Florence Snyder: Wheat, Chaff and Shoeleather

3247073217_0861b0afd4_zThe Ledger, Imperial Polk County’s newspaper of record, is run by a young woman from the Old School.

Editor Lenore Devore thinks reporters should look at the wheat to be found in public records, and not the chaff of press releases peddled by taxpayer-supported ministers of disinformation.

So when the Lakeland Police Department’s “public information officer” stonewalled a young police reporter looking to flesh out details of a local shooting, Devore did what good editors do. She refused to let her newsroom take “no” for an answer.

That was in the fall of 2012, when the community and its newspaper had high hopes for Lakeland’s new police chief, Lisa Womack. But Womack quickly proved to be Lakeland’s worst enemy, and her own, as The Ledger uncovered instances of the Department falsely claiming that records did not exist or could not be found, Womack candidly if stupidly admitted she plays a “cat-and-mouse” game with the press regarding Florida’s hundred-plus-year-old public records law.

The State Attorney asked the grand jury to take a look, and The Ledger took the unusual step of allowing Devore and five of her reporters to testify under oath and behind closed doors. Journalists usually resist being “part of the story,” and for good reason. A newspaper’s credibility rests entirely upon the public’s belief that the newsroom is working for readers, and not for the powers that be.

But The Ledger didn’t report anything to the grand jury that it had not already reported to its readers.

The grand jury issued a scathing report, expressing doubt as to Womack’s fitness to serve as police chief given her hostility toward her legal duty of candor with the press and public. The report remained secret for 10 months, as the city fought tooth-and-taxpayer dollar to keep it secret.

Meanwhile, honest people who knew things and trusted their newspaper to report them began to come out of the woodwork. The more The Ledger dug, the more “new sources provided information from right under the chief’s nose,” said Devore.

The Ledger’s front page was awash in stories of sex scandal cover-ups by higher-ups. A police captain, a city human resources chief, and 28 others were fired or forced to resign. There were reports of frat-boy “bra searches” designed to frighten and humiliate rather than to serve and protect.

One officer was arrested on charges of sexual battery and stalking. Another officer admitted to requiring DUI suspects to sign forms he had not yet filled out. The State Attorney was forced to drop dozens of that officer’s cases, and later concluded that “public safety is at risk in Lakeland.”

A year after The Ledger wrote its first story detailing problems with public records at the police department, the city lost its $220,000 fight to keep the grand jury report secret. A month later, the police chief resigned.

Lakeland’s credibility is in a mighty big hole, but the city fathers won’t stop digging. And neither will The Ledger, which recently reported that the city secretly hired a public relations firm and paid it $130,000 for fruitless and futile damage control. You don’t have to live and pay taxes in Lakeland to appreciate this kind of dogged, persistent, meat-and-potatoes local reporting. Every community deserves an editor like Devore, but far too few communities have one.


Florence Snyder is a corporate and First Amendment lawyer. Contact her at lawyerflo@gmail.com

(Photo Credit: Lakeland Local)

Florence Snyder: “The Newsroom” that isn’t anymore.

coffee newspaperAs HBO launches the new season of “The Newsroom,” the infotainment intelligentsia are all over the Internet making fun of Aaron Sorkin’s hyper-romantic Valentine to journalism.

Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan and other purveyors of news and opinion scoff at Sorkin’s “heart-on-sleeve earnestness” and “magical belief that better news coverage could fix America.”

Not so long ago, that magical belief was a consensus point of view.

Florida’s newsrooms were stuffed with shy social misfits, charismatic class clowns, outlaws and outcasts, all drawn to the business by a shared belief that journalism was an end in itself, a sacred public trust. Read all »

Florence Snyder: Gene Patterson lived his values. Again, and again, and again.

When the Grim Reaper finally came for Eugene Corbett Patterson, the 89 year old Pulitzer Prize winner surely did not blink. Fear was not in his character and anyway, he had seen death before.

Patterson had always been a man of great ambition, and as he prepared to meet his Maker at his St. Petersburg home, the dying editor started and brilliantly finished condensing the King James Bible. It was an old newsman’s last service to seekers of truth in an attention deficit disordered world.

In the decade from 1978-1988 when Patterson called the shots at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida journalism was widely recognized as the best in the world, and the St. Petersburg Times was recognized as Florida’s best newspaper by everybody who didn’t work for the Miami Herald.

