Media Check: Democratic primary in South Florida exposed weakness of out-of-touch newspapers

by | Nov 5, 2021



All three of South Florida’s major newspapers had an embarrassing election night this week, when voters either ignored or flatly rejected their recommendations to replace the late Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-FL 20), who died in office after a battle with cancer at the end of his 28-year career.

The sprawling, absurdly gerrymandered 20th Congressional District includes the Everglades Agricultural Area, and also features three salients that carve out neighborhoods in Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami, making it an important contest in the eyes of the Palm Beach PostSouth Florida Sun Sentinel, and the Miami Herald.

In the Democratic primary contest, both the Post and the Herald endorsed Barbara Sharief, while the Sun-Sentinel backed Omari Hardy. All three newspaper endorsements were completely worthless.

While the outcome of the Democratic primary remains up for grabs, neither Sharief nor Hardy will be doing the grabbing. Sharief finished an embarrassing third, while Hardy finished in sixth place with a pathetic 2,900 votes. Their collective performance at the ballot box speaks volumes about the value of their newspaper endorsements, and also the political acumen of those papers’ editorial board members.

Beyond the impotence of the newspaper endorsements themselves, the Palm Beach Post caused further damage to the prospects of both Sharief and Hardy by featuring them as outspoken critics of sugar farmers, one of the 20th Congressional District’s most important constituencies.

The Post embarrassed itself two months ago with a series of stories attacking the practice of sugar cane burning. The stories were controversially underwritten by ProPublica, and the original source of the funding has yet to be disclosed. When questioned on the matter, Palm Beach Post editor Rick Christie even contradicted what his paper had previously reported, eventually clarifying the reporter’s entire salary had been covered for a full year by a donation that flowed through ProPublica.

But beyond the shady funding and questionable methodology behind the reporting is the tone-deaf approach by the Post, which still apparently doesn’t understand that attacking the livelihoods of the men and women working in the sugar industry isn’t going to win support at the ballot box.

Both Sharief and Hardy were featured more prominently than any of their competitors in a story published by both the Post and their funding partner, ProPublica, just days before the election. Both candidates were quoted echoing the tone-deaf criticisms aimed at sugar farmers who make their living on farms in South Bay, Belle Glade and Pahokee in the 20th Congressional District. Belle Glade’s motto is “Her Soil is Her Fortune.” Running on an anti-farming platform in the Glades is like running on an anti-space platform in Melbourne.

Hardy, whose Tuesday showing was exceptionally poor, also had the near-worthless backing of Robert Mitchell, a board member of Friends of the Everglades, another group that is an outspoken critic of sugar farmers. Hardy follows a long list of candidates that have tried and failed to make attacking farmers a winning campaign theme. In 2018, Orlando land developer Chris King tried to make a name for himself by announcing his refusal to accept support from “Big Sugar” (nevermind that “Big Sugar” never offered such help in the first place). King then got drubbed in the primary and later earned the dubious honor of losing again in the general election as Andrew Gillum’s wingman.

Perhaps Hardy was duped by the progressives at the Everglades Foundation, who time and again try to find candidates that will make an issue out of sugarcane farming, when voters seem to care more about true pocketbook issues like access to jobs, healthcare and education.

Florida’s political landscape is littered with carcasses of candidates who took on “Big Sugar” and lost. This week, thanks to the fact that three of South Florida’s legacy newspapers have lurched so far out of step with the concerns of their readers, the list of the vanquished now includes Hardy and Sharief.

Perhaps one day the clueless editorial board members and their endorsed political candidates will realize that farming in South Florida is more important to the region’s economy than the swag bags handed out at ritzy Everglades Foundation cocktail parties. Tuesday night’s results should serve as a wake-up call.

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