funny thing happened to my journalistic mission last week at Governor Howard Deans weekly press conference. I went in looking for the guvs response to Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves, who recently lambasted opponents of the controversial egg farm in Highgate.
Graves had called those opposed to the proposed expansion of the ag operation nothing but Luddites, referring, of course, to Englands notorious 19th- century anti-industrialists. But when Dean brushed off the question he was clueless about Luddites as well as Graves verbal meltdown my line of interrogation hit an awkward dead end.
It wasnt all for naught, though. Just being at the press conference, witnessing the various elements of the Vermont media hurl questions at our wannabe-president governor, provided a closer look at the all-too-intimate relationship between politicians and the press.
On one level, the quaintness of Deans press conferences is heartening. Any old Joe or Jane can venture in with little more than a notepad and a semi-serious look and start lobbing questions his way. Unfor-tunately, that same quaintness also makes the whole affair disturbingly clubby.
Week after week, its pretty much the same cast of characters. In addition to the governor, his press secretary Susan Allen a former reporter herself hovers about with the six or seven television, radio and newspaper writers assigned to the Statehouse beat.
The governor knows these journalists need his attention and cooperation. Likewise, the governor needs the civil cooperation of the media if he wants to keep winning big in Vermont and beyond. The resulting love fest is a syrupy-sweet game of insider jokes and jabs, with neither side willing to really push the envelope, apparently in fear of being ejected from the game.
The problem in a small state like Vermont is that there arent a lot of media outlets and alternative media outlets are even harder to find. Consequently, the news tends to sound the same, with only a handful of writers and reporters pushing out the copy for all the media. The Associated Press story you read in the morning daily will likely be read over the radio before it turns up in the afternoon papers. Worse, the coverage veers toward bland, he-said-she-said reporting that has largely reduced the craft of journalism into inadvertent boosterism.
I dont believe its primarily the fault of the journalists, either. Media owners set the tone for the kind of news theyre looking for and, perhaps more important, the time in which the writers have to pump it out. With minimal staffs, news bureaus are kicking out enormous amounts of copy every day, with some reporters writing several stories in a single shift. And when the boss wants copy, copy and more copy, its a hell of a lot easier to get it by showing up at a well-rehearsed press conference than by sleuthing behind the scenes.
Not surprisingly, burnout is a big factor. Except for the high-profile anchors and lucky columnists, turnover is high among Vermont reporters especially in daily journalism and television. Worse, since there isnt much hope of landing a reporting job that affords more time and freedom, many seasoned journalists dust off their resumes and head to work as public relations flacks sometimes even for the politicians they once covered.
The cozy relationship between Vermonts media and its politicians also works for incumbency. While our elected officials would like to believe their ratings result from their legislative abilities, the reality is that its hard not to be popular when the media do little more than regurgitate your press releases.
Ive lived in Vermont for more than 11 years, and every one of the top four politicians in the state governor and three members of Congress are exactly the same individuals as when I arrived. Worse, in all that time of gobbling up papers and searching for news, I cant recall a single instance when the media uncovered something politically scarring, unethical or even seriously questionable about any of them. And I hardly think its because these four gentlemen are angels.
Deans performance with his buddies in the Vermont press was far more illuminating than any trite statement of support he could have provided for his ag commissioner. Hes in for a real shock, though, when he ventures into the shark pool of presidential reportage, where drawing political blood is a badge of honor. Itll be a long, long way from playing his weekly game of footsie with the Vermont media.
In Brief: For a lesson in the many ways the media can spin a story, consider the various headlines used to report the recent study on pesticide residues by the Consumers Union. This venerable group collected and tested both organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables and found that both routinely contained residues. Specifically, 23 percent of the organic samples contained pesticide residues, compared to 75 percent of the conventionally grown produce. The media, particularly those with a more conservative bent, had a field day with the results.
For example, The Burlington Free Press ran this headline across the top of its front page: Pesticides May Taint Organic Produce. Compare that with The New York Times headline: Study Finds Far Less Pesticide Residue on Organic Produce. Of course, anyone wearing a thinking cap shouldnt be surprised that some organic produce contains pesticide residues. Organic farms do not exist in a vacuum, and after decades of hearty pesticide applications, these toxins tend to stick around in the soil and water, not to mention drift via the air from farms still applying pesticides.