It was one year ago this week that the longtime chief of the Montpeculiar bureau of the Associated Press committed the dastardly act that got him fired. Are you sitting down for this?
You see, March 8, 2006, marked the kickoff of "Sunshine Week." On its website, Sunshine Week is defined as "a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information." The Associated Press, the world's largest news service, is a lead partner in "Sunshine Week" with the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Christopher Graff, for the second year in a row, offered Vermont Associated Press subscribers — which are just about all the state's dailies — a column written by Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy. Leahy's column condemned the erosion of the Freedom of Information Act in recent years. St. Patrick started it off like this:
As we take stock during the second annual Sunshine Week, we confront the disturbing reality that the foundations of our open government are under direct assault from the first White House in modern times that is openly hostile to the public's right to know.
Somebody, however, really did not like what Sen. Leahy wrote.
About two weeks later, on March 20, Graff opened a letter from Larry Laughlin, the AP's Northern New England bureau chief, that started off like this: "This is to inform you that your employment at the Associated Press has been terminated effective immediately."
"Your decision to allow an elected official's editorial comments to run unfettered on the wire March 8," wrote Ol' Larry, "compromised the integrity and impartiality of the AP's news report."
This from a management type of the Associated Press, the news service that demonstrated its integrity and value to the general public by swallowing, hook, line and sinker, every outrageous lie the Bush administration fed the press to successfully launch its illegal war in Iraq.
Had we Americans the kind of Freedom of Information Act Sen. Leahy was calling for in his "Sunshine Week" column that got Graff fired, we might not be at war in Iraq today — with no end in sight.
The Vermont congressional delegation responded to Graff's dismissal with a letter to Mr. Tom Curley, president of the Associated Press.
"There have been many reports suggesting the reasons for Mr. Graff's abrupt termination," wrote Sens. Leahy and Jim Jeffords along with then Congressman Bernie Sanders. "Although we choose not to fuel speculation, we believe that if any of these reports were founded, it would represent a serious breach of trust by AP with its loyal Vermont readership. If AP wants to repair this rift, it must work to clear the air — to let the sunshine in — on this most unfortunate conclusion."
To which Curley replied:
"You know we cannot and will not engage in a discussion of confidential personnel decisions. It is inappropriate to expect AP to open up personnel records of one of its employees to public scrutiny unless it is forced to do so under court order."
What did you expect?
Anyway, this year Sunshine Week begins on March 11. And this year "editorial cartoons" are its focus.
In the middle of Sunshine Week, there's going to be a potentially juicy hearing on Capitol Hill that will be right on point.
The Senate Committee on the Judiciary, chaired by Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has scheduled a hearing on "Open Government: Reinvigorating the Freedom of Information Act" for Wednesday, March 14, at 10 a.m. in Room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The committee will take testimony on a new bill sponsored by Leahy and John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would give more teeth to the 41-year-old law.
Starting right off at 10 a.m., who will appear as witnesses at Leahy's committee? Tom Curley, the man responsible for Chris Graff's outrageous dismissal, and Sabina Haskell, the editor-in-chief of the Brattleboro Reformer.
Will the shoddy treatment of Chris Graff come up during the hearing?
We were unable to get a straight answer out of Sabina in a coy email exchange this week. Tightlipped is she.
However, reliable Senate sources say that the chances of Graff's firing coming up "would be an excellent bet to take."
Let's hope it's on C-SPAN.
And one year later, how is Chris Graff doing?
You mean Chris Graff, the author?
Yes, indeed, Chris has pumped out Dateline Vermont, a fine volume that tells "the inside story of how Vermont transformed itself from a rural, Republican outpost into the state of Howard Dean, Jim Jeffords, Pat Leahy and Bernie Sanders." A marvelous read. He's also landed a top management job as director of communications at National Life.
"I miss journalism," Graff admitted this week. "I miss the honor and pleasure of serving as the eyes and ears of the public," he told us, "but I am enjoying my new job at National Life, which offers a whole new perspective on the world and our state."
Writing Dateline Vermont, he said, "was a great tonic for me." He also picked up a bunch of awards honoring his commitment to the First Amendment from the Vermont Press Association, the Vermont Association of Broadcasters and the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Incidentally, a check back to our column one year ago indicates we were right on in predicting AP's next move. Here's what we wrote then:
Everyone expects that, once this simmers down, AP will tap veteran Statehouse/political reporter Ross Sneyd as Graff's replacement. Mr. Sneyd is highly respected and his work reflects the same high standard Graff set. Which is why the "new" AP will probably fool the "experts," show Vermont who's boss, and bring in someone new from out of state.
Sure enough, AP tapped John Curran from their Atlantic City, New Jersey, bureau to fill Graff's seat as bureau chief in Montpeculiar. Nice guy. Curran and the wife and kids love it here.
Sen. Sanders Update — Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist with the University of Chicago degree and the Brooklyn accent, has been in Washington, D.C., for 16 years plus. He's been in the House for all 16 and now has commenced year 17 in the 100-member Senate. He's an Independent aligned with the Democrats. And, yes, it's perfectly clear he's loving it.
"It is a very different institution from the House," said Ol' Bernardo on Monday. "In the Senate, most of your good work is done without anybody knowing about it, especially when you're in the majority."
