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Nancy Smith

Gov. Rick Scott, Hero; Press Corps, Zero

January 30, 2011 - 6:00pm

Thank God we found out Thursday night that the governor and his guests "dined on mesquite grilled swordfish, corn macque choux, and Florida strawberry shortcake."

Or did they?

Can the people of Florida be absolutely sure? What if diners were really inside that mansion chowing down on roast beef, spinach casserole and English trifle?

How might that have torpedoed the ship of state?

Luckily, we had reporters from The Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times and others in the press corps to confirm the menu.

None of them were dinner guests, mind you, but it wasn't for lack of trying. More about that later.

Noses pressed against the front gate of the governor's mansion, seething and twittering and probably freezing, a group of the press corps' most diligent reporters waited the two or three hours it took for diners inside to take a tour of the residence, eat and share stories. It was their journalistic obligation, to be sure.

Finally, when the front door of the mansion opened and guests emerged and made their way to the gate, the tsunami of reporters engulfed them. All but one of them.

That would be me.

I had been inside the mansion, too. I was one of the governor's guests. I am, or was technically, anyway -- part of the press corps.

Yet, I managed to pass by the crowd outside unimpeded, asked not a single question by reporters who were busy getting details of what went on inside from the three legislators among Gov. Rick Scott's six dinner guests.

In case you didn't catch that, allow me to repeat it: They were asking the three legislators, not the person in the press corps, what was discussed inside the mansion.

The legislators they are committed to watch.

The reason they wanted to be inside the mansion, remember?

I had been right there, walked right past them. Not a question was I asked.

This tells you a couple of things about how the media elite think and how they cover the Tallahassee landscape these days:

  • They dont think conservative Sunshine State News journalistic ethics rise to their gold standard. Thats why they truly believe, even with 42 years as a newspaper journalist, if asked what went on in the mansion, Nancy Smith would probably lie.
  • Sunshine is in the tank for Rick Scott. After all, it failed to defend the medias anti-Rick Scott editorial board positions during the elections, relentlessly picked on their darlings Bill McCollum and Alex Sink in columns, and most offensive of all, Sunshine staffers trust their readers not the press corps to tell them if theyre operating responsibly and ethically and if theyre getting the news right.

Here's the bottom line: Anybody with a fully oxygenated brain can see that the media elite in Tallahassee are a dysfunctional family of spoiled children. Until Rick Scotts inauguration, they called the shots. They had friends in Capitol offices to help them get information, gain access, trade favors. They made the rules.

Doesnt happen so much anymore. Scott makes the rules now. He brought in a lot of new people, chased out many of the old staff, leaving the press corps at square one to forge relationships all over again.

Other governors, Charlie Crist in particular, invited reporters to attend social meetings at the mansion as one irritated reporter put it. But the word the reporter left out was hand-picked. Crist hand-picked the reporters he invited. He most certainly had his favorites.

Come to think of it, looking back at last year, I cant recall a Crist invitation for anybody at Sunshine State News.

I maintain that the media elite are not outraged over some potential violation of the Sunshine Law. They are having a temper tantrum. In 2010 they lost two elections, access to power they were used to and the upper hand at the Capitol. What they won is a governor who may not dislike them, but hes discovered he plain doesnt need them.

And I think their disdain runs deeper. As an old newspaper hand, I feel their pain. With sell-offs, layoffs, buyouts of senior staff and the replacement of columnists by blogs, the daily-newspaper industry not only in Florida but across America is foundering in plain view. Relevance, pride, fear -- it's all there.

During the tedious, two-day badminton match last week between the press corps and the governors office negotiating how and who would be selected for pool reports, the press corps wanted reporters chosen from a random list, the governors office wanted to do the choosing. I agreed that Sunshine State News would go along with the decision of the press corps majority.

Ultimately, negotiations broke down. There would be no pool, said the press corps, and no exclusives. The press wouldnt go.

The story should be over. But, no. The message I distributed to the group, in which I was promised confidentiality, ended up at the governors office, presumably as a way of embarrassing Sunshine State News.There had been no confidentiality. Instead

  • Folks at the governors office read the message back to me, word for word. Imagine my surprise.
  • Capitol press corps reporters were over at the governors office knifing each other in the back to get to the Thursday night event. Several reporters, I was told, contrary to the decision of the press corps, told the governors office, We will come (to the governors dinner) if we get an exclusive. So much for integrity.

The governors office offered me the opportunity to join two future speakers and the House majority leader for dinner at the mansion Thursday night. Not to work as a pool reporter, because that had died but to get an exclusive.

I wrenched the knife out of my back and took the offer. The rest you know.

What I brought away from the dinner wasnt the menu though the food itself was outstanding it was introductions, story ideas, information to deepen coverage down the road. I appreciated getting a sense of the three House personalities -- Reps. Will Weatherford, Chris Dorworth and Carlos Lopez-Cantera -- and meeting two members of Gov. Scott's staff, also dinner guests. I was only sorry the governor's wife Ann had another engagement that evening.

The governor himself? Utterly charming. He greeted me with, "I believe I own Sunshine State News" -- a reference to a press corps rumor. "Hi, boss," I replied.

What struck me most about our new governor is what he calls focus and I call enthusiasm for the task at hand. He could barely stay in his chair when he talked about his schedule.

Every conversation came back to jobs and prospects to deepen the economy -- the fun he had talking to the governors of Texas and Louisiana, Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal; the different ways hes trying to connect with companies in other states and in Central America; the potential of the Panama Canal widening; the progress hes making talking to officials in Washington.

Do we want this governor to be Charlie Crist? I dont think so. Two hours with Rick Scott and I defy you not to believe he can deliver those 700,000 jobs in seven years, and probably a whole lot more.

I came away with a certainty that Gov. Scott isnt busy learning how to be a governor. Hes busy being a governor.

Meanwhile, the media elite may never get over their fit of pique. They could spend the next four years picking a fight with the governor. I have no way of predicting what theyre going to do.

What I do know is that Sunshine State News believes professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. If we discover Gov. Scott is wandering down the wrong path in the garden of good and evil up here, we will report it.

But what Sunshine is not going to do is be party to any agenda that wishes the governor to fail or impedes his success. If the governor fails, Florida fails and the plight and uncertainty of long-suffering Floridians only worsens.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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