The Phoenix Flyer

Tallahassee Democrat newspaper teams up with PR firm as “sponsor” and right-wing think tank alum to “fact check” media reports about city

By: - October 2, 2018 8:00 am
Fl Capitol

The Florida Capitol in Tallahassee

Well, here’s a what-the-heck headline for this week: The Tallahassee Democrat newspaper is so concerned about how Florida’s capital city will be portrayed in the media now that Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum is the Democratic nominee for governor that it is teaming up with a PR firm and a conservative pundit to offer “fact checks” of reports about Tallahassee.

The person doing the fact checks (Robert Sanchez) spent a decade as the policy director for the James Madison Institute, a right-wing Florida think tank.

The James Madison Institute pushes Republican candidates and various government policies, including the now-controversial beach access law that aims to keep the public from walking on the sand in front of Panhandle mansions.

And the PR firm sponsoring the Tallahassee Democrat’s fact checks – Sachs Media – has represented companies that want to drill off Florida beaches and crafted PR campaigns to fight stronger clean-water limits to stop the sewage, manure, and fertilizer pollution now fueling noxious algae outbreaks and massive sea life die-offs.

The James Madison Institute has received funding from the conservative Koch network, which is also a financial benefactor to Gillum’s opponent, Republican Ron DeSantis.

The Institute had hard-right British leader (and Trump fan) Nigel Farage as the featured speaker at its March meeting at a Naples golf resort.

The Institute made news in 2016 in a media scoop about the misleading proposed Florida Constitutional amendment on solar power. The measure masqueraded as being pro-solar, but was actually backed by corporate utilities that want to keep a monopoly on selling power. Someone leaked a recording to the Miami Herald of a James Madison Institute official admitting that the amendment was a strategy to deceive voters into thinking the plan was a pro-solar amendment. Floridians voted it down.

In announcing its new “TLH Fact Check” the Democrat told readers:

“As the race for governor heats up, we Tallahassee residents may soon be treated to a gift famously heralded by Scottish poet Robert Burns: a chance “to see ourselves as others see us.”

The portrayal of our town may not be pretty – or it might be too pretty. With Tallahassee’s Mayor Andrew Gillum facing off against former Congressman Ron DeSantis, the public record of each candidate is fair game for comment. In the back-and-forth salvos, Tallahassee’s reputation may well suffer collateral damage.

Moreover, from now until the November election, our city from time to time will be in the national news media’s spotlight in a way not seen since the Bush v. Gore spectacle 18 years ago.”

The Tallahassee Democrat announced that it aims “to ensure that the facts and the truth about this community are presented accurately. We don’t want to let political hyperbole and inaccurate portrayals go unchallenged.”

If the reaction to the Tallahassee Democrat’s announcement on Twitter is any indication, the media spotlight is now shining on more than the capital city – it’s focusing on the capital city’s newspaper.

“This arrangement is considered unusual in the business,” Miami Herald reporter Lawrence Mower tweeted. “Usually news content is written by staffers who are paid and employed by the newspaper. And certainly not paid (by) public relations firms.”

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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.