VTDigger Stifles Media Democracy

For people in Brattleboro who want to know what the state legislature is doing, the best option may be to read VTDigger. The mission of the Vermont Journalism Trust, owner of the popular news website, is to “produce rigorous journalism that explains complex issues, promotes public accountability and fosters democratic and civic engagement.”

What's less clear is how much the group wants itself to be subject to public accountability and democratic and civic engagement.

Melvin Mencher is a journalism professor at Columbia University. He said years ago, "As I drove across the country from New York to San Francisco, I sampled newspapers along the way.... The only life I could discern was in the letters columns. There people spoke their minds—on how their U.S. senator stood on gun control, on abortion, on taxes. Surprisingly, several letter writers favored higher taxes to pay off the debt. There was anger, excitement, passion in these letters, a sense of involvement unmatched by the news or editorial columns."

VTDigger does not allow people to comment live on articles. The New York Times does. VTDigger publishes just two letters per day. Sam Gale Rosen is VTDigger's opinion editor. He told the Valley Post, “We edit and fact-check every submission. That takes quite a bit of time and resources.”

While the New York Times's resources dwarf those of VTDigger, the Vermont site does employ a staff of 30 people, plus two interns, according to its web site.

The VTDigger web site doesn't say how its board members are chosen, or who chooses them. By contrast, Pacifica Radio, which owns radio stations with powerful FM transmitters in New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, the San Francisco area, and Washington, DC, has a board elected by anyone who donates $25 a year or volunteers three hours a year.

Neale Lunderville is a member of VTDigger's board. He is the CEO of a fossil fuel company in Vermont that has been the subject of well-attended protests by environmental groups. He did not respond to an email and a phone message from the Valley Post seeking comment for this article. Neither did VTDigger's CEO.

Victor Pickard is board chair at the Northampton, Massachusetts-based group Free Press. He is the author of the book “Democracy Without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society” and he is Professor of Media Policy and Political Economy at the University of Pennsylvania. In a voice phone interview on May 9, Pickard told the Valley Post, “Letters should be part of the news media. It's one of the few ways the public can engage with the media. It requires resources to moderate letters. You can't let neo-nazis' letters go unedited. There is such a thing as hate speech. It can be dangerous, for example election deniers, or vaccine deniers.”

Pickard went on, “Some people say, 'Let all ideas circulate and, like Darwin, the best ideas will rise to the top.' That's wrong. Some voices are silenced by people with louder voices who dominate the discussion. Journalists should go out and interview people who are silenced by corporate power and capitalism. I'm aware of VTDigger but I don't know it well. All newsrooms should engage with the community. There should be democratic oversight. From what you said, it sounds like VTDigger should be run more transparently and democratically.”

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