. The loudest individual among the latter group had arrived carrying a "Don't Tread on Me" flag signed by the founder of Infowars, one of the most prominent platforms for conspiracy theories. His off-the-cuff speech was crass, seemingly divorced from reality and at points incomprehensible. A man wearing a QAnon shirt egged him on.
As I stood around in the cold, I overheard one member of the media who seemed to have a special rapport with his subjects. I recognized him as Michael Bielawski, a reporter for right-wing website True North Reports. Event organizer Debbie Regimbald, who refused my entreaties by telling me to "go piss up a rope," was happy to tell Bielawski that she believed public officials were inflating the coronavirus death toll. While interviewing the "Don't Tread on Me" guy, Bielawski showed him the Infowars sticker on the back of his phone.
Here was the answer to my reporting dilemma: This wasn't a protest story. It was a media story, a window to an informational environment that was incubating alternate realities.
I quietly eyed Bielawski, taking notes on the questions he asked and the answers he received. He evidently didn't appreciate the approach. After the story ran, he tweeted, "These were private interactions I had with individuals in our own space, these were not on the record conversations for reporting."
The Statehouse lawn is a public space — at least, in the real world.