Tampa Bay Times makes Pinellas Commission races a 'special project'

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The influence of the Tampa Bay Times on local elections is both insignificant and overwhelming, depending on the nature of race.

Its influence is insignificant in congressional, state legislative and countywide races because there is so much money involved in these races; the newspaper simply cannot compete with the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent targeting voters.

Nor can the newspaper really afford to dedicate a reporter to cover full-time and in-depth a single congressional or legislative race.

Instead, the newspaper assigns beat reporters to help out with political campaign coverage. Hence Mark Puente, the reporter who covers St. Petersburg’s City Hall, is also covering the race for District 68 between Dwight Dudley and Frank Farkas.

All of this contributes to the newspaper having limited influence on the outcome of these races. This is unlike the influence the paper has on down-ballot races such as those for the bench or school board. In these races, the Times‘ reporting and the recommendation of its editorial board have an outsized influence on the outcome.  Of course, the candidates for these race typically raise little money for their campaigns.

There are exceptions to these, um, rules. There are instances when the Times makes a campaign or two its ‘special project’ for an election cycle. This is when the editors of the Times throw the budgets out the window and really go to work on a candidate.

Stories which aren’t exactly news get front-page treatment. These stories are then commented on by the metro columnists, editorialized about by Tim Nickens and Co. and fact-checked by PolitiFact, etc., etc.  And when all of this is done, the process begins anew.

Candidates caught in this vortex can do very little to change the narrative. In fact, if they complain about a perceived unfairness, that complaining then makes its way into the news coverage.

The most recent ‘special project’ of the Times was Republican Sheriff candidate Everett Rice, and deservedly so. Everett had veered a little far to the Tea Party right for the Times‘ taste and that’s when it stepped in and started cranking out the stories about Rice’s lurch to the right. There was little Rice could do to escape the Times‘ vortex.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the Times went to work on Rice. He is certainly past his prime and Bob Gualtieri was the better choice. But that doesn’t mean the newspaper’s coverage wasn’t out of proportion.

Currently, the Times has made the two races for the Pinellas County Commission — between Neil Brickfield vs. Janet Long and Nancy Bostock vs. Charlie Justice — its special projects for the general election. The newspaper hates, hates, hates Brickfield and Bostock for voting to remove fluoride from the public drinking water and it’s doing everything in its power to see these two candidates removed from office.

Case in point, look at yesterday’s edition of the Times.  There was the self-fulfilling article by reporter Anna Phillips about how the races “may be tighter than usual.” There’s no real news in Phillips story, just a chance for the newspaper to stir the soup.

Phillips story was next to a column by John Romano about how Brickfield and Bostock might lose. The trifecta occurred when the editorial board opined about the “real cost of the fluoride fiasco.”

There it is, loyal Times readers, your ‘special project’ for the November election. Paul Tash asks you to vote accordingly.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.