In fact, Sanders let out that he had been able to get an extra $500 million into the budget for Head Start over the next three years without anyone taking notice.
"It is done quietly," said the U.S. Senate's only Independent. "That is the difference between the Senate and the House. A lot of the important work takes place off the floor in quiet meetings, in fighting for what you believe, and if you're successful, no one even necessarily knows about it. But your numbers and your language are in the bill that goes forward."
As everyone knows, the Washington media has not exactly paid much attention to the Vermont socialist so far. Instead, the national news media, for the most part, continues its disintegration into soap-opera-style political hype. It's all about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
"The media has decided we have to begin the 2008 presidential election literally the day after the congressional election," said Sanders. "I think that's bad for the country."
Instead, the press should focus on the issues facing the American people, he said, "not Barack Obama's middle name and Hillary's hairdo."
And who says size doesn't matter?
"When you are among 100 [in the Senate] rather than 435 [in the House] and you're in the majority," said Sanders, "and there are 19 people on the committee and 10 on the majority that you've got to convince, it's a lot easier doing that than convincing 218."
The 218 reference is to how many House members it takes to get something passed on the floor, which Ol' Bernardo was able to do on occasion.
"It's a very different type of work," said Sanders. "You prefer it because you can move a lot quicker."
And, uh, we had to ask: Is the parking better for a U.S. Senator?
Sanders broke into a big, long laugh. "I don't have a car there," he said. "Parking is fine, and we have a nice office as well. A big office."
Seven Days Goes Green — "In a move to reduce its ecological impact, and respond to increasing online demand from readers and advertisers," Seven Days "is discontinuing its weekly print edition and focusing its efforts on Internet delivery of news and information.
"After lengthy discussions with staff, advertisers, investors and readers, we have concluded that it makes good business, and environmental, sense to move away from printing a newspaper. In fact, some advertisers and readers wondered what took us so long," said the publisher/editor.
Yeah, right! And Channel 3 News is going to stop broadcasting from the top of Mt. Mansfield and offer Internet-only newscasts.
If Seven Days publisher/editors Paula Routly and Pamela Polston ever put something like that in print, they'd be laughed out of town. No one would believe them. But that's exactly — word-for-word — what Vermont Guardian publisher/editor Shay Totten recently published. (Incidentally, the names of the financial backers of the Guardian have been a very well-kept secret.)
Totten is a former Burlington Free Press towns reporter and a Bennington College graduate. He has tried to position the Guardian in the niche of Vermont's leading leftist rag, one with a vibrant Burlington-to-Brattleboro axis. The Guardian reportedly published 10,000 papers in its weekly edition, but we often had trouble finding them.
However, the online edition of the Vermont Guardian was the hot spot, this being the Internet Age and all. And now it hangs on as the only spot. Certainly it's in our bookmarks list.
But, frankly, it always bugged this reader that Totten would claim "Web Exclusive" in big, bold headlines for mundane news stories that were anything but exclusives. Rather, it was stuff we all had, coming out of press conferences and releases.
The tactic did, however, appear to get the Guardian's website good play on web search engines.
Smart move, eh?
At the moment, the paperless Vermont weekly continues to seek paying readers by offering "exclusive" content to subscribers. No harm in trying. But the content ought to be worth the price, and it sure as hell ought to be exclusive.
This issue of the Guardian pitches "Democracy Now" host Amy Goodman's column as "exclusive" to paying Guardian subscribers.
But the same column is available to nonpaying readers at http://www.alternet.org as well as other weeklies on the web.
Leaves a funny taste in one's mouth.
Cancer Update — It's been more than two months since yours truly noticed the "lump" sticking out a couple inches below our breast bone. As regular readers know, three weeks later, the lump that had grown to resemble a cucumber was confirmed as cancer.
Officially, the crew at the Mary Fanny on the Hill identified it precisely as an "aggressive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma" — specifically, a "diffuse, large B-cell lymphoma."
To my parents' generation, such a diagnosis would result in bowed heads, hushed voices and recitations of the Holy Rosary. "Cancer" was an absolute death sentence, no ifs, ands or buts.
This weekly columnist is coming up on five weeks in an 18-week chemotherapy program called R-CHOP. That stands for the drugs I'm pumped up with by IV once every three weeks: Rituxan, Andriamycin, Cyclophosphamide, Vincristine and Prednisone. Never heard of any of them before, but Google is a wonderful thing, isn't it?
The whole procedure takes about four to five hours.
The oncologist plays by the numbers. It's a little like the Daily Racing Form. Based on my age, the number of disease sites and other factors, the doc has given me a "low-risk" score. And based on the studies to date, yours truly gets an official five-year overall survival rate of 73 percent if I take my medicine like a good boy.
So far, so good. The cucumber has shrunk to where I can't find it! The side effects from the chemo drugs have leveled off. And getting cancer has also given me a good kick in the butt — mentally. One that's sharpened our senses and actually lifted our spirits. So many folks have gone out of their way to let me know I am not alone. And so many have been down this road before me.
Life was actually looking kind of grim last year. Greed was God, and the liars and crooks seemed to be running everything.
Then, January brings us cancer. Love a new challenge and a good fight!
Everything for a reason, eh?