Dirty money: How ‘pay for play’ media helps special interests slant the story

Just when you think you’re being too cynical about Florida politics, you realize you aren’t being cynical enough.

Tallahassee, the Florida capital, has no shortage of hacks and flacks, would-be “journalists” who’ll print anything for a buck. So we were amused last week to see a National Public Radio news story, distributed across the country, asking: “Politicians say this Florida news site lets them buy coverage. Is your state next?”

The story focused on a media “outlet” called Florida Politics, which devotes itself to coverage of the same. It’s helmed by one Peter Schorsch, who was defiant in the face of NPR’s reporting on how some current and former elected officials say Florida Politics was happy to give them coverage — for a price. And those who didn’t pay that price — advertising fees — discovered that Florida Politics was suddenly uninterested in stories of their campaign or legislative proposals.

Schorsch denied strenuously that he engages in “pay to play” coverage, but acknowledged he forges “very strong business relationships with people. That opens doors, provides revenues.”

We bet it does.

Indeed, we wonder how many “very strong business relationships” his outlet has not just with legislators or candidates, but the special interests behind them.

Florida Politics has reliably pushed Big Sugar propaganda for years. A classic example would be this story from last September, claiming that, even though the St. Lucie River wasn’t getting discharges from Lake Okeechobee, a “toxic algae bloom” had developed in Sailfish Flats near Stuart.

This, trumpeted the tall tale, proved local septic tanks were responsible for the estuary’s water quality problem, not Lake O discharges (and CERTAINLY not those responsible for polluting the lake over the years, like Big Sugar).

Busted! Except… boaters and local residents who spend time at Sailfish Flats told VoteWater they’d seen no big algae blooms. And the photo used to illustrate the story didn’t show the microcystis that clogged the estuary with blue-green gunk in 2013, 2016 and 2018. Experts told VoteWater it was likely lyngbya, a type of bacteria that, while problematic, has caused nothing remotely like the havoc triggered by blue-green algae in lake releases.

Bottom line, it wasn’t the same thing; the story was misleading — and likely designed that way. All the better to advance a narrative that very powerful and wealthy special interests want you to believe.

Then there’s the fact that Florida Politics was one of six news outlets across Alabama and Florida linked financially to the consulting firm Matrix LLC. Matrix served clients like sugar company Florida Crystals, Florida Power & Light and others, seeking “to ensure much coverage was secretly driven by the priorities of its clients,” according to another NPR report from December.

“A 2021 invoice shared by Schorsch shows that Florida Power & Light paid [Florida Politics] $43,000 for advertising, enough to cover the cost of a full-time reporter,” NPR reported.

We wonder how willing Schorsch or that reporter would have been to print anything the utility found unpleasant. We’re guessing they wouldn’t have stopped the presses.

But NPR notes that many who read Florida Politics are “political professionals, business leaders and journalists — people who help set the agenda for lawmakers and talk radio shows in both states. These readers have been unknowingly immersing themselves in an echo chamber of questionable coverage for years.”

Well, we’re not sure how “unknowing” they might have been. Plenty of people know how the game works; so long as it works for them, that’s what’s important.

This is dirty money, folks: it’s designed to skew the coverage, highlight false “facts,” influence the decisions and decision-makers.

This is what those of us who want clean water — and clean politics — are up against.

But sunlight remains the best disinfectant, so we applaud NPR’s reporting and suggest other media outlets dig into the topic — for it’s a target-rich environment.