Standards are higher when you provide a service to the public. Recent news has demonstrated this from social media corporations testifying about limiting the spread of certain news stories on their platforms to football coach Les Miles getting fired from Kansas for creating a toxic work culture at his previous job at LSU.
Both of these stories reflect how vital a well functioning newspaper can be to its public. True journalists would never consider doing what Facebook and Twitter did before the 2020 election, and it was a group of persistent reporters at the USA Today who exposed Miles.
Today marks the beginning of Sunshine Week in Florida. This is a time when newspapers check on the transparency of those in power and those organizations with an obligation to the public through a series of public information requests. The Florida First Amendment Foundation also outlines its 123 bills it is tracking during the newly opened legislative session.
The Fourth Estate needs to act as a watchdog on the government agencies and we at the Concurrent applaud the Chronicle’s contributions for reporting on the requests they made. However, as the most widely read local media outlet in our county, the Chronicle has two transparency questions of its own to answer this week.
To be clear, the spirit of Sunshine Week refers to a set of laws that only govern public entities. Even though the legal standard of transparency is not applicable in the Chronicle’s case, any entity that acts in the public’s interest like a local paper is morally obligated to achieve a certain level of journalistic integrity in its coverage. The Chronicle fell below this standard at least twice last cycle regarding candidates it supported.
The first involved its failure to report on dark money spent in our local elections. Two political committees, the Committee to Protect Florida and Nature Coast Conservatives, spent tens of thousands of dollars each in support of then-commission candidate Ruthie Schlabach and Mel Eakley’s race for sheriff, two candidates who also won the Chronicle’s endorsement.
Chronicle reporters Fred Hiers and Mike Wright had previously reported on these two committees spending in local elections in 2007 and 2012 respectively so their staff has shown both an ability to understand committee spending and think it is newsworthy enough to publish about in the past.
I sent an email to Mr. Hiers about the subject and twice sent a letter to the editor detailing the amounts spent as well as the prior media coverage. I received no response to my email and my letter went unpublished.
Mr. Wright published a front page article about campaign finance that excluded any mention of it even in the midst of these letters and ads in the Chronicle pointing out dark money usage by Ms. Schlabach.
The second example of falling below a moral standard of integrity that the primary media outlet owes its constituency involved candidate columns. Each candidate was allowed one guest column. Candidates were also allowed to respond if they didn’t win the endorsement and in some cases if they were called out by name.
This standard applied to every race except for the sheriff. Candidate Mel Eakley was given his endorsement rebuttal and three additional guest columns instead of one, presumably because of his expertise in the subject matter according to the by-lines that he was given as a contributing author.
However, when another candidate in a different race tried to submit a column about his area of expertise, he was denied publication because he was a candidate. When this candidate pointed to Eakley’s multiple columns, the Chronicle reporter we talked to said he was unaware so many had been published on Eakley’s behalf but felt that would have been an inappropriate editorial decision.
Both Schlabach and Eakley were running against candidates the Concurrent’s parent company Winsler Consulting represented so this column is not without its bias. However, these two clear inconsistencies in coverage during a campaign cycle deserves an explanation.
The media today, especially newspapers, do receive an unfair amount of criticism. Indeed these two critiques are highly specific examples in the otherwise fantastic community coverage the Chronicle provides our county. Excellent day-to-day reporting, however, doesn’t entitle a media outlet to take shortcuts with journalism integrity in election coverage to support the candidates it thinks are best.
In a week that celebrates holding those in power with an obligation to the public in check, what could be more appropriate than getting some answers to these important questions?