Florida’s media and Republican hegemony

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.

 Newspapers always covered the Legislature as well as they could. The St. Petersburg Times in particular did it exceptionally well, with a full bureau of seasoned reporters and an editorial board second to none in the nation. In the early days of the GOP majority, when newspapers still mattered, the Times held Jeb Bush and the legislative majority accountable for the misdeeds they regularly committed. The Times still does this good work, albeit with less reporters, but fewer and fewer Floridians are getting news from the Times and other daily papers. As newspaper readership declines and more and more readers get news online, less and less scrutiny is placed on the legislature by citizens. Enterprising investigative reporters don’t seem to exist with the exception of Van Sickler and a handful of others. Political reporters have largely become more interested in covering “horse races” then holding Rick Scott or Pam Bondi’s feet to the fire.

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.)

 All of these factors have led to a more arrogant and entitled GOP majority and  complete control of the cabinet. Sure Florida’s Democrats who have lost 17 of the last 18 races for statewide office bear much of the blame. But so too does the media. As the press is squarely in decline, and the voices of accountability and reason are fewer and farther between, the Republicans become more and more comfortable in controlling our state.

11 comments

  1. Barbara DeVane · · Reply

    Excellent article Kartik!! Barbara

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  2. democrats on the ground · · Reply

    WOW!

    This could be the article of the year!!!!!!!!!

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  3. yes. palm beach post not so great. I don;t know whats going there. But this whole issue with Obama , prob started by the Republicans but definitely carried out by the tv press on all the talk shows. We had a great election here and we called out of the Obama Haters. Thats all he had -no substance. He put out signs with our candidate and Obama to put a spoon in it and stir the hate. Only what happened is people loved the sign. one of my neighbors has in their yard i don’t have the heart to tell them what its about.

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  4. defining progress · · Reply

    Also, the existing print media might step up their game if there were a true statewide politics and policy journal — or even better, could partner for content.

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  5. Obama’s approval is at 39% and he is the one pushing Crist down our throat. The reality is we need leaders. In Florida we have maybe a handful that are not either sponsoring bad legislation and screaming otherwise or simply acting like children. Time to keep some of the good like Deutch, Pafford and Dwight. The rest are pretty pathetic.

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  6. You left out a classic–Many of us in Hillsborough County read La Gaceta (in print).
    Patrick Manteiga, is editor of La Gaceta–the oldest family-owned, minority-owned and targeted newspaper in the United States.
    http://lagacetanewspaper.com/

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  7. Well written article, but you forgot to mention News Service of Florida, with one of the largest Capital Bureau’s in the state of Florida, with 6 full time reporters.

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    1. Good point Kurt…and yes NSF is indispensable and critically important!

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  8. Tampa Bay Demo · · Reply

    Maybe if the party itself actually had a better media operation this would be different maybe if the Sheldon campaign had hired a communications professional instead of relying on you to do every little thing in that campaign they would’ve been better off. No insult towards you but you were wearing like 30 hats in that campaign. You and Nick Janovsky did everything as far as I could see.

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  9. Lap dogs to the RPOF, all of the media w/ the exception of Tampa Bay Times. Most younger people don’t read the paper and TV coverage of politics statewide panders to the Republican redneck legislature and their clown show! There is a huge disconnect between the “ultrasound of a pregnant woman’s womb” bills that the Repubs in Tally crank out every session and the actual moderate, nonpartisan beliefs of the majority of Floridians. They simply dismiss the strange, evangelical zealots who have our Legislature by a stranglehold. This is simply a money game engaged in by these pathetic people who elect THEMSELVES with their corrupt schemes to stack the deck and disenfranchise all Florida voters long before election day! We all witnessed the disgraceful dog and pony show Gaitz and Weatherford took all over Florida in their transparent pretense at engaging with Floridians for input regarding redistricting. Meanwhile, their sleazy backroom guys like Stepanovich and Goodman were crunching the numbers to keep their boys in, in egregious violation of our right as voters to have competitive, nonpartisan redistricting every ten years! I want the Justice Dept. to go after these criminals!

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  10. […] wrote about my disaffection and disenchantment with the Florida political press corps soon after the November 4th elections. My feeling was that Rick Scott and Pam Bondi weren’t asked the truly tough questions by many […]

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