2016-08-06 / Opinion

Local media at the National Conventions: When the Fourth Estate failed Vermonters

By Meg Hansen

The confetti has finally settled. Undoubtedly, the two-week long media onslaught, covering the tumultuous Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia respectively, glutted our appetite for political news.

Indeed, the two meetings were marked with so much discord, scandal, and melodrama that Ramesh Ponnoru, writing for the New York Times, described them as “four conventions.” The peculiar disunity in both major parties reflects a larger, disconcerting trend toward conflict across ethno-racial, religious, economic, and gender lines in our society. It should give us pause for reflecting on the media’s role in an era of deep partisan antipathy.

The critical role played by the press in the political arena has been long understood. Over two centuries ago, the British statesman Edmund Burke recognized the press as the “fourth power or estate” in society (in addition to the three seats of influence in the Parliament: the Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal in the House of Lords, and the House of Commons).

Though objectivity served as the defining characteristic of serious journalism in the 20th century, it has lost its primacy in recent years. Today, many journalists regard their profession as a form of sociopolitical activism.

The above was certainly true in Vermont, when the local media establishment made no pretense of neutrality in its approach to the two national conventions. The lopsided coverage evidenced a distinct bias toward the political left.

With the exception of the Vermont Public Radio and Fox 44/ABC 22, none of the major media outlets sent reporters to the Republican Convention. In sharp contrast, all the prominent political journalists – including Jasper Craven (VTDigger), Neal Goswami (Vermont Press Bureau), Paul Heintz (Seven Days), Stewart Ledbetter (WPTZ), and Kyle Midura (WCAX) and a team from the Burlington Free Press – attended the DNC.

It should also be noted that VPR’s chief political reporter Peter Hirschfield attended the DNC, whereas another staff member covered the events in Cleveland. Isn’t it unethical for influential news sources in Vermont to brazenly neglect one of the two major political parties altogether?

While the Vermont Press Bureau, WPTZ, and VTDigger ignored requests for comment, Peter Martin of WCAX graciously obliged. Martin responded, “We did not send a crew to the RNC. Our focus during the presidential primary process was on Bernie Sanders.”

The meteoric rise of Sanders has shone the spotlight on Vermont – a state that seldom enjoys attention at the national stage – and thus the desire to emphasize Sanders’ presidential campaign is understandable. Nonetheless, the above statement appears to be an excuse because reporting on the Sanders campaign does not preclude following notable events on the other side of the political aisle.

The following are but a few reasons why the Vermont media should have taken note of the RNC. First, the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, won the Vermont Primary. Second, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio (where the convention took place) came a close second in the Vermont primary vote.

Incidentally, Kasich stirred up controversy by refusing to attend the RNC. Third, Vermont Republican delegates included two members on the rules committee, which played an influential role in light of the rift between Trump supporters and the “Never Trump” faction of the GOP. The Vermont delegation also comprised National Committeewoman Susie Hudson who was elected as the Secretary of the Republican National Committee last year, and 17-year-old Jace Laquerre of Colchester who was the youngest delegate to the RNC in 2016.

The argument that the Vermont press wanted to pay close attention to Sanders is further weakened by the overtly biased nature of the local reporting leading up to and at the Democratic Convention. By fawning over the Sanders as a pop culture icon and consistently failing to criticize his policies, the Vermont media did not meaningfully add to the comprehensive national coverage.

Moreover, as members of the Vermont press live-tweeted various speeches, celebrity performances, and other high jinks at the DNC, they made it abundantly clear that the stories from Philadelphia would not center on Sanders alone. Therefore, by abandoning fairness in determining what qualifies as newsworthy, the media establishment abused its function as a gatekeeper of information.

The media’s troubling decision to favor the Democrat National Convention over its Republican counterpart should give all Vermonters (irrespective of political affiliation) who value equity and egalitarianism cause for concern. Further, it raises pressing questions regarding the ways in which journalistic bias influences the reporting of local issues in Vermont.

Consequently, the onus now falls on us – the readers and viewers – to boldly question the misinformation and spin, demand accountability, and settle for no less than dispassionate coverage from our local media outlets. Will we rise up to the challenge?

Meg Hansen is a cultural critic based in Windsor, Vermont. The Vermont House Republican Caucus consults with her communications firm, Pierson A. Harleth & Co.







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