Tampa Bay's Most Censored

1. The St. Petersburg Times' selective coverage of Mayor Rick Baker

The race for mayor of St. Petersburg, as a bothersome formality, concluded on March 27, when Rick Baker scored a 57-43 percent drubbing of Kathleen Ford.

Actually, the only real vote that counted — that of the St. Petersburg Times — was cast in 1997, after Baker helped save the newspaper and the shadow government it leads from the embarrassing failure of the Florida International Museum. Baker's future was certain after that, as a close reading of Times' mentions of him reveals.

The Times had $1-million in pledges and loans riding on the museum's success. Even more devastating to the newspaper and its close-knit group of allies, however, would have been the horrifying prospect that they would not have had their way.

And, in St. Petersburg, the Times — ever eager to proclaim its own greatness and tout its awards — always gets its way. Since the taxpayers often pick up the tab for the Times' exercises in will — the museum and the Dome come to mind — all is wonderful for the journalist-aristocrats.

With Baker, the news bullies at the Times may have finally crossed the line, however. Owned by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which regards itself as journalism's holiest of holies, the Times itself is a study in manipulative election coverage.

Ultimately, the newspaper shamed itself by not revealing significant business ties to Baker. Moreover, either through shoddy homework or intentional deception, the Times never told voters of a scandal in Baker's family. The Times finally revealed the problems of Baker's kin only after being questioned by the Weekly Planet.

For this unparalleled undermining of democracy in local politics, the Weekly Planet has awarded the Times this year's not-at-all-coveted Tom McEwen Memorial Award for Sleazy Journalism — the "Tommie" — for 2001. The award is named after The Tampa Tribune's longtime sports writer Tom McEwen (see story on Page 20).

Baker served as the Florida International Museum's lawyer, and was a board member and later chairman. His big coup for the struggling facility was leading the charge for a $5.4-million taxpayer bailout. He also negotiated the deal that brought the Titanic exhibit to St. Petersburg in 1997. The Times rewarded Baker with fawning patronage and anointed him as political heir to the St. Pete throne, awaiting only the pre-ordained abdication of David Fischer.

A June 1998 article on Tampa Bay leaders lovingly effused that Baker, an obscure and charisma-challenged lawyer, was both an "up and comer" and a "mover and shaker." Other mentions of Baker in the last few years have been unwavering in their acclaim.

As the election drew near, the Times largely overlooked in any critical way that Baker was buying the vote, outspending Ford 3-1. Nor did the Times recoil as Baker deftly wielded race politics, playing to fears among African-Americans that Ford would ax police Chief Goliath Davis. Ironically, a month after the election, Baker announced the chief had decided to "retire;" the claim that this was Davis' decision is widely disbelieved among African Americans.

The "liberal" Times hardly blanched over the fact that Baker's campaign was firmly aligned with win-at-any-cost Bushites. Baker's key campaign strategist was national GOP fundraiser Adam Goodman, and the mayoral candidate's kickoff gala was headlined by Gov. Jeb Bush. Baker's first major action as mayor, the day after assuming office on April 2, was to scoot to Tallahassee to commune with Bush.

When it came time in March to run profiles of the candidates, often crucial for undecided voters, Ford's article was laced with corrosive criticism while Baker's was a paean of praise. (See sidebar.)

It goes without saying that the Times endorsed Baker, calling him "a leader in almost every endeavor." Generally, the newspaper affords candidates it doesn't favor a chance to respond. Not so with Ford. The newspaper was taking no chances. Two letters from Ford were not published by the Times.

All of that would have been, if not admirable, at least well within the parameters of business as usual for American newspapers. Loving and hating politicians, and using news and editorial columns to express those emotions, is a reality in the press, even though journalists get faint at the charge and claim they are one gazillion percent "objective" in their coverage.

To wit: Times Editor and President Paul Tash responded to an April 9 query from the Planet by harrumphing that his newspaper's "coverage of Mr. Baker was full, fair and vigorous during the campaign and will remain so now that he is mayor."

Here's what that "full, fair and vigorous" coverage missed.

Baker has had only one employer in his career as a lawyer, a St. Petersburg firm named Fisher & Sauls. It's not a large firm, but it has had some pretty impressive clients: the Times Publishing Co. and the Poynter Institute.


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