January 21, 2011
By David Arthur Walters
A January 19 Miami Herald report stated that nine Tallahassee press correspondents complained to the Florida Society of News Editors that Governor-elect Rick Scott is restricting press freedoms by limiting media access to him and events, and by selecting favorite reporters to provide information to pools of reporters instead of allowing journalists to obtain information independently.
The Tallahassee bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel said that his paper was considered hostile to Rick Scott during the gubernatorial campaign, and now has been forced to make public records request for information; in one instance the paper was charged $400 for printing information that was available electronically.
The Florida Press was extremely hostile to Rick Scott during his campaign for governor, insinuating that he was a fraudster among other things. A rumor was conveniently uttered in liberal newsrooms throughout Florida that candidate Rick Scott was a crook. The rumor was supported by the cherry-picking of facts related to widespread Medicare fraud charges in which many prominent firms besides his own decided to pay fines imposed rather than go to the enormous expense of protracted legal proceedings with Uncle Sam, and on the exercise of his Constitutional right in a deposition not to respond to questions in a civil suit that was dismissed. That side of the story was spread liberally by the Florida press, with little or no reference to the other side of the story, which served to exonerate him and portray him, by way of personal references from all sorts of people, as an upright businessman who had no hand in intentionally defrauding Medicare. He preferred not to publicly dwell on the issues, believing that many of them were private issues that were none of the public’s business; that attitude naturally augmented the thrust of the slanted press reports.
The Miami Herald, for one, enthusiastically embraced a very narrow set of facts from which it was all too easy to jump to the conclusion that Mr. Scott was a criminal who defrauded Medicare and got away with crimes by taking the Fifth Amendment in a civil suit deposition given by lawyers out to get him, a lawyer himself. The Herald had apparently adopted that narrow set of facts from the repeated character smears televised by the campaign of his opponent, Alex Sink, whom the Herald had endorsed.
For instance, a political hack writer whose byline is Marc Caputo was called in to write a front-page article published 19 October 2010 entitled ‘Straight talk gets fuzzy under oath.” The lead paragraphs of the Miami Herald story presented the candidate as a hypocrite, liar and shifty character: “Rick Scott the candidate promises voters ‘the unvarnished truth.’ But Rick Scott the witness offers little but murky testimony. In a series of sworn depositions he gave in lawsuits against his former hospital company, Scott appears to be the polar opposite of the straight-talking Republican candidate for governor in his television ads. Under oath, Scott displays a poor memory and a penchant for parsing words. He answers a lawyer’s questions with questions. Smirking or shrugging his shoulders, his darting eyes survey the room….”
The story appeared to be one-sided, unfair, unbalanced, actually malicious, and published with intent to damage the reputation of a public figure. One-sided reporting can serve either side; for instance, many favorable reports were written about Hitler and Mussolini, citing the facts of their positive achievements – even after the holocaustic horrors of Hitler’s regime were revealed, a book praising a certain set of facts was penned, dwelling on the fact that the residents of one town at least were very happy that their town had been rid of crime and had prospered, noting that one did not have to belong to the Nazi party then, one just had to attend a brief meeting every week or so.
When the Miami Mirror emailed Marc Caputo, calling him to task for his reporting, his reaction indicated that he hates criticism of his reporting and his employer. He said the criticism was not worth reading, and that he did not read it because its author had misspelled his name, as ‘Mark,’ and that the email subject line, “Subject: Has the Miami Herald become another slander sheet?” should not have included the word ‘slander’ because ‘libel’ is the only word that can be used for written defamation. Further, he disdainfully referred to the Miami Mirror as a ‘blog’, and charged the sender with bad manners for attaching a PDF file, which he presumed was polluted with virus.