Death had tried and failed to claim Patterson when he was a 20 year old tank commander at the Battle of the Bulge. In General Patton’s 10th Armored Division, Patterson learned verbal, sartorial and blood and guts elements of style that would inform how he led by example from the Ardennes Forest to the hour of his death. Read all »

Village Square homework: Watch Page One

With Media Wars: The Future of How (and what) We Know right around the corner on February 7th (check out our exception panel and buy your tickets before they’re gone), we can think of no better way to spend your early evening tonight than watching Page One: Inside the New York Times, on History Channel at 6 PM. You can read Jim Romenesko’s interview with the director of the film, but no matter what… watch it. This is important subject matter to our future, tune in. Got other things to do on New Year’s Eve (gasp)? You can stream the movie on Netflix.

National Conference of Editorial Writers “Civility Project”

Under the banner of better late than never (this was in my stack of catch-up reading after our last program, printed on September 6th in the Tallahassee Democrat):

The National Conference of Editorial Writers, apparently tiring of the “online free-for-alls that treat facts and lies as equals” is launching a “civility Project” to help journalists navigate the challenges of knowing where to draw the line between constructive – even if difficult – debate and the now too routine combustible spleen venting. The editorial about this project, first published in the Providence Journal explains:

“The mediators are hardly perfect in judgment, but they are becoming a last bulwark against a national screamfest, where the loudest, angriest and most outrageous opinions get the most attention; facts seem to matter less and less in the general din.”

Read the full editorial here.

Oh, and AMEN.

Making the world safe for propaganda

More from Farhad Manjoo in True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society:

“Investigating the rise of carelessness toward “reality” is, of course, the headlong purpose of this book. But I’ve been driving at a theory more pervasive than the peculiar psychology of one president, the transgressions of a single dominant political machine, or the aims of certain powerful players. The truth about truthiness, I’ve argued, is cognitive: when we strung up the planet in fiber-optic cable, when we dissolved the mainstream media into prickly niches, and when each of us began to create and transmit our own pictures and sounds, we eased the path through which propaganda infects our culture.”

(Photo credit: TJ Morton)

Mac vs. PC

Apparently, according to Farhad Manjoo in True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society, journalists live every day with the repercussions of the hostile media effect, where partisans view coverage through a lens that always sees it as unfair to their “side” and fail to notice aspects of the coverage that is favorable to their “side.”

It isn’t just politics that brings this out in us, it’s there with coverage of the world of Mac vs. PC. Alas, even operating systems have gone tribal. You’ve got the Apple devotees and then the people who just can’t stand the perceived snobbery of Apple devotees. David Pogue, who writes technology reviews for the New York Times, wrote a Vista review that brought out the worst in everyone.

According to Pogue: “The Mac people saw it as a rave review for Windows Vista and the Windows people saw it as a vicious slam on Windows.” Apparently Apple fans are consistently prickly about the slightest – well – slight. Over at the Wall Street Journal the technology reviewer Walt Mossberg even coined a term for this: “The Doctrine of Insufficient Adulation.” Read all »

Ross Douthat: It’s all about narcissism

In Sunday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat reminds us that we have a long history of blaming technological innovation for impending moral decline. Like the rampant decay that was imagined to be inevitable if we rode at 30 mph and used a telegraph.

He adds: “Sometimes, though, the pessimists are right to worry. Technology really does affect character. Cultures do change from era to era, sometimes for the worse. Particular vices can be encouraged by particular innovations, and thrive in the new worlds that they create.”

What moral weakness does our current crop of innovations inspire? Narcissism. He uses Rep. Anthony Wiener’s unfathomably adolescent behavior as an example: “[T]here’s no sign that Weiner was particularly interested in the women he communicated with — not as human beings, certainly, but not really even as lust objects either…his focus was always squarely on himself.” He also talks about what Facebook is doing to us, especially to the generation raised on it as mother’s milk. Read Douthat’s entire argument online HERE. (Photo credit: Paul Keller.)

