By Jim Bleyer
The continuing saga of the Tampa Bay Times’ lack of ethics inveigled its way into a St. Petersburg City Council race when the paper jettisoned its equal time rule to protect its unprincipled relationship with a local political operative.
That operative, Barry Edwards, is a member of the Poynter Institute of Media Studies Foundation, parent of the Times. Edwards’ pervasive high-profile presence in political campaigns—none of which the Times ever opposes—violates journalistic ethics.
Edwards is campaign manager for Robert Blackmon, a realtor who failed two years ago to win a council seat not even making the runoff. The Times, no doubt to its dire financial situation and reliance on real estate advertising, has downplayed concerns voters have expressed about having a second realtor on the Council.
The Times refused to publish a response to its editorial from Blackmon’s opponent, local attorney John Hornbeck.
The Times’ recalcitrance in granting Hornbeck a 150-word response—always the case in the past—underscores its conflict of interest with its immersion in local political campaigns.
The collusion alone constitutes over-the-top professional corruption but that has spilled into the “news” pages through the underreporting, non-reporting, and skewing of facts regarding the council race. The Times ever-dwindling readership is not being served with the paper’s self-interest outweighing the public interest.
Hornbeck’s response was factual not libelous, and met all the criteria the Times usually gives opponents of its endorsed candidates. Here is the response that the Times refused to publish:
“The Times did not disclose the following three very relevant facts that the reader should consider in evaluating Times’ endorsement of Blackmon: First, Council Chair Charlie Gerdes (who is term-limited and whom I would replace) endorsed me, and Mayor Kriseman supports that endorsement. Second, Mayor Kriseman stated: “I do, however, have some concerns about Mr. Blackmon’s lack of knowledge and involvement in West St. Pete as he has only lived in the district long enough to qualify to run.” Finally, the Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, and why that it relevant is because a man by the name of Barry Edwards, Blackmon’s campaign manager, is listed on the website of the Poynter Institute as being on the Poynter Foundation Board as a “Political Consultant and Strategist”. The readers should consider these facts, specifically the last fact, when determining the weight and independence of the Times’ recommendation.”
Incredibly, Tim Nickens, Editor of the Editorial Board, rejected the rebuttal on the grounds that “there is no conflict of interest involving Barry Edwards and the Times editorial board. So I am rejecting this version of your reply,” Nickens wrote in an e-mail to Hornbeck.
As far as Nickens is concerned, voters should not know all the facts and decide for themselves about the Times’ veracity, or lack thereof.
People with real estate interests like Blackmon are increasingly running for public office. By entering the political arena, these folks are a throwback to buying and developing land with little concern for the future.
Blackmon’s bread and butter is development and it’s in his interest to get elected to push for development. People with an agenda don’t make good office holders.
At present there are no attorneys on the St. Pete Council. Lawyers such as Hornbeck possess the skills to be effective civic leaders. Attorneys are educated and trained to solve problems, apply laws, communicate difficult concepts, and collaborate with others to reach agreement.