Sue Allen: column was “deeply troubling and misleading”

Sue Allen, special assistant to the Governor. VTD/Josh Larkin

Sue Allen, special assistant to the Governor. VTD/Josh Larkin

Editor’s note: This letter refers to Anne Galloway’s column about Gov. Peter Shumlin’s press conferences, “Off the Fifth floor: Inside baseball, Shumlin style.”

By Susan Allen, Special Assistant to the Governor

A recent column by Anne Galloway asserts that Governor Peter Shumlin is inaccessible to Vermont reporters and does not allow sufficient time for questions during news conferences. She states as fact that reporters are “lucky to get 10 to 15 minutes” to question the governor.

Anne Galloway knows better. What Anne did not inform her readers was that the very day that her column was published, she spent not an hour, not two hours, but thirteen hours of unrestricted time traveling with Governor Shumlin throughout the state. I find it deeply troubling and misleading that in a column criticizing the governor for not being accessible, Anne failed to mention that she was about to spend the entire day with him.

Equally troubling are Anne’s assertions about the time the governor spends answering reporters’ questions. As a former journalist, I was trained to focus not on assumptions, but on facts – and to let the facts tell the story. Anne’s assertion that reporters are “lucky to get 10 to 15 minutes” with the governor is flatly untrue. I know that not only because I field – and in the overwhelming majority of instances, grant – requests from reporters to speak with the governor, but also because I looked at the facts. Here’s what I found:

1. Governor Shumlin has held 47 press conferences and 25 bill signings since taking office, all of which provided opportunities for reporters to ask whatever questions they wished to ask. In addition, the governor routinely responds to phone calls from reporters on whatever subject they wish to discuss.

2. Of the 19 press conferences that we have on video file, the average period of questions and answers from the press was 27 minutes. Ironically, Anne wrote in her article and in subsequent communication with me that Governor Shumlin should aim for 20 to 25 minutes of Q&A time in his press conferences. I am not holding my breath that Anne will write a follow up column praising the governor for exceeding her target.

3. On only three occasions was the press conference stopped by the governor’s staff due to time constraints. In those three examples, the Q&A period was 15, 35, and 33 minutes. The other press conferences ended because there were no further questions from reporters.

Anne is entitled to disagree with the substance of Governor Shumlin’s press conferences, but making up facts is quite another matter. I have enjoyed a good relationship with Anne over the past seven months – in the vast majority of instances when she has requested interviews with Governor Shumlin or members of his administration, those requests have been granted. While I haven’t always agreed with her conclusions, I have respected her work as fair and thorough. This instance is an unfortunate exception.

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  • edd foerster

    Got any cheese to go with that whine?

  • Andrew Lory

    After reading Ms Allen’s article regarding press time with the Governor, I would like to hear Anne Galloway’s response. Anne?

    • Dear Andrew,
      Thanks for asking.
      I stand by my column about the press conferences.
      I did spend Thursday with the governor. I was grateful for that opportunity. I will be writing about that experience.
      I view the pressers, however, as a separate matter. It’s typically the only chance I have to get word from the governor on the issues of the day (or week). I have a hard time getting calls back, in part because my calls haven’t been returned, and in part because I don’t have the governor’s cell phone number or email address, so if he does call, I have no way to reach him directly if I happen to be on the phone, which I am, constantly, as a reporter. I have to call Sue Allen or Bill Lofy to reach the governor.
      If the presser is off-location, time for more general questioning, unrelated to the dog and pony show, tends to be limited and it’s more difficult for me to get all the questions in. Granted, I’m a print/web journalist who needs more detailed information. Other reporters in TV broadcast don’t seem to have the same problem.
      The more challenging issue generally, is getting past the soundbites to real answers. The governor often gives exactly the same responses to different questions every week in the press conferences. It’s not so uncommon, but it makes it difficult for journalists to understand how the governor is moving ahead with his ambitious agenda. Like it or not, we’re responsible for finding out whether the governor is achieving his goals. We do this not to be troublesome. We do this because it is our professional obligation. We work hard to obtain information in order to keep an eye on government for the general public.
      The trip I took with the governor was the first time I felt I had an opportunity to better understand his thinking and approach to governing. I won’t go into it much now, because I want to give it the full treatment the experience deserves, in a story. But it was a rare opportunity, one I’m grateful for.
      Next week though, I’m sure I’ll have more questions, and there won’t be a trip in the Chevy Le Grand with Gov. Peter Shumlin.
      I live in hope of more substantive press conferences with a consistent Q and A time of 20 to 25 minutes.

