An improper response by state police – Vermont Digger Commentary

By Bradley D. Myerson
July 19th, 2018

It is outrageous that a taxpayer-funded Vermont State Police public information officer has viciously attacked the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus for its coverage of the murder of a Department of Public Safety employee. Such inappropriate and inflammatory criticism by the VSP spokesman, Adam Silverman, threatens the independence of the press which is the cornerstone of a democratic society.

When a quasi military organization such as the Vermont State Police believes it enjoys the right to demand how crime and criminal justice matters are reported, the public’s right to know is clearly threatened. The state police spokesman’s criticisms were entirely unjustified. Far worse, he obviously intended to intimidate both the reporter who wrote the article and the Times Argus editor, as his tweets generated a hysterical public outcry against them both. It is truly shameful that this was done in the name of the Vermont State Police.

After the article about the late VSP employee was published, both Silverman and VSP Director Col. Matthew Birmingham — who should know better — publicly lambasted the Times Argus before a corrective article could even get into print. It is an embarrassment that neither Birmingham nor VSP supervisors reviewed or even edited the inflammatory content of Silverman’s tweets. Birmingham charged the Times Argus editor that the article misrepresented the truth of what happened to Courtney Gaboriault. However, a fair reading of the article shows instead that Birmingham’s opinion was clearly wrong. Indeed, Silverman’s criticism was not that the article was misleading but that it simply spent a disproportionate amount of space discussing the perpetrator and not the victim. Thus, Birmingham criticizing a factually correct article as a “misrepresentation of the truth,” as he put it, simply because he disagreed with its content, proves he believes in “alternative facts.”

Newspapers should be free to report on crime and criminal justice matters as they see fit, without law enforcement dictating the tone or content of what is written. Reporters and editors are certainly not immune from mistakes. Here, the Times Argus timely and creditably responded by preparing a separate article about the victim which had not yet been published by the time the state police jumped all over the reporting. Yet the Times Argus editor’s later heartfelt written apology was somehow not enough to placate Silverman and Birmingham.

The repeated attacks by the state police against the Times Argus for what the VSP deemed “improper reporting” should worry anyone concerned about an independent and open press. Birmingham and Silverman have, by their actions, raised serious questions about the impartiality and integrity of the Vermont State Police. They have no right to tell the Times Argus, any reporter or other news outlet, what should or should not be published. This type of media intimidation is routine for Russia or China, but should never be tolerated here. The state police should be roundly criticized for this regrettable behavior.