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Nancy Smith

Mainstreamers Behaving Badly: Could Wisconsin Happen in Florida?

April 12, 2012 - 6:00pm

If ever a story carried a ring of familiarity, the Gov. Scott Walker recall in Wisconsin is it for me. It's the story of a tea-party-conservative governor roundly disliked by unions, sour-grapes election losers and a liberal press.

Are your ears burning, Rick Scott?

The hostility toward Gov. Scott and the legislative leadership in Florida never reached the recall stage. Certainly the attempt to do the governor in was there. But the "Pink Slip Rick Scott" movement failed to collect more than 6,189 online recall petition signatures, never attracted the throngs of protesters in Tallahassee that descended on the Wisconsin Capitol and was unable to get HB 787, a Democrat recall-enabling bill, anywhere near the House floor in 2011.

Florida may not have had unions with the Badger State's muscle flex. But last year at this time the Sunshine State certainly did have a spoiled, left-leaning press corps in the middle of a temper tantrum, a press corps that didn't want Scott elected in the first place and found few of his new policies praiseworthy.

Not surprisingly, last month, after stories broke that some two dozen Gannett reporters in Wisconsin violated their corporate ethics policy by signing the petition for a Gov. Walker recall, more than one legislator in Tallahassee asked me whether such an ethical breach could happen among Florida's mainstream media.

Are you kidding? Of course it could happen in Florida. And -- apart from the MSM's all-negative-all-the-time coverage of Rick Scott during 2011, I'm happy to elaborate.

Ethical standards in MSM newsrooms across the country have deteriorated over the last 20 years. It's just a sad symptom of the times. I've said it before, I'll say it again: In the midst of chain-shuffles, sell-offs, layoffs, buyouts of senior staff and the replacement of columnists by blogs -- it's a wave of retooling that almost no dailies have been spared -- the American newspaper industry has hit an iceberg of titanic proportions.

Twenty years ago professional ethics was an integral part of newsroom discussion -- not just on occasion, but virtually every day. Advocacy journalism was only found on opinion pages or clearly marked as opinion on the front page. At least, that was the goal. That was where a newsroom ethics conversation started and ended.

In today's slimmed-down major-daily newsroom, who has time for ethics discussions?

Back in the day, journalists' behavior in the community they covered had well-defined lines. Most of us followed some sort of ethical code, for example the Society of Professional Journalists'. But now? Not always so clear.

Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, agrees that the petition-signing that happened in Wisconsin could happen in Florida's MSM:

"In this day and age," she explained, "newsrooms have a variety of policies when it comes to conflict of interest. ... Some managers are fine with their newsrooms becoming active, because they are targeting a very specific segment of the audience.

"For a newsroom that wishes for business reasons to target a wide swath of the audience," McBride continued, "it makes sense to have a conflict of interest policy that prohibits news employees from making political statements such as slapping on bumper stickers, donating to candidates or signing a petition. Because if a newsroom wants to maintain credibility across a political spectrum, it needs to reassure an audience that its individual members are not collectively biased in any one direction."

Not as firmly stated as in days of olde.

Tallahassee corporate lawyer and media consultant Florence Snyder remembers well the time when there was no blurring of the lines. She was far more emphatic than McBride that reporters signing petitions has nothing -- not one little thing -- to recommend it: "It's a terrible breach of trust with readers," she stated. "The late New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal said it best: 'You can [have a romantic relationship with the elephants] if you want to, but you can't cover the circus.'"

Explained Snyder, "Gannett and every other media company used to be filled with Mike Wallaces people with a long-term commitment to the public who were serious about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Now we have revolving doors and cozy relationships everywhere with people who get paid to lie, spin and withhold public records.

"Thats why Florida had a less-than-stellar rank in the Center for Public Integritys recent 50-state survey."

Nowhere 20 years ago do I remember an organization representing itself as a beacon of fair-minded journalism -- as the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting does -- pawn off an entirely one-sided piece as investigative journalism. Look at its website. Read "Is It Time to Recall Rick Scott?" and you tell me.

What I see -- and I don't mean to pick on Gannett -- is behavior among corporate media I've never seen before. I don't believe 20th century Gannett would have allowed a PR and lobbyist firm -- in this case Ron Sachs Communications -- to commandeer the retirement roast of Bill Cotterell, for example -- even for charity.

I don't believe back then the Poynter would have let it slide when Lucy Morgan of the Tampa Bay Times partnered with lobbyist Sarah Bascom in 2011 to throw an all-legislators-welcome "pre-session mixer" after hours at Bascomb's office. Poynter's McBride admitted at the time that it "probably wasn't ethical" if Bascom is a lobbyist whose clients had business before the Legislature that session. Which, of course, it did. (CLARIFICATION: Kelly made this statement not in response to questions about the Wisconsin recall petition, but during an early February 2011 phone call a week before the pre-session mixer.)

I'm not the only one who questions the mainstreamers' cronyism. There are folks in the state capital who think we might as well hang a "For Sale" sign on the Florida Press Center.

Looking back at the petition-signing in Wisconsin, probably the worst damage to the credibility of the journalists who took part is the excuse they offered Gannett. According to Kevin Corrado, president and publisher of Gannetts Green Bay Press-Gazette, they claimed that signing the petition wasnt a political act, but more like casting a vote in an election.

That is absurd. Petitions in any instance are political acts intended to force a question of some sort on a larger scale. In this case, its even more explicitly political, because the petitions want to use the political process to negate an election and render the ballots cast meaningless.

Considering the issues of public-employee union reform that swirl around the Wisconsin recall effort, the journalists who put their names to the petition will be the losers in the arena of public perception.

Personally, I don't think it was entirely their fault. They are victims of an upside-down industry and a profession trying with all its might to do the right thing, but too often writing new rules for the wrong things.

Ethics discussions should be a part of every MSM newsroom, every corporate office, every journalism conference.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at (850) 727-0859.

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