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Nancy Smith

Not Your Father's Florida Press Association

October 14, 2014 - 6:00pm

(This column has been updated to include the comments of Florida Press Association and Intersect Media Solutions President and CEO Dean Ridings.)

The Florida Press Association's questionable alliances were bound to catch up with this once-venerable, 134-year-old organization. I knew it would happen -- just not quite so soon.

It took Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Adrian Wyllie to connect the dots and flush them into the full light of day -- something none of the rest of us in the press apparently had the guts to do, even though we all could see what's been happening.

Wyllie is incensed. He lost his lawsuit in federal court Tuesday, won't be included in Wednesday's candidate debate at Broward College. True, practically every editor in Florida, myself included, predicted that would happen.

But Wyllie now makes the point that the Florida Press Association, with Dean Ridings at the helm, has a sizable conflict of interest -- and, let's be honest, he's right.

Press Association President and CEO Ridings also serves on the board of Leadership Florida, which -- with FPA -- is the co-sponsor of Wednesday's debate. And Ridings is the chief executive of FPA's advertising subsidiary, Intersect Media Solutions (IMS). Intersect is owned by FPA's for-profit arm, Florida Press Services. It provides marketing research and media advertising purchases for companies around the state and country.

I'm sure you can see where I'm going with this.

It so happens one of IMS' clients is Democratic consulting firm Greer, Margolis, Mitchell and Burn. GMMB islocated on K Street in Washington, D.C., "and is known for running campaigns for major Democrat candidates," said Wyllie, "including Barrack Obama and most recently ... (here it comes) ... Charlie Crist."

According to a statement from Wyllie, when speaking of the company's relationship with Intersect, GMMB partner Brad Perseke said, "I call them for virtually all of our newspaper advertising. ... Intersect Media Solutions ... provides us with the necessary research and data needed for effective newspaper advertising."

Here's where it gets interesting.

Apparently, during this election cycle GMMB has done a lot of bouncing Charlie Crist's campaign and the Democrat Party of Florida on its knee. Wyllie confirms the company has been paid $6,455,903.22 so far this election year -- $1,888,859.67 coming from Charlie Crist, $4,101,653.40 from the Democrat Party of Florida and $465,390.15 from Service Employees International Union.

I didn't have Ridings' cellphone number last night and therefore did not include his comments in the first version of this column. I apologize for the omission. He's right -- other reporters have his personal number, I should have it, too.

Ridings, seeing the story in print Wednesday morning, told me he is outraged I would make a connection between Intersect Media Solutions and Charlie Crist.

"Intersect has absolutely nothing to do with Charlie Crist's campaign or the Democratic Party of Florida or the union," he said. "Making that connection is like me walking into Home Depot and you telling me I had something to do with their credit card fraud."

The business Intersect got from Greer, Margolis, etc. was unrelated to any campaigns or interests mentioned in this story, he said.

But the fact remains, there is a wide gulf between what the public knows of Intersect's business and what Intersect's business actually is. Should an organization that exists to further the profession of journalism even have a conflicting profit-making arm -- by conflicting, I mean the perception thereof.

Whether Ridings and his various interests are actually guilty of anything here isn't the point. Nor is the point whether Adrian Wyllie is just beating the bushes in a desperate cry for attention.

The point is, seats on the board of FPA and Intersect Media Solutions all are filled with newspaper publishers, editors or senior staff, the verypeople who pledge to "advance the professional standards of the press of Florida."

It's one thing for the Florida Press Association, in its struggle to stay solvent in this era of declining newspaper circulation, to put its College Ave. building up for sale. It's quite another to sell out by forging alliances that compromise its principles. Accepting money and favors from people and businesses the Florida press should be covering?

What happened to FPA's own raison d'etre that describes itself like this: "Its purpose includes the promotion and encouragement of higher standards of journalism to the benefit of the industry and the public."

Isn't there still a perception of wrongdoing in this new FPA?

I understand times have changed. I work for a very 21st century online newspaper, nobody knows that better than I do. But I was part of the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors for many years, back in the day, even served as its president in 1993 and 1994.

Granted, those were fat times for newspapers. Lofty principles and a rigid value set came easy. And we spent a lot of time sitting around talking about those things. No offense to Ron Sachs and Sachs Media Group, but I can't imagine 20 years ago a news organization outsourcing, for instance, video news coverage to the largest public policy and PR firm in Tallahassee. That's what's happening today.

Wyllie wrapped up his debate lost-cause with this: "At this point, given the circumstantial evidence of an incestuous, multimillion-dollar relationship between Dean Ridings, GMMB, and Charlie Crist, I have to call into question whether this was the ultimate reason for my exclusion in the debate.

"It is clear to me now that when Ridings set the debate criteria specifically to exclude me, it was not based on public interest -- it was based on personal profit motive."

The truth is, Ridings and the debate planners were entitled to set the criteria however they liked. The debate is their event. But haven't they left themselves open to criticism, exposed flaws that shouldn't be there, and won't Florida voters -- some of them, anyway -- give them what-for?

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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