Keeping watch on our state politicians

May 6, 2019 7:00 am

The policies that impact citizens the most don’t happen in Washington – they happen at state Capitols.

National lobbyists know this, and that’s why they deploy armies to descend on places like Sacramento, Albany, Atlanta, and Tallahassee. They find willing politicians to slip corporate-friendly amendments into legislation. Often they just write the bills themselves or offer cookie-cutter “model legislation” from ideological think tanks and turn it over to politically aligned legislators.

We all know that government’s job is to divide up our tax dollars and spend the money for society. But the legislative system isn’t set up to help those who need government help the most – elderly, poor, sick, at-risk, disabled people and young children – or to protect our shared common resources like clean water, clean air and public lands. It’s politically engineered to cater to the powerful. (See this Phoenix story: Does the Legislature reflect the Florida populace? Nope. We crunched the demographic numbers). Lobbyists for nonprofit groups work tirelessly, year after year, for the vulnerable people and the environment. But they can’t offer campaign cash at the level the corporate lobbyists can.

All this means is that it’s critical to have a vibrant press corps covering state governments and looking out for the less-powerful.

It’s one thing to run around covering all the press conference announcements – and that’s what politicians prefer, since they can control the message (Gov. Ron DeSantis is relentlessly employing this approach, and look at all the positive press he’s getting). It’s another thing to have intelligent coverage, which goes behind the public face of things to find out what’s really going on and who benefits. Covering state government policy-making is hard. It’s complicated, jargon-filled, document intensive, and it’s often what we in newsrooms call “BBI” – Boring But Important. Plus, we have to cover a lot of bloviating narcissists, and that takes its toll.

It’s inspiring to see really good legislators who keep their heads down and do great work under difficult circumstances. They don’t get a lot of press. (Sample headline: “Rep. Pankill Spends Hours Reading DOT Omnibus Bill.”)

Here’s the thing: If you want citizens to have any news beyond a politician’s press releases and Twitter pronouncements, you need a good capital press corps. Unlike many states, Florida has a pretty robust press corps, including the Miami Herald-Tampa Bay Times capital bureau, the News Service of Florida, Politico Florida, Capitol News Service, the Florida Channel, the Associated Press, Gatehouse Media, the public relations/news hybrid Florida Politics, public radio and TV, and capital TV reports that feed news channels across the state. All are trying to survive with various financial approaches in this new, uncertain information landscape.

For people who work in media, layoffs are always looming. We were saddened when our colleague Rick Flagg, a radio legend and one of the longest-serving members of the Tallahassee press corps, was abruptly laid off in the middle of this legislative session. He was part of cutbacks at I Heart Radio (formerly Clear Channel) that leave Florida’s radio stations without state news. With Rick’s departure, decades of wisdom about Florida policy and politics vanished from the airwaves in an instant.

The Florida Phoenix, along with nine other editorially progressive state news operations and a Washington, D.C. bureau in the Newsroom network, were launched to increase coverage of policy-making at state capitals. The Newsroom’s motto is “Relentless reporting, state by state.” The Newsroom and its affiliates are independent, and we each decide what we cover. Each state media outlet is anchored by veteran journalists who, for the most part, spent their careers covering state capitals for “traditional media” – corporate-owned newspapers, radio and TV.

The Phoenix is ad-free, free to readers, and nonprofit. We’re supported by reader donations and by the national nonprofit Hopewell Fund, which incubates projects and provides professional support. Years ago, I was a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) and a national commentator at National Public Radio, both nonprofits. So this nonprofit environment is a familiar landscape. There are local news nonprofits popping up across the U.S., and it’s the model used by the amazing investigative reporting outfit ProPublica. It may be the way of the future – no one knows.

We have five people at the Phoenix: Reporters Mitch Perry, Lloyd Dunkelberger, Michael Moline, Deputy Editor Diane Rado, and me. We have two ace columnists, the legendary Florida journalists Diane Roberts and Lucy Morgan. We have the great Andy Marlette drawing political cartoons for us. We’re all experienced, long-time journalists who know a thing or two about smokescreens and how to get around them. We hope you see that reflected in our coverage.

The Phoenix turned 10 months old yesterday. This was the first time we’ve covered a legislative session, and frankly, a lot of it was hard to watch. The powerful and corporate lobbyists emerged the victors, and lawmakers chose to impose some truly cruel policies on the poor. The Legislature declared war on local control, on citizen ballot initiatives, and on our public schools, just to name a few wrong-headed policies we will now have to live with. (Here’s a brief wrap up).

We hope we’ve done what we set out to do during the legislative session – look out for the most vulnerable among us, keep tabs on how the powerful treat the public’s common resources, and explain it all for you. You can see all of our legislative session coverage by scrolling down the stories on our site and clicking through the blog items on the right.

Thanks for reading, for sharing our work online, and for supporting a free press.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.