By Jim Bleyer
The public has had enough.
Mainstream media entities that purport to report unvarnished news must be held accountable for their transgressions—slanting coverage, contorting facts, omitting information.
HAL 9000, the futuristic computer in the Space Odyssey series, would go haywire attempting to tally the mushrooming mountain of journalistic crimes perpetrated on an unsuspecting public over the past decade.
The sobriquet “fake news” sadly can be applied to the content of most members of the mainstream media who for years have relished throwing that term around indiscriminately at smaller, independent news outlets.
It’s time for these non-publicly traded entities—daily and weekly newspapers—to open their books revealing the names of investors and sources of income. Then readers can more easily assess the credibility of those news operations.
Newspaper readership has eroded with former subscribers opting for independent digital news sites, local blogs, and online specialty magazines. Generations younger than the Baby Boomers are transitioning seamlessly; their elders are also eschewing print in favor of other forms of communication but at a slower pace.
With print journalism’s economic woes, many newspapers are going out of business. Others are selling themselves to the wealthy—Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post; Sheldon Adelson, Las Vegas Review-Journal; the Dolan family, Newsday; John Henry, the Boston Globe; Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, San Diego Union-Tribune and Los Angeles Times; ……the list goes on.
These barons purchased the newspapers for influence; certainly not for profit. When ownership interests are made completely public, readers become more aware of subtle agendas and can calculate the veracity of news content accordingly.
But ownership of many other newspapers is more entangled, more guarded. A prime example: the Tampa Bay Times and its owner, the Poynter Institute of Media Studies.
Poynter tries.to project an image of ethical journalism to its industry peers. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Formerly the St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Bay Times claimed the more-inclusive designation in 2011. The Tampa Tribune folded in 2016. Revolution Capital, a Los Angeles-based private equity investment group bought the Tribune for $9.5 million in 2012.
Revolution raped the newspaper by selling off its real estate in 2015 for $17.75 million, then murdered it completely.
The Times purchased the carcass—basically furniture, another web presence, a subscription list, and some advertising contracts—for an astonishing price reportedly north of $12 million. The Times assumed responsibility for severance as hundreds of personnel were let go. Those that were incorporated under the Times banner received health insurance and other fringe benefits from a company that borrowed heavily to consummate the stupidly ill-thought buyout.
Such egregious blunders are responsible for the Times’ financial plight and the newspaper has made a ton of them in the past decade. With approximately $120 million in debt and operating nowhere near profitability, the Times is in its death throes as a viable, traditional newspaper entity.
At one time, The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal agency, placed liens totaling $70 million against The Times Publishing Company. The Times sold its downtown St. Petersburg headquarters in 2016.
On June 28, 2017, Crystal Financial signed a Satisfaction of Mortgage, releasing Poynter Institute from a 2013 loan totaling $28 million. The mortgage security released was for the Poynter Institute property and the parcels of land comprising the Times printing plant.
To stay afloat, the Times solicited shares in its company to “investors,” mostly local businessmen with self-serving agendas. The public announcement was made by Publisher Paul Tash but he revealed the names of only five investors who wanted to be identified.
Fortunately, sleuthing bloggers were able to identify two more. According to the Times, only one lurks anonymously. We are quite sure there are more and that investments ramped up as the Poynter/Times debt exploded.
With a cabal of local profiteers now calling the shots, the Times ceased becoming an impartial purveyor of news. Its main aim since has been to glorify the investors and their enterprises while covering up a glut of indiscretions and, in some cases, downright criminality.
In 2018, Poynter/Times, through its subsidiary Florida Trend, sifted through the state’s 20 million residents and named one of its “investors,” Kiran Patel, as “Floridian of the Year.” One must assume the other investors are waiting their turn to receive the honor .
In September 2017, Patel and his wife announced they would spend $200-million to build a Clearwater campus for Nova Southeastern University. No one needs an accountant’s degree to know that the actual gift was overstated fourfold.
So for $51.5 million, Patel bought himself a faux honor and a humongous tax writeoff.
Four months earlier, several Tampa health care companies controlled by Patel including managed care providers Freedom Health and Optimum Healthcare, agreed to pay $31.7 million to settle allegations that they violated federal law to boost reimbursements from Medicare.
A fine choice by Poynter/Times for “Floridian of the Year.”
It gets far more atrocious.
The avalanche of slanted news and gross omissions from the Times coverage has burdened Hillsborough County with the highest sales tax in Florida, expedited the death spiral of the once proud Museum of Science and Industry, and given cover to shady land deals in Ybor City, one of the country’s most historic neighborhoods.
Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and former hedge fund manager, invested a confirmed $1.5 million in the Times, probably more. He has been at the center of all three controversies.
The Times promotes every Vinik enterprise. He has abused the public treasury, lied about the consequences of a transit tax referendum, and has been running Tampa like a crime lord since his arrival from Boston in 2010.
The increased sales tax, which hurts low and fixed income families, was designed to save Water Street Tampa, Vinik’s flailing development in downtown Tampa. It is comically referred to as “Underwater Street Tampa.”
None of Vinik”s checkered past has ever been reported by the Times. Many Tampa Bay residents remain unaware Vinik managed two underperforming hedge funds, endured ethical controversies involving his management of certain funds, and that he was a target of several shareholder lawsuits and an SEC investigation.
He initially ran Fidelity Magellan, the world’s largest stock mutual fund at the time, only to step down in 1996 after a costly bet on Treasuries. Just prior to his departure, the New York Times reported: “In the last six months, shifts in the fund’s portfolio have been relentlessly scrutinized and roundly criticized as its performance lagged further and further behind the overall stock market.”
More than a dozen lawsuits accused the then 37-year-old Vinik of stock manipulation, contending that he extolled a stock in public to keep its price up as he quietly sold large holdings.
A year later, Fidelity Investments paid about $10 million to settle a lawsuit against the company and Vinik. Plaintiffs claimed he misled individuals into buying Micron Technology stock at the same time the Magellan Fund he managed was selling the stock.
Vinik is a leading member of the ”no-name group,” a once clandestine bunch of downtown muckety-mucks who conspire off the grid. It wasn’t the Times that exposed the names of the members; they were splashed in the late Tampa Tribune.
The stranglehold over the Times by Vinik and other elitists has driven its news coverage for their good, not the greater one. This is not what Nelson Poynter, founder of his namesake institute, envisioned.
The Times fails in its mission as a trusted news source. It can only regain that trust by opening its books to the public without reservation—as all newspapers should.