It's a big bad world out there, folks, and outside forces have more control over what we read, watch and hear on the news in Vermont than we'd like to imagine. But shortly after 1 p.m. on Monday, that reality hit home with a loud bang.
"Hey," said the familiar voice on the phone, that of a Montpelier political operative, "you want to be the new bureau chief of the Associated Press?"
"What? Are you on drugs?" we asked. "What the hell are you saying?"
"Chris Graff just got fired," he replied. "Check Darren Allen's 'Hall Monitor' blog in the Times Argus."
Chris Graff no longer with the AP: One of the most venerable and well-known bylines in Vermont media was silenced today, as Vermont AP Bureau Chief Chris Graff was said to no longer be with the world's largest news gathering organization.
Reached at his Elm Street home in Montpelier, Chris sounded as stunned as the rest of the state's media world. "I am trying to figure it out myself," the newsman said.
His boss, Concord, N.H. Bureau Chief Larry Laughlin, was in town today and all he would say was, "Chris Graff is no longer with the Associated Press."
Chris Graff graduated Middlebury College in 1975 and started his news career covering the Statehouse for WFAD in Middlebury. In 1978, he was hired by the Associated Press, and two years later became the top dog at the Montpelier bureau. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, phones had cords and nobody imagined email. For the last 27-plus years, Graff's been Vermont's Mr. Reliable, but on Monday the news service abruptly fired him.
Yours truly has worked in the Vermont news biz long enough -- since 1979 -- to have been fired a few times. But throughout our ups and downs, Chris Graff has been a cornerstone for the entire Vermont press business.
Because from his days as the young AP Vermont boss in the shabby but quaint little bureau above Montpelier's Thrush Tavern, to his recent days as the middle-aged bureau chief in the new, upscale AP digs a few blocks away along the river bank, Chris Graff has consistently made the calls, especially the close calls, that established the Vermont AP wire as the gold standard for news credibility.
We've heard him criticized for leaning to the right. And we've heard him blasted for leaning to the left. Who the critic is seems to depend on which side is losing at any given moment on any given issue. It goes with the territory.
If not for the fact that he's never wanted to live anywhere but Vermont, Graff could easily have become a top AP byline on the national and international news scene. We've been very lucky to have him.
As a stunned-looking Marselis Parsons told Ch. 3 viewers Monday evening, "The AP did not comment, and Graff could not be reached for comment. Politicians ranging from Jim Douglas to Pat Leahy said it is a huge loss and a complete surprise. Some AP clients were astonished by the news and intend to appeal the wire service headquarters in New York."
So what happened?
First of all, Mr. Graff is saying nothing beyond confirming that he was indeed "fired." He told "Inside Track" on Tuesday he is meeting with an attorney and is in the process of negotiating a separation agreement with AP.
"To me, reality is setting in today," said Graff, "but what made today special is seeing all the nice comments" in the morning's newspaper stories about his dismissal.
All of a sudden here's a chill in the air, the smell of fear, people worried about their jobs. The reporters at the Montpelier bureau we've contacted have not responded to inquiries.
However, an "Inside Track" investigation of Graff's firing has uncovered the following:
First, since former USA Today president and publisher Tom Curley took over the reins at AP in 2003, things have taken a turn for the worse. Graff isn't the first veteran AP bureau chief to get axed recently. Curley's new Gannett-style policies and guidelines are being imposed with an iron fist by his new team of managers. There are complaints the news is being dumbed down by corporate, and the AP gold standard is being turned into cow flop.
Second, "Inside Track" has learned that Mr. Graff's firing is directly linked to a certain news item he moved out to client newspapers on the Associated Press wire two weeks ago.
According to sources in the Vermont media, the item was a column written by Vermont Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy. The subject was the growing threat to our democracy by infringements imposed by the Bush administration on America's hallowed Freedom of Information Act. It was submitted for possible publication by the "Sunshine in Government Initiative" of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
Sources say the Leahy column moved on the Vermont AP wire on Wednesday, March 8, as part of a "Sunshine Sunday" preview package. Also in the Sunday package was a feature on Gov. Douglas' attempt to bar access to public records by invoking the "deliberative process privilege." Sunday kicked off "Sunshine Week." Open government was a national theme raised by many news outlets coast to coast.
But shortly after the AP Sunshine package moved on the Vermont wire, an unidentified AP editor up the food chain abruptly yanked it. Vermont AP clients were notified it was being withdrawn. Here's what went out on the wire:
BULLETIN ELIMINATION Advisory
The Associated Press
The Sunshine Week column by Sen. Patrick Leahy, sent without a dateline in advance March 8 for use in Sunday newspapers of March 12, has been eliminated. The material should not have moved on the wire. No sub will be filed.
Sources say the objection was over moving an item written by a "partisan politician" without including a rebuttal from a partisan politician of a different stripe.
Can you believe it?
The gods at AP fired Chris Graff because of something St. Patrick wrote about open government! Leahy isn't even a candidate for office this year. Why is open government suddenly such a touchy topic at AP?
The remarkable thing is that one year ago, Mr. Graff moved a different Leahy column on the FOIA as part of ASNE's first annual Sunshine Week. Surely, if the higher-ups at the "new" AP had a problem, they would have mentioned it back then?
With both Graff and AP management declining comment beyond confirming the firing, we cannot confirm that the Leahy open-government column was the only reason Graff was sacked. Indeed, many in the news biz wonder if his courageous defense of truth and accuracy during January's Fox News vs. Vermont firestorm involving Judge Edward Cashman was also a factor.
