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Dave Gram Political Columnist

Podcast Featuring Bill McKibben Is Too Political for Facebook’s Tastes 

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
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  • Tim Newcomb

If I asked you to think of a Vermont resident who combines eloquent descriptions of impending catastrophe with a manner almost too mild for his subject matter, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a better answer than author and climate activist Bill McKibben.

He's one character in this story. The other is Karen Kevra, the gifted flutist and impresario these last 20 years or so of Capital City Concerts, which brings world-class musicians to Montpelier and, more recently, to Burlington and Middlebury. 

The concerts have been on hiatus during the pandemic, but you can't keep a good woman down, and Kevra has responded by creating a podcast series called "Muse Mentors." A performer, after all, has to perform. The interviews with artists, musicians and at least one writer are something to take in. They're so polished they remind me of Kevra's concerts at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier.

With the release of each of her first seven podcast episodes, Kevra bought a bit of advertising on Facebook to let folks know they were available. She was starting to develop a following. When McKibben agreed to be interviewed for her eighth program, Kevra was excited by the catch.

"I am convinced that this is the most important episode I will create," Kevra told Fair Game. "His work is really important."

She turned again to Facebook, but it was no dice. The tech behemoth rejected Kevra's ad. Too political, it seems.

Despite days of appealing, attempting to submit the ad again and otherwise trying to communicate with Facebook, Kevra said she has had no human contact with the company, only automated messages like this one:

"[The podcast] mentions politicians or sensitive social issues that could influence public opinion, how people vote and may impact the outcome of an election or pending legislation."

Yes, McKibben made passing and negative references to presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. And yes, Facebook banned political advertising during the fall election season, winning praise for keeping people's news feeds from filling up with misinformation.

But Kevra said she was much more interested in talking with McKibben as "a humanities guy." The interview was devoted far less to politics than to a McKibben mentor, the novelist and poet Wendell Berry. McKibben read a Berry poem and talked about becoming a mentor himself, advising the Middlebury College students who founded the climate action group 350.org. He also talked about growing up in Lexington, Mass. During his teenage years he wore a tricorn hat as he led tours at the Minute Man National Historical Park, where the first shots of the American Revolution were fired.

In an email to Fair Game, McKibben joked that his Revolutionary history may be what tripped Facebook's algorithms. "I was definitely anti-Redcoat and pro-Minuteman, so that may indeed be the problem," he said.

He added: "The climate crisis isn't inherently political — it's really a question of physics and chemistry. But the enormous power of the fossil fuel industry has, over the years, made it into a politically divisive question; addressing it means, unfortunately, addressing those politics. So Facebook, if it holds to this stance, may find itself in the difficult position of avoiding what is the most important question our planet will deal with this century."

Facebook didn't reply to emailed questions from Fair Game.

There's an old saying among computer programmers that if you feed bad data into a machine, you won't get reliable results: "Garbage in, garbage out." 

If Facebook can't tell the difference between political ads about the election being stolen and a guy who writes a weekly column for the New Yorker and penned the groundbreaking climate change book The End of Nature, somebody at the company is feeding garbage in.

Good editing is a complex, nuanced and intensely human process. The computers at our social media companies have a long way to go to figure it out.

Language Lesson

Three years ago last week, Gregory Bombard of St. Albans was driving in that city when he was pulled over by state Trooper Jay Riggen because Riggen thought Bombard had given him the finger.

Bombard didn't cop to the one-finger salute, and the encounter was nearly over. But as he pulled away, Bombard now admits, he did flip the bird at Riggen and cursed. Riggen pulled Bombard over again, detained him for an hour, ordered his car towed and cited him into court for disorderly conduct.

While it may not always be a good idea, a citizen is allowed under the First Amendment to express displeasure to a government official. Being rude to a cop clearly falls within that category. The specious disorderly conduct charge was later dropped, and now, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont's help, Bombard is suing the Vermont State Police and Riggen, who has since been promoted to sergeant, saying the cop violated his rights.

In a hearing of the Vermont House Judiciary and Government Operations committees the other day, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling, who oversees the Vermont State Police, faced a challenger who was much more polite than Bombard: first-term Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky (P/D-Essex).

Vyhovsky is a social worker with extensive training and experience in using de-escalation to calm people who are in crisis. She wanted to know why the police could not rely more on de-escalation techniques in their encounters with cantankerous citizens. 