Bob Schieffer: We’ve cumulatively gone back to high school

Currently all about Bob Schieffer’s commentary from yesterday’s Face the Nation. He nailed it:

“The author Kurt Vonnegut once observed that life was more or less a replay of high school, and with every passing day, that comparison becomes more apt in describing Washington. The one difference is that high school stays in session most of the time. Yet the parallels with high school are inescapable. Just think about this: Distractions such as vanity and the mania for gossip and the short attention span that prevents focusing on problems even long enough to try to understand them. Unbridled meanness toward those who are not part of your crowd. The cliquishness that requires group think – if you don’t believe exactly what we believe you can’t be part of our crowd. We’re right, you’re always wrong, and don’t confuse us with facts. An inability to act for fear it will cause a loss of popularity…”

Read the whole commentary (Anthony Weiner’s behavior is appropriately up next) HERE.

(Photo credit: Michael Foley Photography)

Florence Snyder: Poisoning the Press

This post is our regular weekly Purple State of Mind feature. Why not hop on over to Purple and read it there instead?

"Poisoning the Press" is a favorite fantasy of politicians caught in the crosshairs of a dogged investigative reporter. It's also the title of a new book about Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture.

The author is journalist turned media ethics professor Mark Feldstein. The storytelling skills Feldstein honed over years of Peabody and Emmy award winning reporting make Poisoning the Press a scholarly work wrapped in a rockin' good beach-read. For Village Squares trying to understand how our political culture got so ugly, Feldstein cracks the code.

Using previously classified documents and interviews with folks who were there, the author shows how Nixon and Anderson fed off each other in a twisted, mongoose-and-cobra kind of way. Nixon was obsessed with the press. He spent countless hours talking about journalists, but hardly any time with them.

Feldstein's forensic autopsy of Nixon and Anderson raises an intriguing possibility: What if Nixon had Liz Joyner and other advocates of civil discourse appealing to his better angels instead of a palace guard pandering to his paranoia? Might the two Navy veterans have come together over a burger and a baseball game? Would we have a healthier body politic today?

They would have had lots to talk about. Nixon and Anderson both grew up poor and worked like dogs for the success they craved.

The future president and the future Pulitzer Prize winner both arrived in Washington in 1947. Nixon was a newly-minted congressman and Anderson had landed a job as a legman for Drew Pearson, whose syndicated column, Washington-Merry-Go-Round, Anderson would eventually inherit.

Nixon became Bud Abbott to Anderson's Lou Costello. With no moral compass in his inner circle, straight-man Nixon would take bribes; suborn perjury and stage overseas military coups. Anderson would merrily report all of it, in close to real time.

Nixon's press paranoia grew as Anderson racked up scoop after scoop at his expense. He even toyed with the idea of having Anderson assassinated.

Feldstein concludes that Anderson's coverage of Nixon and Nixon's reaction to Anderson's coverage "has tainted governance and public discourse ever since."

The toxic legacy lives on in Florida. A recent Florida TaxWatch study found that the recession has yet to reach our state's multimillion dollar public relations payroll. TaxWatch documented that communications people out-earn police, prison guards, and social workers who risk their lives to serve and protect.

Real communications people—also known as schoolteachers—are being laid off en masse while Florida's public officials cling to their publicists like Linus to his security blanket.

Thanks to Mark Feldstein for reminding us why this worked badly for Nixon and to TaxWatch for shining a light on how his dark legacy still casts shadows in the Sunshine State.
Florence Snyder is a corporate and First Amendment lawyer. Contact her at lawyerflo@gmail.com. Find more posts by Florence HERE.

(Disclosures: Mark Feldstein interned for Jack Anderson in the 1970s. Florence Snyder represented Feldstein in what were his first libel suit and her first jury trial.)

Best blog comment policy ever…

This by way of Poynter (and Florence):

The Big Picture, a finance blog, offers these guidelines for user comments: “Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data, ability to repeat discredited memes, and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Also, be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor even implied. Any irrelevancies you can mention will also be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.”

On Pro Publica

Think Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman on the big screen as Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame. Think My Lai massacre, Love Canal.

Think Ford Pinto.

If you haven’t given investigative journalism a whole lot of thought lately, you might want to start. Because in the past it’s been an integral part of America’s civic life, it’s natural to assume its out there alive and well like some kind of invisible democratic force field, but the reality is that along with the rest of journalism, everything about investigative journalism has changed virtually overnight. Turns out it’s going to need a new business model. Read all »

Bob Schieffer on David Broder: Talk less, listen more.