A trust betrayed

The Times has failed to cover both sides of the airport debate

click to enlarge Business traveler: Ben DiSylvester, a business - consultant from Stuart, commutes through Albert - Whitted Airport. - ROBIN DONINA SERNE
Business traveler: Ben DiSylvester, a business consultant from Stuart, commutes through Albert Whitted Airport.

A healthy democracy depends upon a well-informed electorate. That is why, as the late, great Nelson Poynter often preached, the publishing of a newspaper is "a sacred trust." Voters can make wise decisions only if their news media take pains to cover all sides of a controversial issue.

So how well has Poynter's newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, covered all sides of the Albert Whitted Airport debate?

Not very well.

A review of more than 100 news stories and editorials the Times has published about Albert Whitted since Jan. 1, 2002 reveals the newspaper's longstanding bias against the airport.

Here's one example:

Between April and September 2003 the Times published seven news stories about the petition drive to close the airport and turn half of it into a public park. Admiring in tone, the stories emphasized the underdog nature of the campaign, often focusing on the idealistic young people who were gathering the signatures. When the campaign seemed in danger of not reaching its goal by deadline, the Times gave it a boost with another story; the paper was even so helpful as to print the full wording of the petition — a service it rarely provides for proposals not yet on the ballot.

During the same period, the Times published just two stories about residents who want to see the airport appreciated for what it is: a unique asset in a city already blessed with abundant waterfront parks. And those stories, about the Albert Whitted Air Show early this month, took a critical tone. The headlines and lead paragraphs focused on airport opponents' concern that the event was an unfair promotion of the airport in violation of campaign finance laws.

Those concerns, while debatable, were probably worth raising. But the Times hasn't been nearly so aggressive at examining the motives of the park promoters — the participation of downtown real estate developers in the park campaign, for example, or the unanswered question of who will get to use whatever portion of airport property that isn't turned into a park.

On this last point, the Times was content until recently simply to accept the park promoters' reassurances that any private use of that land would have to pass through the voters in another referendum. What potential uses might someday be proposed weren't worth examining. (The paper corrected this oversight with a decent Oct. 19 story about development options.)

The Times is an exceedingly well-reported and well-edited newspaper. Individual news stories almost always are balanced with a nod to the other side because that's what good journalists know they must do.

The newspaper's bias mostly reveals itself in stories the paper doesn't report. Such as, what role might the airport play in downtown St. Petersburg's economy? Albert Whitted's supporters say the airport provides not only jobs but also an important amenity for the kind of city that St. Petersburg is becoming — a home for consultants and other knowledge-based business professionals whose work isn't bound by geography. By making it easier for busy creative types to commute, a convenient downtown airport makes the city a more attractive place to live and work.

As of last week, the city's dominant newspaper had not examined the economic value of the airport since last November, long before the voting public would be asked to determine its fate. Even then, the focus was primarily on who owns the planes that are based there. Who owns the planes is just a small part of who uses the airport and why, and what that traffic might contribute to the downtown business climate. (You might as well ask who owns the buses at the Greyhound station to discover who the riders are, where they are coming from, where they are going and what impact they have on the community.) Nevertheless, the narrower focus allowed the newspaper to create a dispute over whether hangar subleases and airplane ownership records ought to be public, thus reinforcing its underlying argument that airport users are a privileged few squatting on public property.

The Times has never told its readers that 100,000 flights come in and out of the airport every year, and that nearly half of those flights originate elsewhere. In other words, a substantial number of people use Albert Whitted as their preferred gateway to the city, where presumably they spend money or otherwise contribute to the city's vitality.

There's a good reason for the paper not to mention this traffic. It would undercut the Times' recurring characterization of the airport as merely a place where 177 rich people get to park their airplanes on the downtown waterfront.

Another glaring omission is the Times' failure to acknowledge in print that its owner, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, is among the neighbors who wish their offices weren't so close to an airport. Several news stories have mentioned the airport's negative effects on the nearby University of South Florida, Bayfront Medical Center and All Children's Hospital — all worthy institutions, of course, deserving of public sympathy. The Poynter Institute is a worthy place too — hell, most of whatever I might know about good journalism, I learned through the Poynter Institute, as well as during my two dozen years at the Times — but apparently its proximity to the airport is not worth mentioning in either news stories or editorials.

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