Last week’s indictment of Andrew Gillum, the former Tallahassee mayor and 2018 Democrat nominee for Florida governor, stunned almost every political observer in the state when the news broke early last Wednesday. Literally everyone in the media – including The Capitolist – had all but written off the federal investigation after several of Gillum’s associates were charged, arrested, tried and convicted while Gillum appeared to be getting away scot-free.
Yet when compared with other recent Florida political scandals and related investigations, the Gillum scandal offers a fascinating case study in media bias – where intense scrutiny and substantial media resources are marshaled to maximize damage on Republican scandals, and legacy media outlets treat Democrats like Gillum with kid gloves.
That’s not to say that the media didn’t report on Gillum’s obvious troubles with the FBI. They certainly did cover the scandal, but only insofar as they couldn’t ignore some breaking news events, such as the time late in the 2018 campaign when incriminating text messages from Gillum proved he had, in fact, accepted a free ticket to the Broadway play “Hamilton.” And that it came not from his brother, as Gillum had claimed, but from “Mike Miller,” who later turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.
Other than a handful of key inflection points in 2018, Florida’s legacy media largely served as apologists for Gillum, even as they admitted that his head-scratching explanations didn’t make any sense, providing him a free pass while focusing on his “historic” campaign as Florida’s first black gubernatorial nominee. Beyond reporting the existence of the controversy, there was never a deep-diving exposé or hard-hitting journalistic investigation into a man who came within 30,000 votes of becoming governor.
Forget Gillum’s naked, meth-fueled vomit party in a Miami hotel room with at least one man British tabloids had a field day with. That event came after the fact and few saw it coming. The real issue is the blatantly obvious questions and contradictions that swirled around Gillum since his time as mayor, when his business associates and Gillum himself were allegedly playing so fast and loose with ethics rules, gifts, city funds, development approvals and fundraising that it triggered a Hollywood-style undercover FBI investigation.
During the years leading up to November 2018, the state’s most “aggressive” newspaper when it came to reporting on Gillum wasn’t even the hometown Tallahassee Democrat, but instead the much smaller Tallahassee Reports, a publication that repeatedly scooped its bigger competitors on the Gillum scandals while the legacy outlets pumped out extremely embarrassing stories and ignored all the warning signs (credit Adam Smith, the Times’ political reporter during the election, for at least admitting it while the election was still going on). But his bosses on the Editorial Board didn’t care. Consider this paragraph from the Tampa Bay Times’ endorsement of Gillum over Ron DeSantis, which they buried beneath paragraph after paragraph of praise for Gillum and maligning of DeSantis:
Gillum also has a cloud hanging over him. A lengthy federal investigation of Tallahassee city government involving one of his former friends remains open. Gillum denies any wrongdoing and offers reasonable explanations about publicly reported trips and expenditures. But it’s unfortunate the investigation has not provided clarity before voters started casting their ballots.
The Times editorial staff laments that “the investigation” hasn’t provided clarity, but never once did they try to offer clarity on their own, even though newspapers routinely do their own investigations to provide “clarity” for readers – especially if “providing clarity” means they get to tar and feather a Republican.
It’s worth noting that Gillum was also endorsed by the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and the Palm Beach Post, and all made similar excuses for him – while blasting DeSantis for daring to mention the FBI investigation hanging over Gillum’s head.
Compare the state’s legacy media reporting on Gillum’s troubles with their interest in recent Republican scandals that don’t even have statewide magnitude.
First, the so-called South Florida “ghost candidate” case in which former State Senator Frank Artiles was charged with making an illegal payment to a candidate with the same last name as a Democrat candidate in order to “siphon votes” from the Democrat and help Republicans win. Never mind that “siphoning votes” from a political opponent is perfectly legal and what political campaigns are supposed to do in the first place. And never mind that the case has, at best, only local interest.
The Orlando Sentinel and Miami Herald expended a disproportionate amount of resources to cover the Artiles case and try to expand it to malign other Republicans in an effort to turn a literal molehill into a mountain. A quick Google search turns up more than 20 stories by the Miami Herald alone, and that’s only counting those stories containing the exact match for search terms “ghost candidate” and “Frank Artiles.” The Orlando Sentinel? They cranked out more than 100 stories using those precise search terms.
The other case that springs to mind is the investigation of Matt Gaetz. And in the media’s defense, at least this one is sensational in that it involves sex between one of Gaetz’s friends and a then-underage teenager – so perhaps a bit of click-baiting might be justified – after all, legacy newspapers are desperate for clicks.
And the similarities between the Gillum and Gaetz cases are interesting: both involve close associates getting indicted. Both involve long periods of absolutely zero public activity by the authorities. But the Gaetz case exposed the media’s all-out effort to indict him in the court of public opinion, even in the absence of direct evidence. Contrast that with the legacy media’s “just-the-facts” treatment of Andrew Gillum, and it becomes obvious that Florida’s major news organizations are putting a thumb on the proverbial scale – especially when Gillum could have been governor of the state.
When it comes to scathing political news coverage, it’s not the facts that matter, but rather which team’s jersey the political figure is wearing.