By Jim Bleyer
The Poynter Institute, self-anointed watchdog of journalistic ethics and the public trust, has declared Apr. 2 as International Fact-Checking Day. Billed as a “global initiative,” the effort is aimed at heightening awareness about misinformation, “especially online.”
But before holding itself up as the epitome of trustworthiness in determining what constitutes “news,” Poynter might want to scrutinize the consistent lack of veracity inflicted by the Tampa Bay Times on its readers. The newspaper is published by the Times Publishing Company which is owned by Poynter.
Flagrant factual errors, glaring omissions, and slanted coverage have characterized the reporting of issues in which the Times has taken a forceful editorial position. Two grievous examples stand out: the mass transit controversy swirling around Tampa Bay and the business dealings of Jeffrey Vinik, a former hedge fund manager and owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise.
Coincidentally, both sagas had their genesis in 2010 when Vinik burst upon the Tampa scene from Boston, and when Hillsborough County voters killed Moving Hillsborough Forward, a referendum calling for an increased sales tax to fund mass transit.
The Tampa Bay Times characterized Tampa Bay as having “one of the worst transit systems in America” in a February 16 front page article that was termed “silly and misleading” by a nationally-recognized transportation expert at a public meeting in Tampa. The Times did not report on the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) meeting and never interviewed the expert for its digital edition that headlined the erroneous premise.
Mark Aesch of TransPro Consulting, asserted that it was obvious the Times failed to interview a representative sampling of transit customers, adding that HART attained ” the highest customer satisfaction score of any transit system in the country.”
In February, 2016, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) announced it received high marks in an New Promoter Score study: nearly 90 percent of customers agreed that the buses are well-driven, and a similar percentage said they feel safe riding the bus.
The evidence is that only in the Times’ mind–and those that stand to profit–does Tampa Bay desperately need a $3+billion light rail system.
The Times actually did send a staffer, political reporter Adam Smith, to a community forum in February when three activists opposing light rail spoke. Smith, became contentious during the Q and A, accusing the panel of not offering solutions. Two ironies: there has been no reporting of this meeting in the online edition of the Times and none of the pro-sales tax/light rail audience members–who were not shy about their views-offered anything new or different regarding a mass transit plan that has been rejected three times in the past six years.
Mitch Perry, writing for SaintPetersBlog, wrote an even-handed account. It was published online two hours after the meeting adjourned.
In fact, it is the local bloggers that are informing Tampa Bay residents about many issues that the Times will not or cannot cover.
Last year, during a St. Pete Beach transportation symposium featuring many high-powered names, a consensus of experts concluded that sales taxes are not a viable source of funding for mass transit. Tampa Bay Beat reported on it but Tampa Bay Times online readers were left out in the cold. The story didn’t fit the newspaper’s editorial narrative.
The experts elaborated that promotion of a local sales tax increase earmarked for transit projects will always be a losing struggle in Florida. They attributed voter mistrust of government as the insurmountable barrier to referendum-based tax hikes. They could have added mistrust of the mainstream media as well.
After the resounding 62-38 percent thrashing of the Greenlight Pinellas light rail referendum, the Times claimed that a majority of voters in the city of St. Petersburg supported the referendum.
Another blog, The Sun Beam Times, analyzed precinct and voter data proving that Greenlight Pinellas was defeated in the city of St. Petersburg by 52-48 percent. The Times writer, Caitlin Johnson, was queried by at least one reader as to how her information was obtained. No reply. No followup correction.
The Tampa Bay Times, in its seventh year of campaigning for a light rail system, used the photo below in March, 2017 to illustrate everyday traffic on the Howard Frankland Bridge. Here is the original caption on the AP photo: “As tourists and residents flee from the path of Hurricane Charley, traffic in the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 on the Howard Franklin Bridge is bumper-to-bumper, Aug. 12, 2004, in St. Petersburg, Fla.”
There’s plenty more that can be written about the Times “fake news” regarding mass transit in Tampa Bay. Its transgressions could fill a book but one is too many.
On to Jeff Vinik.
Vinik is not only the owner of the Lightning and arena football’s Tampa Bay Storm but also the building both teams call home. He also spearheads an amorphous “vision” that is aimed at revitalizing downtown Tampa with a reported $3 billion imvestment.
His business interests allocate a princely sum to advertise in local media, including the cash-starved Times. The newspaper had an open fiduciary relationship with Vinik for years when its name was slapped on his downtown arena formerly known as the Ice Palace. It constituted a blatant breach of journalistic ethics. After all, the Times covers everything that occurs in that building from hockey to meetings/conventions to arena football to concerts. The impropriety is mind boggling and indefensible.
Branding a sports venue costs millions, according to the media and trade journals. The Times reportedly was in a terrific financial bind when the Tampa Bay Times Forum was christened. Readers need to know of any quid pro quo.
Frankly, I don’t recall reading an adverse review of a concert held in Vinik’s edifice let alone deserved criticism of the Lightning ownership and front office in a year that Vegas oddsmakers made the team the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. The Lightning are gasping for the eighth and final playoff spot in its comference.
Largesse to area media could also be why many Tampa Bay residents are unaware of two underperforming Vinik-managed hedge funds, ethical controversies, and that he was a target of an SEC investigation.
The Times has never questioned Vinik’s puzzling interest in relocating The Museum of Science and Industry from central Hillsborough County to downtown Tampa for his health-oriented revitalization “vision.”
MOSI is a dysfunctional organization that has been the recipient of public money for years but remains unanswerable to anyone for its utter failure financially, educationally, and artistically. Why would a former hedge fund manager with a reputation for financial acuity and due diligence choose a failing institution to help buttress a plan for downtown Tampa where he has a huge investment?
The elevation of Molly Demeulenaere as its permanent CEO in 2015 was particularly enigmatic. The Times sued the museum to open its public records but legal action is not a substitute for a penetrating media investigation of an incomprehensible appointment. Presumably, the Times thought the citizens of Tampa Bay deserved to know why MOSI directors selected Demeulenaere, a former professional ballroom dancer who failed to receive even a two-year degree while attending Edison Junior College in Fort Myers. She headed the Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone (G.WIZ), a Sarasota children’s museum that went belly up due to financial mismanagement. There were 82 other applicants for the MOSI job.
But suddenly the Times dropped the ball, allowing the case to fester in the courts. There has been almost no reportage on MOSI except for the “resignation” of Demeulenaere three weeks ago.
Never explored by the Times are the amount of public funds (more than $100 million) so far committed to Vinik’s downtown vision, the cost (at least $10 million) for relocating the museum to an area far less accessible by the majority of Hillsborough County students, and the relationships between Vinik, MOSI directors, and Demeulenaere.
Vinik’s story and that of his company, Strategic Property Partners, are evolving. Tampa Bay residents will have to read what their local bloggers publish to get the full picture.