Random acts of journalism: The Lemming Dive

Governor Shumlin made quite a bit of news at his February 14 news conference. There was his actual policy announcement: a new effort to allow high-school students to take college courses (and earn up to a full year’s worth of credits), and open up new opportunities for workplace experience through internships and apprenticeships.

Then there were all the questions about the more controversial elements of his budget plan: slashing the state’s share of the Earned Income Tax Credit; imposing a lifetime cap on Reach Up benefits; his newfound insistence that his reform ideas for education, tax, and welfare are all part of one big indissoluble package; and his depiction of tax hikes and benefit reductions as “compassionate” while opponents of his vision are the “cruel” ones. Quite a few verbal missteps and overstatements, frankly.

Lots of big issues swirling around the Governor’s office and the Legislature’s consideration of his budget. Major questions about the veracity of Shumlin’s assertions, and whether his plan is big enough or sufficiently funded to achieve his goals without screwing the working poor.

So, what did the Vermont political media choose to focus on?

The goddamned airplane.

The state’s 50-year-old airplane — and the Transportation Department’s proposal to replace it — was brought up at the news conference. And Shumlin, bless his li’l ol’ pea-pickin’ heart, rolled out one of his “Vermont boy” anecdotes. And, as was the case with his naked bird-feeder rescue and his disavowal of “Gucci beer,” this one backfired on him.  

He told us that he’d flown the ancient Cessna a few times; and once, in midair, the door flew open. Our Fearless Leader, of course, didn’t panic — he simply pulled the door shut. Hahaha.

What he didn’t realize is that his cutesy anecdote opened the door to the question, “How often has he flown in the plane, and why?”

The first answer came three days later, when Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz wasted some space on the Seven Days politics blog “Off Message” by revealing — horrors! — Shumlin used the plane five times. FIVE TIMES! And on one occasion, he took the plane to a campaign fundraiser and failed to reimburse the state. The cost: $65.80.

Quite possibly the tiniest “scandal” in history.

And, naturally, it became the story du jour in the political media. The second lemming over the cliff was the Freeploid’s Terri Hallenbeck, who wrote a lengthy piece on February 18 whose title referred to “Shumlin’s high-flying,” which seems a bit over-the-top for FIVE PLANE TRIPS compared to God knows how many times the Governor has traversed the state by car. And again, only one short hop of one of those trips was campaign-related. And cost $65.80.  

WGOP — er, WCAX — has been all over the state-plane brouhaha, filing at least five stories in the past two weeks — about the AOT’s budget request for a new plane, the shocking revelation of the unreimbursed $65.80, the subsequent reimbursement, and the removal of the plane from the budget.

By now, the story has gained enough momentum that every other news outlet gets that instinctive urge to follow the herd right over the cliff.

This morning, my tastefully slim Times Argus brought me yet another exploration of this pointless kerfuffle. I sincerely hope Peter “Marathon Man” Hirschfeld was ordered by his editors to pursue the story; I’d like to think better of his own journalistic instincts.

Hirschfeld’s story gave VTGOP chair Angry Jack Lindley a chance to blow off some steam:

“Vermonters need to be concerned when they see the governor begin to use his office to access state resources and use them for his personal benefit,” Lindley added in a phone interview. “It’s a scary mentality to see taking hold.”

Oh yeah, Jack. One day it’s a short ride in an old airplane. Next day, FASCISM.

At least Hirschfeld included the only real bit of actual news in this entire waste of our precious journalistic resources: whether the state actually needs a new plane and, more to the point, whether it needs an expensive one. A point also addressed by GMD diarist BP, and by VTDigger’s Anne Galloway.

How expensive? $117,600 per year on a ten-year lease-to-own deal — a total of $1.2 million.

Now, the state has given reasonable justification for having an airplane. But does it need a million-dollar plane? A plane with a flying range of 1500 miles? Seems excessive for a state that’s about 200 miles from top to bottom.

But still, the primary focus of all this coverage was that one unreimbursed campaign trip worth $65.80. We got story after story about that, at a time when the Legislature is up to its neck in big important issues. Every f’n day, there are multiple stories worth telling at the Statehouse. Many of them go untold. There are huge questions about Gov. Shumlin’s budget, and for the most part, nobody is trying to answer them.