Journalists can naturally be narrow-mind cavilers and frustrated pettifoggers, especially when confronted with negative criticism. I shall prove that point in respect to myself by way of this argument:
It is true that, in the narrow, legal sense, which seems to be the only one Mr. Caputo knows, that ‘slander’ refers to spoken defamation, while ‘libel’ is the term proper for written defamation: at Law, slander is defamation by oral utterance rather than by writing, pictures, etc. Libel and slander are subcategories of defamation, which is an act of communication that causes someone to be shamed, ridiculed, held in contempt, lowered in the estimation of the community, or to lose employment status or earnings or otherwise suffer a damaged reputation
Indeed, I had thought of that when I composed my email, thinking I should use the word ‘libel’ instead of ‘slander’, but I decided that ‘slander’ as generally defined is the proper term, and that it would happily add customary color to my email subject line via the phrase “slander sheet.” Therefore: “Subject: Has the Miami Herald become another slander sheet?” Sometimes I am sloppy, and I tend to be prolix, but I usually choose my words carefully, not only because I love words but also to protect myself from pettifogging writers who quibble over spellings, punctuation, and particular definitions instead of going directly to the substance and context of utterances
Now the word ‘slander’ is derived from the Latin word ‘scandalum.’ A “slander sheet” would be a “scandal sheet” inasmuch as it scandalizes. A slander is usually a false statement, but the term ‘slander’ has been used as a synonym for ‘scandal,’ e.g. as rumor whether true or false: “It may be a slander, but it is no lie.” Still, generally speaking, slander is the dissemination or publication of a false and defamatory report by any means of communication including oral utterance and written reports. The word ‘utter’ is related to ‘out’, and means to completely speak out, or to cry out; it also refers to the circulation of false coin, counterfeit money. An ‘utterance’ is something expressed in a written or oral statement.
The unabridged Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘slander’, first of all, as “The utterance or dissemination of false statements or reporters concerning a person, or malicious representation of his actions, in order to defame or injure him; calumny, defamation.”
Therefore, the use of the term ‘slander’ in ‘slander sheet’ for good effect was quite proper English. But let us return to the subject at hand, Governor Scott’s restriction of press freedoms. Whether the restrictions are vindictive or not is an open question. Bob Rathgeber, senior writer of The News-Press of Fort Myers reported said that Governor Scott is behaving as if he were still in the private sector instead of in government. The private sector is of course contemptuous of the public’s need to know: “He doesn’t care whether we have complaints or not. He’s from the private sector and he’s a private guy.”
Ideally, the freedom of the so-called people’s watchdog and fourth branch of government should be unrestricted when not contrary to the public interest as liberally defined, and its members should be treated equally regardless of the nature of their reports. But without human nature there would be no ideals to strive for. A sense of injustice done gives people some cause to believe that the Florida Press is getting what it deserves for trashing Rick Scott, and that he has good reason and every right to thumb his nose at scribbling scoundrels.
After Mr. Scott was elected, Florida media, observing that his inauguration security detail resembled the Secret Service, mocked him for conducting himself more like a United States president about to occupy the White House in the nation’s capital than a Florida governor taking office in homey Tallahassee.
No doubt the Florida Press would be treated much better if it had been as friendly toward him during his campaign as the nation’s press was friendly toward Herbert Hoover during his – his main challenger’s campaign manager complained that the press was full of nothing but advertisements for Mr. Hoover.
Like Rick Scott, Herbert Hoover promised an efficient, pro-business government as a solution to poverty. But having been treated kindly by the press, President Hoover announced a new phase of press relations at his very first press conference; he held more conferences with the press in his first 120 days of presidency than previous presidents, insisting on speaking directly to the press and being personally quoted. His relations with the press took a bad turn with the Great Depression; he restricted access to himself; journalists were carefully screened in advance.
We recall that President Warren Harding, after one of his gaffes, required questions to be written down and submitted in advance. He could not stand press criticism, and press conferences were practically eliminated as scandal took its toll on his reputation.
President Calvin Coolidge followed suit. "I don't recall any candidate for President who ever injured himself very much by not talking," he said. He was even more restrictive, requiring correspondents to submit written questions in advance. After his secretary screened the questions, he would cherry-pick those he wished to address. He insisted that the replies be used merely as background information, without reference to the fact that there had been a press conference. If he did not care for any of the questions, he would state that there were no questions asked that day. He would allow no shorthand to be taken at the conferences, stating that it interfered with his freedom of expression.
Press access to the governor in some situations is a privilege and not a right. Whatever the motives of Rick Scott and the members of the Florida Press, Floridians are standing by to read about all of the new governor’s results whether the Florida Press likes them or not.