The continuing saga of the Tampa Bay Times’ ethics "challenges" inveigled its way into a St. Petersburg City Council race when the newspaper jettisoned its equal-time rule to protect the relationship it has with a local political operative.
That operative, Barry Edwards, is a member of the Poynter Institute of Media Studies Foundation, which owns the Times, still the largest newspaper in Florida. Edwards’ pervasive high-profile presence in political campaigns -- none of which the Times ever opposes -- violates the journalistic ethics its editors have always professed and the Poynter has taught religiously for decades.
What's going on?
Edwards is campaign manager for Robert Blackmon, a Realtor who failed two years ago to win a council seat, not even making the runoff. The Times, whose dire financial situation has been widely publicized, including its reliance on real estate advertising, has downplayed concerns voters have expressed about having a second Realtor on the Council.
The Times refused to publish a response to its editorial from Blackmon’s opponent, local attorney John Hornbeck.
The Times’ recalcitrance in granting Hornbeck a 150-word response -- which it has done for all candidates who failed to win the paper's endorsement in the past -- underscores its conflict of interest with its immersion in local political campaigns.
The collusion alone constitutes over-the-top professional corruption, but that has spilled into the “news” pages through the underreporting, non-reporting, and skewing of facts regarding the council race. The Times' readership is not being served; the newspaper’s self-interest now outweighs the public interest.
Hornbeck’s response was factual, not libelous, and seemed to meet the criteria the Times usually gives opponents of its endorsed candidates. Here is the response the Times refused to publish:
“The Times did not disclose the following three very relevant facts that the reader should consider in evaluating the Times’ endorsement of Blackmon: First, Council Chair Charlie Gerdes (who is term-limited and whom I would replace) endorsed me, and Mayor Kriseman supports that endorsement. Second, Mayor Kriseman stated: 'I do, however, have some concerns about Mr. Blackmon’s lack of knowledge and involvement in West St. Pete as he has only lived in the district long enough to qualify to run.' Finally, the Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, and why that is relevant is because a man by the name of Barry Edwards, Blackmon’s campaign manager, is listed on the website of the Poynter Institute as being on the Poynter Foundation Board as a 'Political Consultant and Strategist'. The readers should consider these facts, specifically the last fact, when determining the weight and independence of the Times’ recommendation.”
Incredibly, Tim Nickens, editor of the Editorial Board, rejected the rebuttal, writing in an e-mail to Hornbeck, "There is no conflict of interest involving Barry Edwards and the Times editorial board. So I am rejecting this version of your reply.”
One would think -- particularly at a newspaper of the Times' once-venerable character -- it should be readers, not the editor, who decides whether a conflict exists.
Arrogance, hypocrisy and pandering keep getting worse at the Tampa Bay Times.
Jim Bleyer, a former reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, identifies himself politically as an "NPA who leans left." He is the creator of tampabaybeat.info and floridiocy.com.