Vivinetto's Violation

The case of the columnist who mocked Ronda Storms.

Gina Vivinetto has lots of fans in Tampa Bay. And they are plenty pissed off about her forced resignation from the St. Petersburg Times' free tabloid, tbt*, for posting comments on a fake Ronda Storms website.

The blogosphere has erupted with shouts of "Hypocrisy!" in the aftermath of Vivinetto's departure from the self-proclaimed "zippy, snarky" daily that is the Times' latest attempt to establish a beachhead in Hillsborough County.

"Gina was a columnist. Pure and simple," wrote one supporter on Vivinetto's own Myspace page, under the name Bombshell Gallery. "It's no different if Daniel Ruth said something not so nice about a politician on his WFLA radio show ... which he does all the time. It doesn't compromise the integrity of the [Tampa] Tribune because he's a columnist."

"I think Nelson Poynter would be sickened by the actions of his dear paper," wrote another.

It is an ignominious end to a journalism career for Vivinetto, a musician, writer and activist. She did a tour in the Times newsroom as music critic before going part-time to write a pop culture column in tbt* called "Mr. Brady is Gay." She is also a co-owner of the Bombshell Gallery in St. Pete, an arts, coffee and music hangout.

Her feelings about the firebrand Hillsborough County Commissioner were no secret. After all, Vivinetto shared a byline in a tbt* story that mocked Storms and cast her as a member of an imaginary Real World show. She openly criticized Storms' actions against gays and lesbians on her Just Say Know Tampa website last year. She's been visibly present at gay rights rallies organized in the aftermath of Storms' effort to prohibit the recognition of gay pride events. She even organized a concert against Storms' actions at Skipper's Smokehouse.

So to her friends and supporters, the fact that Vivinetto posted some off-color lesbian comments on the bogus Storms Myspace web page came as no surprise and no concern. (One went: "Can we expect you Friday night at Bombshell, hot stuff? There will be a lot of HOT, YOUNG LESBIANS." Another referred to the commissioner's panties as "musky.")

In the world of traditional journalism, such comments are viewed differently.

For the Times, even though Vivinetto never covered Storms or any government stories, having a staffer who was complicit in the nearly real Storms Myspace page (since removed from that site) compromised the newspaper's credibility.

"A lot of times, e-mail, Myspace, the Internet seem like an intimate private exchange when, in fact, it's not," said Kelly McBride, an expert in journalism ethics at St. Petersburg's Poynter Institute, which also owns the Times.

Vivinetto is not alone among journalists discovering that fact. A Lancaster, Pa., daily newspaper fired its courthouse reporter in April after learning that he made anonymous comments on his own newspaper's public forum section, an Associated Press report said. The Los Angeles Times suspended a business writer and ended his blog after he acknowledged posting comments online under an assumed name.

The crux of Vivinetto's violation, for McBride, was the content of what she wrote.

"If you are making a public comment, if you cannot make your comment in your publication, you should not make the comment," McBride said. "We're brokers of the truth. All we have is our credibility."

In e-mails written since her resignation, Vivinetto says the dichotomy between what the Times sanctioned her to write and what they punished her for writing on her own time is hypocritical.

"We [at tbt*] poked all kinds of fun at Ronda, and I got a paycheck for it!" Vivinetto said in an e-mail posted on Sticks of Fire, a Tampa Bay news blog. "But I can't do this on my own time, or else I am 'compromising my journalistic integrity!'"

"What a stupid way to end a 16-year career, huh?" Vivinetto continued.

"Have I really compromised the paper's credibility so much? Really? Ronda wasn't really reading the comments," she wrote. "I thought of the profile as a sort of political/artistic project that a community of Myspace users participated in by leaving snarky comments. It was fun; it was a creative way for us all to express how we felt about Ronda. And I think whoever started the profile was a genius." (Vivinetto goes on to allege that several other Times staffers were involved with the fake Storms page, and that editors know it but can't discover their identities.)

Finally, Vivinetto was livid about how she got the axe; she said Times editors came to her house, because she is on disability leave, to give her the heave-ho. The fact that a Times editor then called Storms to tell her of the forced resignation, as reported in both daily newspapers, is proof to Vivinetto and her supporters that it was about "kowtowing" to a public official rather than a matter of ethics.

What Vivinetto and the online "news" world are missing, McBride countered, is that "it has always been well accepted that as a journalist you actually give up a fair amount of your right to free speech to preserve the credibility of your newsroom in the community."

For now, Vivinetto is busy running her gallery and is unrepentant.

"It's interesting," she wrote in an e-mail to the Planet, "when the Times launched tbt*, they did so much to assert that the lil' weekly have its own identity, and that it would be young, hip and 'zippy.'"

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