  • Ralph Pace

    I think it would be prudent, Anne, to address the numbers and times cited by Susan. Your problem with a cell phone isn’t the Governor’s problem.

  • Al Salzman

    A big thank you to Anne Galloway for keeping Shumlin’s feet to the fire about access and transparency. Sue Allen’s complaint brings to mind the great quote from Upton Sinclair: “You cannot make someone understand something when their salary depends on not understanding it!” Also, Shumlin’s appraisal of Obama being the smartest person he’s ever met is pathetic in its obsequiousness. But if that is true, it makes Obama’s betrayal of his supposed principles even more regretable.

  • Isn’t this great! Galloway banging on the door. Governor and staff irritated at said banging while they try to govern. Galloway irritated at sound bite politics. Governor irritated at being asked inconvenient questions.
    Galloway at the top of the journalism game, afflicting the comfortable. Governor at top of his game, getting governing done. Sounds like a strong democracy to me. If both sides keep it up, it’s good for all of us. There has not been a governor this good and this fast for a long time (Douglas lovers will cringe at that but he was just so different). The press is out maneuvered by the governor ever day. They are getting tired of it. Galloway is merely reflecting the tug and pull of what the relationship should be. And the internet makes it all the more exciting. Enough with the faux rules of objective journalism. That is so 80s and 90s. Go get ’em Anne. He is a big boy and really good. He can take it. And so can she.

  • Jane Stein

    I find this troubling because I generally trust Anne and I generally trust Gov. Shumlin.

    Susan Allen appears to have the facts to back up her assertions, unless there’s a legitimate argument to be made that the Gov. answers questions longer when there’s a videocamera in the room.

    If Shumlin’s answers too often lack substance and are unsatisfactory to the reporters, though, that could be creating the impression that his Q&A’s are short.

    Perhaps Anne could informally survey some of her colleagues and see what their impressions are.

    Also, PR 101, Susan Allen. When your guy is criticized by someone in the press, don’t come charging out of the box with the hostility you show in this piece. Remember “A soft answer turneth away wrath”? You don’t do him any favors by treating journalists as if they were political opponents.

    If Anne has the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the gov. gives short shrift to Q&A’s, especially with his predecessor’s habits still fresh in mind for comparison, there’s something wrong here. You’d do better to adress that as a problem, rather than addressing Anne as the problem.

    And Anne, I hope you’ve started keeping a log on those Q&As. You might even post the times here at VTDigger once a month or so.

  • An example in support of what Anne is saying: Ask Governor Shumlin about his support for wind energy, and the answer is always the same: “Our people in southeastern Vermont have sacrificed for years and now it is time for others to sacrifice.” That’s it. No substance. Same phrase over and over. And he has no interest in engaging in any discussion about the sacrifices he is making people endure. Brick wall, door slammed in their faces, end of story, don’t want to talk about it. I don’t call that good governing, and I am grateful to Anne for trying to get more substantial responses from Governor Shumlin. On Vermont This Week last night, Terri Hallenback of the Burlington Free Press backed up Anne, and noted that the Governor’s responses often lack substance.

  • Drew Smith

    Fewer dog and pony show soundbites from, and more in depth interviews and question periods with the Governor are in order. We need more reporters like Anne, who are not afraid to ask the difficult questions, even if they may make the Governor uncomfortable. I also appreciate the frustration of hearing the same superficial answers to questions that deserve a more detailed response.

  • Bruce Post

    I am not going to weigh in on this particular issue, but I would like to bring to the public consciousness something Dick Snelling, my old boss, said during his all-too-brief tenure as Governor in 1991.