But those are complicated, and a gubernatorial plane ride is easy.

Bit of advice. Next time you’re looking for some direction — in the Arctic tundra or under the Golden Dome — don’t follow the lemmings.  

8 thoughts on “Random acts of journalism: The Lemming Dive

  1. but not the backfire on the Guv.

    It doesn’t seem an intentional distraction on the part of Shumlin but if the media “discussion” isn’t about how his budget hurts the poor-where is the harmful backfire that came from the naked bird feeder and bear episode ,”Gucci beer and Cessnagate?

    What is more survivable a $65 scandal or sustained attention to his out of whack budget?

  2. if it was really IN state transportation that was an issue, a Helicopter would be the cats whiskers.  

    Jump right over the green mountains and land at Shelburne Farms for the fundraiser lickety-split

    Flying to those pesky NGA meetings commercial could be the real pain in the butt, and having a turbo prop available that seats probably 6-8 folks would be a nice touch for someone looking to make friends and influence people…  

    Does the NGA thing fall under official business for the Gov or is it a non state part time job that would be reimbursed??    Who pays for these outside things?  Aside from the extra state cop on the detail getting extra overtime to protect Shumlin from people who think Vermont is a part of Canada?

  3. Hey, how many times did our old buddy Jim Douglas use the state plane for this and that?  Or did he fly by rented Lear Jet?   THAT should be part of this goddamned BIG HARD NEWS STORY.

    Also, maybe you should research, John, what is available to Governors of other states, plane wise. AND–here’s a cute idea–maybe the Governor of Vermont would make an impression on other Govs and Congress if he were driving around to events in Vermont in an ELECTRIC CAR.

    To me, this plane story is just PLAIN BULLSHIT, and you are right, John, in portraying it as such, what with all the other economic issues in Shumlin’s budget.  Perhaps the establishment media should promote the idea of a Lear Jet for the Governor, paid for, of course, by the Progressive Party’s proposals to raise taxes on the richest Vermonters.  Yeah, with the Prog Tax Plan, we could get the Gov a ‘respectable’ long range plane, an electric car, and still have money to cover all the benefits Shumy wants to cut, AND money left over to help the neediest Vermonters.

    OR–We could say to Shumlin:  “Hell, in order not to cut the Earned Income and Reach Up benefits, Shumy, you’ve got to do your traveling by horse-drawn wagon.  Michael Colby will be your driver, AND your budget adviser while you ride with him.” (and you don’t have to tip him–otherwise that ‘tipping’ would create another major scandal)

    Fer Chrissake, the Legislature wants to tax soda 1 cent per ounce–THAT’S a scandal!  20 cents on every 20 ounce Pepsi?  Guess the poorest Vermonters and lowest paid workers will be paying for the new state plane.

  4. The Greatest American Governor:  “Believe it or not, I’m walking on air.  I don’t need that goddamn plane.  I’m high as a kite, on a wing and a prayer.  Who could it beee?  Believe it or not, it’s just….HEY, shit, formula ran out…I’m gonna tax that quack a million an ounce if I get through this free fall.  Where’s the goddamn Lake?!”

  5. The bear, beer, and $65 plane ride make him look foolish, which is never a good thing for an executive. But they do divert attention from more fundamental questions.

    My read is that these “Vermont boy” incidents aren’t intentional on the Governor’s part — I think he simply can’t help himself*. To me, it’s the media’s need for “hot” stories that don’t actually require any research or thought.

    *At last week’s news conference, I was immediately to Shumlin’s right. At one point I made a little side comment about “Gucci beer.” He turned to me and said “I drink Gucci beer,” and then stopped himself, realizing that he didn’t need to dig that particular hole any deeper. But he wanted to.

  6. He can’t help himself; but i tend to think this is less because he is a helpless-hapless and more because he has a hard-wired arrogance that prevents him from second-guessing his spontaneous thoughts.

  7. A helicopter is a great idea: he can drop in on stranded towns after the next big hurricane and deliver food to the starving, too!  Make it a fast chopper, like the DART rescue vehicle and flights to DC aren’t too onerous.

    My wife said Shumlin should take the train to DC… How retro!

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