Lately, we've been hearing many barbed comments around town about "Shades of Gray," the new series in the editorial section of The Burlington Free Press on the dicey topic of ethics in journalism. As one city official sarcastically put it, "It just doesn't pass the straight-face test."
Oh, really? So you think Vermont's Gannett-chain daily lacks ethical standards? You think the six-week series inviting reader participation is just a sham?
Okay, let's take a closer look.
Earlier this year the Gannett Co., owners of USA Today and 73 daily newspapers, including Vermont's largest, stepped up to the journalism pulpit and announced brand-new "guidelines on ethical news-gathering conduct for newsrooms." (No, the ethical guidelines did not address the company's union-busting policies or sleazy advertising tactics.)
Gannett's ethical guidelines begin with a mom-and-apple-pie commitment to "seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way, serving the public interest, exercising fair play, maintaining independence and acting with integrity."
So far, so good. The orders from the Gannett mothership in Arlington, Virginia, require that each of the papers in its chain "will inform the public of the new ethical standards." Thus, here in Vermont, we're blessed with the "Shades of Gray" series. But, how are these noble principles actually being implemented?
Take the one area that over the years has caused more Vermont readers and public officials to gag than any other — the Freeps policy on corrections.
As we know, everybody makes mistakes. According to the new Gannett guidelines, "When errors occur, the newspaper has an ethical obligation correct the record and minimize harm ... Errors should be corrected with sufficient prominence that readers who saw the original error are likely to see the correction."
Sounds good. Let's examine how our local daily implements the policy.
Last week, the political ground in Vermont and Washington, D.C., shook when it was reported in Sam Hemingway's column that Sen. Patrick J. Leahy had attended a Sen. Jim Jeffords fundraiser "at the home of Republican benefactors Richard and Amy Tarrant." In fact, reading the column, readers no doubt believed Sam the Sham had attended the event. Not so.
The report that St. Patrick, a life-long Democrat, attended a fundraiser for Jeezum Jim, a life-long Republican, quickly reverberated around Capitol Hill. Hemingway’s “scoop” was flashed around the nation on “Hotline,” a subscription political Internet site that tracks the political goings-on in every state in the union. Calls started pouring into Leahy’s office, including one from Democratic State Sen. Jan Backus, who has already announced her intention to run against Jeezum Jim in a rematch of the 1994 race.
But the Freeps report was just plain wrong, in more ways than one. Leahy did not attend Jeffords’ fundraiser. No way. No how. So how did the ethically challenged Freeps face up to the challenge of correcting Sam the Sham’s screw-up?
The following day, in the small print of the paper's tiny "Setting it Straight" section, the Freeps noted that "due to an editing error, a column in Wednesday's Free Press was unclear."
Unclear? Jeez, now what column could that be?
Unfortunately for readers — especially Backus —few noticed the tiny correction. Though the new Gannett guidelines require that a correction receive "sufficient prominence" so that readers of the original Hemingway error noticed it, that was far from the case.
And there was no correction whatsoever of Sam the Sham's misidentification of the owners of the lovely home where the fundraiser took place. Richard Tarrant is not an owner of Fairholt. Mothership to Freeps? Hello?
But recent examples of ethical sleaze at Vermont's Gannett-chain daily extend beyond the newsroom. The Freeps has been running house ads lately promoting their employment classifieds. In their ad, they state 83 percent of job hunters "in NW Vermont" turn to the Free Press, while just 3 percent turn to the Buyer's Digest and only 1 percent check out Seven Days. A 1998 study by a New York firm is cited as the proof.
However, it wasn't until 1999 that Seven Days started beefing up its employment section, and it's doing quite well, thank you very much. Just check it out. It's gotten great reviews from customers.
And if The Burlington Free Press is such a successful advertising venue, then why have Freeps recruiters been bugging Seven Days' ad reps at work lately with enticing job offers? (Job offers they've instantly rejected.) Maybe the Freeps would like to place an employment display ad in Seven Days? Very reasonable rates.
Pretty sleazy tactics, eh? Maybe the Freeps advertising department isn't covered by Gannett's new ethical guidelines. If it were, we'd recommend they start grasping the ones about "acting with integrity" and "reporting the truth."
Back to the War — Just three months until the Vermont Legislature takes the field once again, and it's clear the battle lines between Gov. Howard Dean and the liberal House leadership remain intact.
Recently Rep. Sally Fox, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, sent notices secretaries and department heads inviting them to testify before her committee later this month. Fox, in a new move, intends to conduct pre-budget hearings.
The reaction from the Dean administration?
In a memo obtained by Seven Days, Administration Secretary Kathy Hoyt claimed a constitutional foul, noting Fox’s hearings, “conflict with the governor’s statutory powers relative to submitting budget requests to the legislature.” Any requests from Fox’s committee to Dean cabinet members must be forwarded to Hoyt. Separation of powers, you know.
Nice try, Sally.
Rising Star? — Nothing like having a Sanders storm City Hall, only this time it’s Levi Sanders, 30 year-old son of Congressman Bernie Sanders. Levi works at the Food Shelf and was a forceful critic of City Hall’s handling of the supermarket issue at Monday’s meeting. He even has the same hand gestures and vocal cadence as the old man. Frightening.
Last week Levi made quite the impression at the Progressive Party organizing meeting, where he championed the cause of low-income people. He also tried unsuccessfully to amend the bylaws so Burlington residents “and registered voters” could be members of the Burlington Progressive Party’s city committee, Levi’s nomination was rejected for one simple reason — he currently lives in Colchester, though he is still registered to vote in Burlington.
Media Notes — The Earth moved Monday evening as Marselis Parsons, WCAX-TV's veteran anchorman, was joined by a female co-anchor — Sera Congi. Holy mackerel! Like the Waterbury State Hospital, Ch. 3 is a Vermont institution, and our phone was ringing off the hook. After all, WCAX has always had a lone male anchorman read the six o'clock news.
"We have improved our format and our style tonight," declared Marsillyiss on the Monday broadcast. "We thought that we should be more contemporary."
One might suggest the new, lively newscast presented by WVNY-TV has had quite an impact already on the Vermont television news scene. As one viewer put it, "I listen to Ch. 3 for news, but I watch Ch. 22 to see the reporters."
What's next? Sports-guy J.J. Cioffi in drag? Hmmm. Not a bad idea.