You'll recall that in his trademark "nothing but the facts" style, Graff courageously doubted the original WCAX-TV report that Cashman had told the court he "does not believe in punishment."
A startling statement, if true. But the AP veteran requested the court transcript and ran an eye-opening article several days later based only on the facts, and the facts were that the judge never said what Ch. 3, and some other media outlets, had reported.
While that article may not have won him much praise at WCAX, it demonstrated an admirable commitment to getting the facts right. It also made him a nightly target for the #1 right-wing trash talker on Fox "News" -- Bill O'Reilly.
O'Reilly went on a three-week crusade, crucifying Judge Cashman and anyone who defended him. Certainly, getting slimed night after night by name on the national airwaves by so prominent a right-wing mob leader must have made Graff's AP bosses take note?
We don't know, because AP management isn't talking. Secrecy is the order of the day at the world's largest news service.
Sen. Leahy's chief of staff Ed Pagano called Graff's firing "shocking." Informed we'd be reporting that Graff's decision to publish the senator's open-government column got him canned, Pagano said he had "no information to either confirm or deny it." Big Ed wondered aloud "how open government could be partisan?"
A free press, mes amis, is the key to having an open government, and this unfortunate episode comes in a long line of recent oversights by America's free press. Instead, it's been a free reign of terror for the Bush administration. Constitutional rights have been ignored, the U.S. Treasury is in a shambles, and Big Oil is running its own war, with the U.S. military -- especially our National Guard weekend warriors -- as their private security force. As St. Patrick wrote in the statement AP censored:
The right to know is a cornerstone of our democracy. Without it, citizens are kept in the dark about key policy decisions that directly affect their lives. Without open government, citizens cannot make informed choices at the ballot box. Without access to public documents and a vibrant free press, officials can make decisions in the shadows, often in collusion with special interests, escaping accountability for their actions. And once eroded, these rights are hard to win back.
Once again we're reminded that the only thing 1984 author George Orwell got wrong was the date. With Big Brother controlling the White House, both branches of Congress and the Supreme Court, taking over AP was only a matter of time.
P.S. One other thing. Mr. Graff says he plans on being in his familiar anchor seat Friday evening for the next edition of "Vermont This Week" on Vermont Public Television.
Might be worth watching, eh?
The Cause of War -- The bloody and senseless Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rove bloodbath in Iraq enters its fourth year this week. And Bush is out on the stump saying everything's going just fine!
Is anyone better off today than they were four years ago?
Back then, it was a war fought because, our president said, we were threatened by Saddam Hussein's deadly weapons. America's press fell for it, and America's public followed like sheep to the slaughter. So why did America go to war?
In the past week, "Inside Track" has gained a little insight into the true answer from what may at first appear unusual sources.
Jim Douglas is the Republican governor of Vermont and a Bush supporter. Last week he went on a surprise trip to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to visit Vermont soldiers.
Brian Dubie is the Republican lieutenant governor of Vermont and a Bush supporter. He's also a former Vermont Air Guard pilot.
Last week Brian Dubie was addressing a UVM event titled "Future Possibilities in Sustainable Energy Solutions." The war was not the topic that day -- the "Green Valley" was. But it was Doobie-Doo's rather frank remarks about the war in Iraq that turned a few heads.
"This focus is on energy," said Dubie. "You pick up the newspaper today, The Burlington Free Press, top of the fold, our governor's in Iraq," he pointed out. "Well, that's about energy," said the Doobster.
The war's about "energy," eh? And here we thought it was about fighting global terrorism and spreading freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq!
Brian was obviously referring to the vast oil reserves beneath the Iraqi desert -- oil desperately needed for America's fleet of low-mileage cars and trucks. Thanks for being so honest about it, Brian.
On Saturday, Gov. Douglas held a press conference at Camp Johnson. He'd been whisked through the war zone on low-flying helicopters. Except for at one stop, the only Iraqi people he saw were on the ground below as he flew over. His only ground-level contact was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad.
"What I'll remember," said Douglas, "is when an Iraqi guard who was on duty at the tomb saw the two-star Pentagon general who was traveling with us, he immediately snapped to attention and saluted an American general!"
Vermont's governor, a war supporter from before Day One, took that salute as evidence "that there certainly is a good working relationship and increasingly successful one between the American and Iraqi forces."
Whatever you say, Guv!
Douglas said he thanked the troops "for the service that's being rendered to our great country," and assured them that the efforts of "those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice are not in vain."
Pretty much standard rhetoric with the timeless line about sacrifices "not being in vain." We heard the same line in the 1960s about sacrifices in Vietnam. But how and when will we know?
"Well, we'll obviously have to wait and see how history judges the operation," said Douglas, "but someone described Iraq as basically a rich country that is temporarily poor."
Unlike Afghanistan, he noted, "they have the resources there, human, natural and economic, to be a real player in the world economy."
The Guv didn't mention "oil" specifically. He didn't have to.
Impeachment Update -- The Addison County Democratic Committee passed the "Rutland Resolution" on a voice vote Monday evening. It's on the agenda for Thursday's gathering of Chittenden County Democrats. The resolution calls on the Vermont Legislature to pass a similar impeachment resolution and forward it to the U.S. House. Under House rules, such a state-passed resolution can be used to set the impeachment wheels in motion.
Democratic State Chairman Ian Carleton anticipates a special state committee meeting on the matter on April 8.