"I've heard testimony from the [Vermont Criminal Justice] Training Council that there is no mandate for de-escalation training and there is plenty of mandate for use-of-force training, so there is obviously an emphasis on use of force over de-escalation," Vyhovsky told Schirling. She went on, "And your own testimony just said it is impossible to de-escalate certain situations. And [in] my work as a social worker, I will tell you that if our focus first is on de-escalation, that is simply not true."

Schirling replied that sometimes the sorts of techniques used by social workers are insufficient to bring a situation under control. "When you roll up to a pharmacy where someone is wielding a sword and running at people, what would you suggest we do?" he asked.

Vyhovsky acknowledged that force must sometimes be used but added, "What I'm saying is that there are plenty of instances where we have seen people in mental health crises die because people weren't properly trained in use of force."

A short time later, Schirling resumed the debate, addressing his remarks to Judiciary Committee chair Maxine Grad (D-Moretown).

"And if I may add one more thing as well, Madame Chair," Schirling said, "and this is in part ... relative to the somewhat uppity exchange the representative and I just had..."

I won't bother defining "uppity" here or discussing its historic use to demean Black people and women, because everybody knows its definition and context. Everyone, that is, except, as of last Thursday morning, Vermont's public safety commissioner.

In a statement of apology he issued later on Thursday to VTDigger.org, Schirling said, "Shortly after testimony this morning, I was made aware that a word I used has a disturbing history that I was previously unaware of."

On Friday, he emailed Department of Public Safety staff, writing, in part, "This offers me, and us, an opportunity to reflect on the language we use — sometimes inadvertently — the history of the use of language in our country, and how it impacts those around us. I hope this reflection helps our team avoid at least some unintended events like this in the future."

Schirling told Fair Game on Monday that he did not wish to comment further.

Schirling's comment got me thinking again about the St. Albans incident. Was Bombard too much in the trooper's face? Or was it merely a case of a police officer perceiving that? How many cases of police brutality or other civil rights violations stem from police failing to tolerate criticism or rudeness?

Did Schirling de-escalate his exchange with Vyhovsky? Or did he escalate it with his use of the word "uppity"?

We'll have better law enforcement in this country when every police officer understands that, as the Declaration of Independence promised, we all are created equal. No one, and no one's remarks, ever should be regarded as "uppity." Leadership should impart values from the top through an organization. Is Schirling doing a good job of that? I'll leave you, dear reader, to decide.

Women Rule

In last week's column, I noted that women now hold five of the top six leadership spots in the Vermont legislature, suggested that "common human foibles" — meaning those shared by all genders — of political ambition and rivalry were likely to continue showing up, and cited a case in which that appeared to have happened. 

Among several responses the column elicited was a tweet by Natalie Silver, a law student who lives in Burlington, that linked to the column and included this note: "Hey @sevendaysvt! Haven't heard from you about our letter asking media to reflect on their coverage of women in politics. You're the largest paper in VT and write the only political column. Would love to talk to you anytime."

The letter, from a new group called Vermont Has Her Back, had at the time been signed by more than 50 prominent Vermonters, including business and nonprofit leaders — and even three former governors. (More than 500 have signed as of this writing.) They called out Vermont media for being too white and male, quoting men more often than women, describing women's appearances and other offenses.

The letter also said in part, "This year for the first time in the history of our state, women hold all three top legislative leadership positions. There is one woman of color in the senate, and the very first trans woman state representative. Continuing to allow outdated evaluations of their success and worth in terms of stereotypes and casual bias no longer serves as credible coverage."

Seven Days editors spoke with Silver, who organized the letter, late last week. And just to correct the record, it's wrong to say this paper had not responded earlier. The letter was released January 25; two days later, Seven Days deputy publisher Cathy Resmer appeared on David Goodman's "Vermont Conversation" radio program on WDEV and podcast as part of a panel that discussed the letter.

I tried a couple of times to write my own response, talking about my own efforts to avoid sexist language in my writing and to cover women fairly but without favoritism. Friends and loved ones told me both efforts sounded really defensive. So suffice it to say I agree with what motivates the letter and several of its complaints, including that Vermont media need to try harder to hire more women and people of color.

The original print version of this article was headlined "No Rhythm in Algorithm | Podcast featuring Bill McKibben is too political for Facebook's tastes"

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About The Author

Dave Gram

Dave Gram

Bio:
Dave Gram was a reporter for more than 30 years with the Vermont bureau of The Associated Press, with later stints at VTDigger.org and as host of "The Dave Gram Show" on WDEV. He wrote the Fair Game column January-May 2021.

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