    At one particular news conference, he explained his view on the importance of the news media in a democracy. He asserted that it was his job as Governor to develop and propose policy and to implement the laws. Yet, in order for those policies to be successfully understood and accepted, the Governor had to do a good job explaining his/her proposal. Yet, it was the news media — newspapers, TV and radio — that had the awesome responsibility of not just reporting — “ripping and reading” the news — but in analyzing, explaining and critiquing. He felt that the press was an essential element of democracy and its success.

    Now, Dick Snelling was not exactly a fuzzy teddy bear in his relationships with the media. He expected it to exercise sufficient intellectual rigor to understand things and report them correctly. (He demanded the same of this staff.) Still, I never forgot this important perspective he conveyed.

    I am showing my age in saying that I miss the likes of Mavis Doyle and Vic Maerki. I also miss the recently-deceased Andy Zentz. I regret that Jack Hoffman is no longer a stalwart with the Vermont Press Bureau. I am proud that my local paper, the Burlington Free Press, has been tenacious in writing about the importance of open government and has sought to pull back the curtain that too many political wizards hide behind. I regret, however, that daily papers are in demise, that some moguls have hallowed them out to make a quick buck and that more journalists cannot earn an adequate living contributing to a healthy democracy. Finally, I also lament that too many former journalists have moved from reporting the news to spinning it as lobbyists and PR mouthpieces.

  • Edd Foerster

    “There has not been a governor this good and this fast for a long time (Douglas lovers will cringe at that but he was just so different).”

    That’s nonsense. It’s not just Douglas lovers who are cringing. It’s us Dean lovers who are cringing. Dean was a great governor for 11 years. He was competent, scrupulously honest and straightforward, presided over a great economy, and never ever ever suffered from Shumlin’s reputation for dishonesty, slickness, sating whatever his momentary audience wanted to hear, and holding his index finger up to the polls and pandering to the left-wing base of his party. I never heard of Dean crashing people’s military funerals to campaign. Shumlin can’t hold a candle to Dean. Shumlin’s “fast” alright, but not in the way you meant it.

    Granted, Shumlin is more dynamic than Douglas, but I’ll take Douglas’s reputation for honesty and integrity any day.

  • Steve Wright

    Keep digging Anne. The more they squeal, the closer you’re getting. When you can get a reaction from the gov’s Communications Director and another from a principal in the lobbying firm that practically shares an office with the gov then you’re on to something.

  • Earl J Moniz

    I wonder “what authority there was to report the news before journalism degrees?” I wonder what credentials Ben Franklin flashed in order to get his publishing/reporting/documenting career underway? The question now becomes, “What authority will exist AFTER journalism degrees?” With the advent of the Internet, cellphone cameras, lightweight camcorders, live Internet video-conferencing, IMovie, MovieMaker, and vlogging, journalism degrees are quickly becoming old school. Everyone has the ability and tools to become a solo journalist … not everyone has the proper personality and dedication to become successful at it. Those who can become successful know full well that it does not take four years to understand the principles of primary source material, verifying/confirming/refuting reports from unknown/non-primary sources, and the proper use of the English language and grammar to fully describe or explain an incident or event.

    Don’t believe journalism is a dying endeavor?
    Take a look at the newspaper industry and other print-for-news endeavors… are they growing or waning?
    Take a look at the major broadcast news endeavors? Are the major networks growing or waning? Are the major cable news networks growing or waning?
    As our society becomes a little wiser about the slant the major news networks bring to their endeavors (both conservative and progressive) AND our society also grows wiser in their ability to conduct research online, solo journalists will have their say above and beyond the politically motivated major broadcast and cable news networks. might prove worthwhile…

    as well as …

    although his grammar skills could use a little honing (wink), he is, after all, an outdoor guy documenting adventures for the rest of us; a faux pas from time to time is entirely understandable… much like my fascination with the ellipsis … (grin)

    The bottom line:
    we did very well BEFORE journalism degrees, and we will do just as well AFTER . . .

    “Born on Valley Isle,
    Home now, North Carolina;
    Aloha y’all…”

    Until that time… Earl J.

