Congressional delegation protests journalist’s dismissal

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(Host) The state’s congressional delegation and Governor Jim Douglas are protesting the abrupt dismissal of a veteran Vermont journalist. The politicians said they’d like to see the Associated Press reinstate Chris Graff, who was fired this week after 25 years as AP’s correspondent in Montpelier. The delegation’s letter caps a turbulent week in the Vermont news media.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) In their letter to the AP, the delegation and Governor Douglas raise the same question that has swirled through newsrooms and government offices all week. Why did the Associated Press fire Chris Graff, perhaps the most well-known journalist in the state?

Graff and the AP aren’t commenting. A report published in the New York Times says that the veteran reporter was dismissed after he used the AP wires to distribute a column written by Senator Patrick Leahy. The column was scheduled to run during Sunshine Week, an AP-supported campaign that promotes open government.

Leahy says the AP owes it to Vermonters to explain what happened.

(Leahy) “I think with the importance that Vermonters place on getting good, substantive news we have a right to ask that question. And I think that everybody – whether they are Republicans, or Independents, or Democrats – knew that Chris Graff was, if nothing else, was totally fair.”

(Dillon) The Associated Press bills itself as “the essential global network.” A satellite dish outside the Montpelier AP office connects the Vermont operation to 240 bureaus worldwide. AP is a news cooperative – it’s owned by 1,500 member news organizations. So it shares and re-distributes stories produced by hundreds of different news outlets. In Vermont, that means that coverage of a murder trial in Brattleboro or a double-fatal car crash in Newport is fed quickly to different news outlets throughout the state.

The AP also routinely reports on changes in the news industry. But the news of Graff’s firing never made it on to AP wires. Company spokesman Jack Stokes says he can’t talk about it.

(Stokes) “I can confirm that Chris Graff is no longer with the company. But we routinely do not talk about personnel.”

(Dillon) Graff, says he can’t talk, either. The New York Times says he signed a non-disclosure agreement.

But AP’s clients in Vermont are demanding an explanation. Emerson Lynn is editor and publisher of the St. Albans Messenger. He says he understands the need to keep personnel issues confidential. But he says the AP, as a news cooperative, is a different kind of business.

(Lynn) “We’re based on public information, sharing the information, full disclosure that type of thing. And when I’ve got readers who call me going ‘tell me what’s really going on here, is the AP report something I can depend or not?’ Those are pretty fundamental questions.”

(Dillon) Lynn says the column by Senator Leahy that reportedly got Graff into trouble was requested by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He says he can’t understand how running an opinion piece by a politician on the public’s right to know could get someone fired. The AP distributed a similar Leahy column last year.

(Lynn) “And so Chris is being fired for forwarding the AP a column about government’s need to be forthcoming. Do you get the irony in that?”

(Dillon) Without the Associated Press, Vermont news outlets would have a hard time following international news. For smaller news organizations, AP is essential to covering Montpelier. But in an era of declining newspaper readership and a profusion of online news sources, the AP has struggled to remain globally competitive.

Former AP journalists worry about where the news service is headed. Nancy Shulins is a Connecticut writer who worked 30 years ago in the AP’s Montpelier bureau. She went on to win numerous writing and reporting awards, and was the first woman to be named an AP special correspondent.

(Shulins) “The AP that I joined in the mid-70s had a commitment to excellence, accuracy and integrity that was second to none. I don’t know that I could really speak to its agenda today. But like many of my former colleagues I find myself wondering how any news organization could summarily dismiss such outstanding journalists as Chris Graff and hope to maintain that high standard. I’m concerned about it, sure.”

(Dillon) Larry Laughlin heads the regional AP office in Concord, New Hampshire. He says the wire service maintains a strong commitment to accurate and balanced news reporting.

(Laughlin) “We’ll find a strong person to lead the bureau and we’ll work to make our report even better. This is no different than the vision we have for every AP bureau and there is no weakening of that commitment in Vermont.”

(Dillon) Chris Graff will remain as the host of a weekly reporters’ roundtable on Vermont Public Television. In a brief statement, Graff told his viewers it was difficult – and ironic – for a journalist not to be able to talk about why he’s suddenly in the news.

(Graff) “However, I can say that my family and I have been overwhelmed and deeply touched by all the people who have responded with support and who have had such kind words to say about my work over the years.”

(Dillon) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

Related link:
Delegation’s letter to AP

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