The Burlington Free Press made news last month when it was named a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize — the most prestigious award in journalism. The Pulitzer board did not pick a winner this year in the “editorial writing” category, but on April 16, it announced that Vermont’s largest daily newspaper had made the short list, for a “campaign that resulted in the state’s first reform of open government laws in 35 years, reducing legal obstacles that helped shroud the work of government officials.”
The Free Press covered its own Pulitzer nod, of course. An un-bylined story on Page One the next day said the paper’s editorials “helped persuade the Legislature last year to require judges to award legal costs to people who win public records lawsuits.” A second front-page “article” in the following Sunday’s paper — by publisher Jim Fogler — credited the editors with “prodding Vermont to make its first reform of open government laws in 35 years.”
That’s a powerful journalistic narrative. But is it accurate?
The public-records law signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin last year made a number of reforms. As referenced by the Free Press, it created penalties against government agencies that deny access to records when the person requesting them prevails in court. It also established a legislative study committee charged with reviewing the public-records act and each of its more than 250 exemptions.
Who deserves credit for the changes?
At the Statehouse last week, some politicians were just as eager as the Free Press to claim some responsibility for what they see as an important, and politically popular, victory.
“I was pushing transparency right from the get-go,” says Secretary of State Jim Condos, who barnstormed 14 Vermont towns on a “transparency tour” last year.
The two lawmakers who quarterbacked last year’s legislation maintain the bill had been on their to-do list since 2007.
“I never read the editorials,” says Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee. “I cannot tell you what one of the editorials said, except the one that said I was acting like a weasel.”
White’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor), admits there was “nudging from the news media,” but insists the Free Press “was not the driving force.” She credits her own committee, plus a coalition of advocates that includes Condos, the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont, the Vermont Press Association (of which the Burlington Free Press is a member), Brattleboro-based Prison Legal News, state archivist Gregory Sanford and the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA), as well as citizen activists.
“It was a commitment we had made to look at this for some time now,” Sweaney says. “We were probably late in getting to it.”
Sanford, Vermont’s official keeper of state records, says that while last year’s changes significantly strengthened the open-records law, advocates have been “tinkering with it all along.” He cites an earlier change that expanded the definition of records to include digital ones. He also notes that case law has “reformed” the law, citing a 2011 ruling by Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford in a lawsuit brought by the VSEA that said the union could not be charged simply for inspecting public records.
“I don’t want to quibble — the Free Press should get its due — but I see the push that resulted in the change as a group, though not coordinated, effort,” Sanford says. The Rutland Herald fought two cases to the Vermont Supreme Court in an attempt to obtain records in secretive police discipline cases — helping establish new precedent in the process. The Valley News and VTDigger.org both battled the Hartford Police Department over records relating to alleged misconduct by its officers; VTDigger’s Anne Galloway teamed up with the ACLU to sue for records in the Wayne Burwell case, in which an African American man was pepper-sprayed in his own home after Hartford police mistook him for an intruder.
But at the Free Press, open-records reform has been a veritable crusade. Since 2008, editors Mike Townsend and Aki Soga have penned more than 100 editorials calling for greater transparency in Vermont’s halls of power. They’ve extracted public-records lessons from stories about everything from local embezzlers to the investigation into the mysterious disappearance of an Essex couple, Bill and Lorraine Currier. The paper endorsed Burlington mayoral candidate Jason Lorber — who came in last of four contenders in the Democratic caucus — because of his transparency platform.
The body of editorials earned the Free Press a Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Award in 2010.
That same year, the paper reassigned veteran reporter Mike Donoghue, who serves as executive director of the Vermont Press Association, from the sports desk to news, in part to cover open-government stories. Together with other Free Press reporters and editors, Donoghue has challenged Vermont’s notoriously weak public-records law — once ranked second worst in the U.S. — to win release of previously sealed criminal records and pry open secretive court proceedings.
But he’s not alone. Several Vermont newspaper editors complained to Seven Days that the Free Press appeared to be claiming sole credit for changing the records law. But, tellingly, none would go on record saying so.
Doug Clifton, a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor who lives in Middlebury, says the Free Press deserves credit for bringing the open government issue to the forefront, because it has done more than any other news outlet in Vermont “on the freedom-of-information front.”
“Did the Free Press go overboard in claiming credit for legislative action?” asks Clifton, who was executive editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Miami Herald. “I think you could make an argument either way. But I don’t think it’s untoward that they take some credit for it.”
The real test, Clifton says, would be how the Free Press characterized the impact of its campaign to the Pulitzer board. “If they say they were the moving force on the law, that would be an overstretch,” he says.
Ironically, the Free Press editors were not forthcoming with that information. Soga supplied a written statement that read: “It’s quite an honor that reflects on everyone at the Free Press. …There’s plenty of work left to do for open government in Vermont. We’re not done.”
Asked to provide a copy of its nominating letter — media outlets recommend themselves for Pulitzers — Soga said, “I’m afraid I have no access to our submission package. You’ll have to track down Mike.”
That’s Mike Townsend, the Free Press executive editor. Townsend didn’t reply to numerous phone and email messages over the past two weeks requesting an interview, a copy of the submission letter or any other information about how the Free Press characterized its own role in changing public-records law in Vermont to the Pulitzer board.
Sig Gissler, administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, told Seven Days he could not help on that score, either.
Richard Coe is editorial-page editor of the Bulletin in Bend, Ore., and chaired the five-member jury that reviewed Pulitzer submissions in editorial writing. While Pulitzer rules limit what he could say about the selection process, Coe tells Seven Days that the Free Press was nominated because it was “among the top submissions that we felt we had this year to choose from.” Soga and Townsend share the finalist honor with Bloomberg News (for editorials examining the European debt crisis) and the Tampa Bay Times (for editorials that led Florida Gov. Rick Scott to “mend his ways”).
Coe says his jury received 60 submissions in editorial writing this year and narrowed it down to the final three. Why was no winner chosen? Gissler says he can’t discuss confidential deliberations but explains that, quite simply, no submission won majority support from the Pulitzer board. The group did not pick a fiction winner this year, either.
“We don’t really go into details into why a prize is awarded or not awarded,” he says.
Coe admits that it’s often difficult to draw a direct link between a newspaper’s editorializing and its impact on changing public policy, adding that Pulitzer juries do not independently research such things.
But impact isn’t the only metric: The Pulitzer board also looks for editorial writing with “clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning, and the power to influence public opinion.”