  • What an interesting discussion…
    glad I tuned in just in time while it’s still FRESH.
    Helps me to reinvigorate the challenges of running Rural Route Today – Forest N Farm! Go VT Digger… and good for you, Susan, to press for a full disclosure of Galloway’s long day with Governor Shumlin.
    Looking forward to more on this subject.
    And good luck to Bianca Slota as she moves into the next phase of her career.
    Robin Reid

  • Duncan Kilmartin

    Anne’s experience as a journalist correlates to mine as a legislator in the minority party in meeting with Shumlin.

    Peter Freyne called Jim D. “Governor Scissorhand”, but Sue Allen’s statistics suggest Peter would be calling Peter S. “Scissorhands” in the plural.

    Also, Jim D. did not always have several tax paid servants answering for him when the “heat” was on during these numerous press conferences and ribbon cutting ceremonies.

    It certainly appears that Liz Miller and Bill Sorrell are simply policial/campaign extensions of the Governor upcoming campaign. Liz has shown herself to be debasing the Public Service Department into an extension of the Governor’s wishes for his foreign corporate cronies, public interest be damned, as has Deb Markowitz at ANR.

    Sue Allen’s “whine” timing is most interesting. Wasn’t it simply trying to force Anne into making up for what Shumlin himself perceives as Anne’s lack of gratitude for giving her 13 hours, probably in one of the new “gas guzzling”

    Peter couldn’t pick up his cell phone and tell Anne what he really thought. He had to hide behind Sue Allen’s skirts to send the following personal message to Anne, for showing her independence:

    “Anne, I elevated you above all other journalists. I invested 13 hours into you. I saw you as a member of the team. This is what I get for it. A “trash” piece that coming from you could cause my “opponents” credibility and injure my self perceived image as “making the tough decisions”. That will be the last time you get “special” treatment unless you do a puff piece on me for that 13 hour investment. Well, I guess you will get “special” treatment, but it won’t be 13 hours of access…it will be persona non grata. Do the puff piece and we will forgive you this transgression, as Suzy has suggested. Otherwise….”

    Sue Allen’s piece is most unprofessional and reflects directly on her and Shumlin’s “childish sandbox mentality” and his obvious inability to be open, transparent, and accountable, or take the mildest of criticism.

    His legislative and campaign practice of “pre-emptive” retaliation and “instant misinformed and misleading response” to criticism, clearly shows Peter does not live in the real world of the citizens and taxpayers of Vermont, as Jim Douglas did.

    As I have said more than once, over the past 35 years, to Chris Braithwaite, Publisher of the Chronicle, for whom I have the most profound respect as a journalist and fellow citizen, and who has been severely critical of me on occasion, I say to Anne:

    “I respect you and your integrity unconditionally as a journalist, and regardless of your criticism of me that will not change. In addition, I will never let your criticism prevent me from responding to your inquiries when I can do so.”

    Anne, go forth with the courage, diligence, honesty and integrity that you have displayed so well at the helm of Vermont Digger, and let the chips fall where they may.

    Duncan Kilmartin

    • Doug Hoffer

      Rep. Kilmartin said that, “Jim D. did not always have several tax paid servants answering for him when the “heat” was on during these numerous press conferences and ribbon cutting ceremonies.”

      First, I see nothing wrong with a chief executive asking those with expertise to respond to questions from reporters. For example, making the Commissioner of DPS available to answer questions is not a weakness but a sign of the Governor’s trust and his willingness to delegate.

      Second, Rep. Kilmartin’s comment about “paid servants” is both rude and disrespectful. Moreover – and as we all remember, Gov. Douglas had a bloated staff of PR people throughout state government that cost taxpayes a pretty penny.

  • Alex Barnham

    Cruelty is not a virtue. Use a little lube.

  • Connie Godin

    Wow, never seen so many comments. Love the Gov, not a journalist so have no opinion on the discussion, but certainly a discussion.

  • Andrew Lory

    Thanks for the rapid and thorough response to my inquiry regarding Sue Allen’s comments. Illegitimi non carbarundum

  • Christian Noll

    Well done Anne,

    I think Gov Shum should book and extra room next trip to Dominica.

    Looking forward to hearing about your day with the him.

    The public has a right to know, and its your job to tell them. Keep up the good work.

    Queen Anne has spoken, and the truth she speaks.

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