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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

State Defends Use Of D.C. Firm To Steer Health Exchange News Coverage

The Shumlin Administration is defending a decision to pay $2.8 million to a Washington, D.C. based consulting firm GMMB to help with the roll-out of the new health exchange.

Much of the money paid to the firm was used to create advertising and other materials to alert people to the changes in health care.

But some went to shape media coverage, which strikes some people, including Democratic Representative Jim Condon, as wasteful.

“$500,000 for this Earned Media project, was just a complete waste of money,”says Condon.

As part of its Earned Media plan, GMMP compiled a list of reporters and editorial boards that state officials should reach out to.   The cost of the list: $8,600.  Condon, who opposed the Governor’s health care initiative, says it may be a sign of bigger problems with containing costs under the new system.

“To need a consultant in Washington to tell you that you should talk to some reporters about this, or editorial boards.  It’s just common sense stuff,” says Condon.

GMMB was also paid to survey the media landscape and search online for news coverage of Vermont’s health exchange, including stories by VPR, and rate them as positive, neutral or negative. 

According David Mindich is professor of media studies, journalism and digital arts at St. Michael’s College, “It’s a weird metric, the ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’.”

Mindich says accuracy should be the yardstick used to assess coverage, not whether a story casts a positive or negative light on the exchange.

“To apply 'thumbs up, thumbs down' to honest reporting, I think that’s unfair.  It certainly is an intrusion into the kind of good journalism that’s sometimes hard-hitting that should be practiced,”says Mindich.

He says there’s nothing essentially wrong with a state paid consultant’s efforts to shape media coverage and it doesn’t compare to a Nixon enemies list or the use by the Bush Administration of paid op-ed columnists and government produced news videos.

Mindich sees no problem with hiring an outside consultant to help with something as unprecedented as the introduction of the health exchange.

On that point Department of Vermont Health Access commissioner Mark Larson agrees.

“Relying solely on the internal resources of the state would have I think left us in a position where we wouldn’t be meeting the needs of Vermonters,” says Larson.

Larson says the money and resources spent on trying to shape press coverage of the health care exchange is warranted because many Vermonters get their information from local news outlets.

“We know the media has a job to do and we believe they do it well, but we also believe that it was a reasonable component to have in our broader outreach efforts,” he says.

Larson says the outreach and marketing the state is doing was required and approved by the federal government.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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