VTDIGGER 10/17/22
By Michael Shank

This commentary is by Michael Shank of Montpelier, who teaches in the graduate schools at New York University and George Mason University.

Critiquing a political campaign without getting sidelined as sour grapes isn’t easy. There have been many drafts of this article, attempting to get the tone right. Ultimately, a desire to improve Vermont political campaign coverage prevailed here — however imperfect this piece lands with #VTpoli audiences.

First, disclaimers. The concerns below were already flagged, as they happened, for media outlets. This piece compiles those concerns to reflect and improve the #VTpoli ecosystem. Further, I wasn’t working on, or promoting, either congressional campaign below. I had no professional investment in their outcome. Vermonters made their primary pick, and this piece does not question that decision but rather aims to improve how campaigns are covered.

Disclaimers aside, it’s worth reflecting, learning a lesson, and course-correcting. That’s how we’ll make this political environment more inclusive and inviting for future candidates who watched this congressional race and are considering running.

Let’s begin with media bias. Having worked on several national congressional campaigns, I recognize that media bias is common. But if we want future races to be fair and welcoming, we should take care to avoid it.

There are several examples worth highlighting but let’s start with obvious ones. The media outlet VTDigger, which provided much of the coverage and hosted multiple debates, profiled the leading candidates in early summer. As evidenced below, bias appears to creep into its narrative.

What’s clear to me, and others, is how VTDigger’s political reporters positioned one candidate within a negative, skeptical frame, while positioning the other within a significantly more positive frame. I’m not alone in my analysis. Other media experts called out VTDigger for apparent bias in these profiles, too, and social media users of #VTpoli messaged me with similar concerns, unable to go public.

Examine the VTDigger profile on Molly Gray and compare with the profile on Becca Balint. The piece on Gray is a scrutinization, presenting her as unqualified and inexperienced. The headline poses a doubting question — “What has she done so far?” — framing the piece as a glass-half-empty interrogation.

The piece on Balint is noticeably more positive — “Vermont Senate’s self-proclaimed ‘peacemaker’ wants to take her negotiating tactics to Washington” — presenting Balint as a peacemaker in headline and story.

To be clear, interrogation in campaign reporting is welcome. VTDigger should interrogate candidates, but news media outlets should apply it consistently (unless there’s been an endorsement of a candidate, which some Vermont newspapers did pre-primary). That’s not what appeared to happen here.

Dig deeper into the text and bias emerges in content analysis. The VTDigger profiling of Gray consistently used words like “blasted” or “blasting” as well as “lunged,” “demanded,” “barbed” to describe persona and actions (this occurred throughout the primary, not just in this profile). The picture painted isn’t a kind one, nor is it neutral. It’s oriented to convey characteristics that aren’t suitable for a congressperson. By contrast, Balint doesn’t receive the loaded negative narrative treatment; no “blasted” or “barbed,” no “lunging” or “demanding.”

The profile piece on Gray also leads readers to think poorly of previous employment, suggesting that the International Committee of the Red Cross’s humanitarian work was problematic “lobbying” and encouraging skepticism in Gray holding security contractors accountable for human rights abuses. Balint’s profile piece, in contrast, features positive quotes by campaign surrogates and a supportive interview with her chief of staff, a move that wasn’t equally employed for Gray.

VTDigger’s bias was evident in other ways. Early in the race, it published articles on each Balint endorsement when the same strategy wasn’t employed for other candidates (I and others flagged this for VTDigger, which subsequently employed it for all candidates). The same occurred in press conference coverage. VTDigger also appeared to use, as did Seven Days, Vermont’s Public Records Law to diminish Gray’s work as an assistant attorney general. Notably, VTDigger wouldn’t even use that title in its profile of Gray.

Now, VTDigger and Seven Days can do whatever they want. But there’s a knock-on effect. It shapes the narrative for Vermont readers. If you tracked #VTpoli on social media, you saw it. Vermonters picked up on the way the media framed the candidates.

Aided by VTDigger’s profile, as well as Seven Days’ framing of DC lobbyists’ campaign involvement, Gray became the “inexperienced corporatist,” despite Gray having more diverse experience than Patrick Leahy when he ran for the U.S. Senate at age 33 and despite corporate money backing both Gray and Balint campaigns. No number of countervailing facts could disabuse #VTpoli of this notion.

When the Gray campaign criticized unlimited outside spending by political action committees, for example, it got labeled with no substantiation as “homophobia.” When news emerged that the crypto billionaire backing Balint’s campaign funneled over $1.1 million through an LGBTQ+ PAC — identified by a campaign poll as the most politically palatable — the reputational damage was done.

It was surprising to see #VTpoli stoop so low and equally disappointing to see VTDigger amplify these criticisms rather than investigate funding sources. Perhaps Vermonters didn’t want to accept that politics were dirty here, too, and that Big Crypto dollars were keen to influence the race (VTDigger, to its credit, called out redboxing early in the race). In reality, candidates and Super PAC backers coordinate all the time. It’s a national problem (see Washington Post’s investigation), and I trust Vermont will have its eyes wide open next time.

I could go on and others will. #VTpoli is meeting this month to discuss this very media bias. As someone who works with the media professionally, Vermont’s coverage of the campaign, and the public’s amplification of it, was a huge disappointment. Why? Because this could be a serious deterrent to future qualified candidates who want to run but are afraid of the bias. The lasting nature of some of this campaign’s reputational harm still hasn’t been addressed and sends a strong message to future candidates.

It’s time that Vermont media and #VTpoli did better. The next candidate is queueing, and they deserve our best treatment. Let’s not let them down.