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First Lady Media Fly-By Leaves VT Press Out in the Cold 

Published June 30, 2011 at 12:19 p.m.

Curious what First Lady Michelle Obama is going to tell hundreds of people attending two political fundraisers in Burlington today?

Good luck finding out.

The Vermont press corps found out in the past 48 hours that the fundraisers are off limits to local media — with one exception. Print reporters from the Burlington Free Press will be allowed to cover the two campaign fundraisers. They will file a so-called "pool" report, which means a story that is released by the White House to the rest of us chumps (and the national press corps, too).

In other words, one perspective from the events for all Vermont media and Vermonters to consume. How fair and balanced.

State House reporter Terri Hallenbeck will be covering the Sheraton event while Molly Walsh will cover the ECHO dinner.

No word from the Obama campaign — or Freeps officials — regarding how or why the Gannett-run daily was chosen as the go-to outlet.

What, were they worried about contending with the crush of Vermont's media? All ten of us? Sheesh.

The only event where more than one media outlet is allowed in is the highly-staged and scripted event with the Vermont National Guard and assorted military families.

Can you imagine the outcry — nay, the outrage! — from Democrats and Vermont's liberal cognoscenti if this was a GOP First Lady swooping into Vermont to scoop up cash for her hubby's reelection and the only public press shots of her will be with local troops?

Yeah, me neither. Mission accomplished!

I'm sure there'll be plenty of anti-war Democrats lining up to shake the First Lady's hand, I mean, shake a sign at the motorcade yelling "No Blood for Oil!" and "No Justice! No Peace! U.S Out of the Middle East!"

Um, yeah.

First Lady Obama will be in Vermont today to thank Vermont troops for their hard work and sacrifice overseas and to launch a new program, Joining Forces, which is an organization that provides help to military families while loved ones are deployed and for soldiers when they return from the battlefield. A similar program already exists in Vermont and is co-chaired by Marcelle Leahy, wife of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

After the 3:30 event with the troops — at which Vermont media is not allowed to cover live, or take shots that the Secret Service dislikes or talk to people in the crowd — Obama will swoop by the Sheraton and then a pricey dinner at ECHO.

About 900 paying ticket holders will attend the Sheraton rally and another 100 or so folks will be at ECHO. Tickets for the Sheraton rally ranged from $50 to $500. According to a report obtained by Seven Days, 879 people have tickets to the event, and the fundraiser will raise about $115,000 for the Obama reelection campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The dinner is a smaller crowd but much pricier tickets: 100 tickets were being sold; attendees could spend as "little" as $5000 or as much as $28,500. I guess it depends on whether you have an appetizer and dessert. That event is apparently sold out.

Do the math and the Obama campaign will walk away with more than $600,000 for just a few hours' work.

By comparison, when First Lady Laura Bush visited Vermont in 2006 to stump for GOP congressional hopeful Martha Rainville at the Inn at Essex and raised $150,000, reporters were allowed to attend the fundraiser, talk to attendees and report on the assorted speeches by political dignitaries. No direct interviews with the First Lady and no live coverage, but beyond that, the restraints were few. Unless you consider being sequestered hours in advance and cordoned off in a press "freedom" pen a restraint. Hey, it's a post-9/11 world.

The Obama hope and change crowd is a bit more scripted than even the Bush team. There are definitely more restraints on the media this year than in 2006. I guess that's the price for living in a post-post 9/11 world, eh?

Though, to be fair, the visit by Vice President Joe Biden last year was typical of a visit by a White House official. Some restrictions, but all Vermont media were welcomed to the fundraising event at the Patrick Gymnasium. Believe me, there was plenty of room leftover for ticketholders.

The number of cameras being allowd to film First Lady Michelle Obama at the Vermont National Guard event is six. Seven Days videographer Eva Sollberger wasn't allowed to attend because her camera would have made seven cameras. Ditto, whose Digger-in-Chief Anne Galloway this morning penned a missive questioning the lack of media access.

Galloway told Seven Days she — like every other media professional I've talked with in the past three days — was bounced around like a pinball by Obama campaign and Democratic officials for weeks regarding access to the events. It wasn't until late Tuesday that the picture became crystal clear— no local media access inside the fundraisers.

Galloway didn't even learn until the last minute that she could attend the Guard event. And by that time she was told: No camera. No video.

Even Vermont's biggest TV station has had its share of tribulations trying to cover the First Lady's visit. WCAX News Director Anson Tebbetts told Seven Days via email that the restraints at the Guard event are pretty typical for a presidential-esque visit, but the fundraisers are a different story.

"That's been a challenge for sure," said Tebbetts. "We were told by an Obama campaign staffer from Chicago that there would be no broadcast reporters allowed at the Sheraton. Only print pool. This means no video of the event. No interviewing guests. No interaction between First Lady and guests."

The control around ECHO, Tebbetts noted, went beyond today's dinner.

On Tuesday night, WCAX scheduled a visit for Wednesday morning to ECHO for a basic story about prepping for the gala dinner. On Wednesday morning, WCAX was told by ECHO officials that the White House and Obama campaign didn't want pictures of the set up, so WCAX called off the story.

"We are all curious why? But we will still cover the fund-raising events even if we are pushed back from Leahy-Echo to neighboring towns," added Tebbetts.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.

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