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AP's reputation on the line

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When the state’s congressional delegation, joined by Gov. James Douglas, files a protest to a private company for dismissing a long-time employee, the average reader should be interested. We can’t recall another time in Vermont’s history that it’s happened, which makes the outrage and disappointment expressed by Gov. Douglas and Sens. Patrick Leahy, James Jeffords, and Rep. Bernie Sanders, all the more poignant.

The protest is over the sudden dismissal of Chris Graff. A familiar face on Vermont Public Television’s “Vermont This Week,� Graff not only worked as the Associated Press’ bureau chief for the past 27 years, but he has been one of the state’s most prominent and well-respected journalists — as the managing editor of a staff of fine reporters, as a keen observer of state politics and history, and as a moderator of numerous political debates and public forums. He has become, as one editor recently wrote, an institution in Vermont.

While neither the AP nor Graff will discuss the dismissal, pending possible legal action, allegations as to cause of his dismissal have focused on a recent incident involving the distribution to its member newspapers of a column written by Sen. Leahy. The column was written at the bequest of the American Society of Newspaper Editors to be published during a national Sunshine Week. Leahy is regarded as one of the foremost experts on the topic and is often sought out for comments on the topic from newspapers and other media across the nation. The column was included in the AP’s Sunshine Week package for Vermont.

Higher ups in the Associated Press, according to an editorial written in the Brattleboro Reformer, pulled the column from the state’s package, however, because they apparently thought it was too partisan and critical of President Bush’s efforts to clamp down on the freedom of information. They apparently thought Leahy’s opinion piece, needed a rebuttal, and without one was too partisan to run.
Wrote the Reformer in its editorial: “What Leahy wrote was hardly controversial. He has been a staunch defender of open access and open government for decades and he discussed the issue in his column in a measured and nonpartisan way… The AP should be embarrassed by their decision to fire Graff and the perception that it gives to Vermonters that the AP has given in to the clique that constantly screams about ‘liberal bias’ in the news media.�

The congressional delegation’s letter struck a similar theme and is worth quoting for the weight it adds to the debate. The letter was addressed to AP president and chief executive officer, Thomas Curley:
“Dear Mr. Curley: Along with our Vermont constituents, we are stunned, outraged and saddened by the summary dismissal this week of longtime head of AP’s Bureau Chief, Chris Graff.

“We send this letter without Mr. Graff’s consent or even his knowledge, and he probably would have asked us not to send it if we had asked. But the prominence of the position, the importance of AP to our state and its communities, and the poor treatment of a prominent and respected Vermont journalist of Chris Graff’s caliber make this a matter that we cannot ignore or passively accept. We realize that the Associated Press is a private, member-owned newsgathering service, but AP’s vital presence in Vermont, as across the nation, clearly propels this decision into the realm of public interest and concern. The public has placed its trust in AP and, in turn, the public expects a degree of openness from AP that has not been forthcoming. Accordingly, we expect a substantive response to our requests.
“As news subjects ourselves, we have not always enjoyed or agreed with AP’s coverage decisions — the same can be said by any frequent news subjects about the news organizations that regularly cover them — but we agree that, by any appropriate measure, Mr. Graff has been fair, objective, public-spirited, courageous and dedicated to the public’s right to know the truth. He has been a tremendous credit to AP in Vermont and beyond….

“There have been many reports suggesting the reasons for Mr. Graff’s abrupt termination. Although we choose not to fuel speculation, we believe that if any of these reports were founded, it would represent a serious breach of trust by AP with its loyal Vermont readership. If AP wants to repair this rift, it must work to clear the air — to let the sunshine in — on this most unfortunate conclusion.

“We support Chris Graff’s immediate reinstatement if that is what he would want. Beyond that, we also ask for answers to questions that continue to proliferate in the wake of this decision.

“Chris Graff is the personification of the great attributes of good journalism: professionalism, courage, steadiness and public service by honoring the public’s right to know. We would like to believe that attributes like these, lived day-to-day by devoted reporters like Chris Graff, will never go out of style.�

The AP’s reputation hangs in the balance, but it’s also another sign of how far out-of-whack American values have become these past five years when a respected news organization feels compelled (out of political deference to conservative critics?) to censor political columns written by the state’s U.S. senator. It truly is outrageous.

Angelo S. Lynn

Addy Indy News Digest

The latest in Addison County news, every Monday and Thursday.

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