The postmortems on the 2014 election in Florida are being written and the ink is barely dry. But one thing that stands out for me which nobody else will talk about is how complicit Florida’s press has become with the Republican Party in this state. The death of strong Tallahassee bureaus at the major daily papers and the retirement of several senior writers has had a malign impact on the state and how it is governed. This has also created devastating consequences for the electorate.
As the Republican legislative and cabinet hegemony has solidified over the past decade they have been aided by several factors. Much of the narrative has centered around the Florida Democratic Party. Clearly the party has failed time and again, but positive signs from the party have been observed lately- more on that tomorrow. But for me, after working as the Deputy Campaign Manager on a statewide race these past few months, the decline of the print media is a major factor and has received far less attention then it deserves. In the wake of Rick Scott and Pam Bondi’s reelection, as well as the GOP gain of six House seats it must be addressed.
Rick Scott and Pam Bondi have both been reelected despite serious ethical lapses and question marks. The failure of Florida’s media to uncover the extensive connections between Bondi and lobbyists that was exposed by the New York Times last week gave our campaign for George Sheldon some late yet brief momentum. But the revelations coming from an out-of-state publication simply reminded what lapdogs many in the Florida press corp have become for the established Republican order in this state.
Some journalists in this state stand out – I was particularly pleased with St Pete Times reporter Michael Van Sickler’s coverage of Attorney General Bondi during the recently completed campaign. But many newer print journalists have opted to value access to Republican officeholders above exposing the truth about those in power. In Bondi’s case, had the newspapers done their job the last four years, I firmly believe the campaign I worked on would have been different. I believe the same about Charlie Crist’s campaign where the media’s laziness allowed “corruption” to be an issue where both candidates were suspect. But the reality is Crist is one of the few long-time officeholders in Florida who never got rich off his public service. The same can be said for my candidate George Sheldon whose sole desire in life has been to serve the public. Pam Bondi, by contrast has pushed a radicalized agenda and as the Times report demonstrated, she has been easily influenced by outside forces
The papers have also served as enablers of the excessive radicalized agenda of Republicans in the legislature. The continued ability of Republican House members to vote against the interests of constituencies in urban/suburban areas without serious press scrutiny is a bi-product of the age we live in. Newspapers are in decline, local TV news is more interested in county politics, and soft news such as sports and entertainment gossip, than the goings on in the legislature. Additionally, most political bloggers in the state who are not journalists or political consultants focus on the local or national scene, not Tallahassee. The best blogs are either run by newspapers themselves or by former newspaper writers. A problem is that these blogs are not in the face of citizens the way newspapers once were. And many of the bloggers themselves have conflicts when it comes to covering races and politicians (I plead guilty to this as well. I try to be objective but in many cases involving D v R races and ideological battles my relationships and personal views guide my writing).
Covering the Tallahassee scene has never been particularly easy. The center of Florida Government is far away from the population centers of the state making casual media coverage difficult and citizen participation and organization nearly impossible on a macro scale. Moreover, Tallahassee still has not developed the critical mass of activist organizations and citizen groups that the other capital cities of large states have had for some time; Sacramento, Austin and Albany all have a culture of activists and citizens lurking around the legislature in those other mega-states. In Tallahassee, we have a few dozen very well meaning activists who carry the fight for the citizens of the entire state. With the exception of the indispensable Saint Petersblog which has several top writers covering the Tallahassee and state political scene, access to information is difficult.
News bureaus have been slashed, and less resources both for the print edition and online editions of the top newspapers are devoted to chasing stories related to the cabinet and legislature. Additionally, many of the most senior and seasoned journalists covering the legislature have moved onto to the national scene, leaving an irreplaceable void. Both institutional knowledge and tried and tested reporting techniques have left with these reporters departure and have proven nearly impossible to replace. Thus, proper scrutiny and oversight that was previously provided by the media over the process has waned. Junior writers who came of age in an era of Republican hegemony and who have no understanding of how things once were get easily cowed by the spin from the Scott, Bondi, and legislative teams.
While the Times, Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post and Orlando Sentinel still cover the legislature and cabinet as well as they can with more limited resources, the articles including those online are read and acted on by fewer and fewer citizens. The void could be filled by the TV media but that is not happening. In the Orlando and Tampa/St Pete markets the local television stations do not cover the legislature as consistently as they once did. Much of the TV media in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market act as if Tallahassee is some far flung destination in a foreign country. (This furthers the disconnect between southeast Floridians and the rest of the state and the misunderstanding many southeast Floridians have about the legislative process. If they read the Miami Herald or Palm Beach Post they would be fine, but many don’t.)