Last year, The Capitolist published a series of articles as part of in-depth investigation exposing the funding sources and misleading public statements by the Palm Beach Post. The series focused on a story the Post produced using funding from the Knight Foundation, with the concept for the story decided before the Post even began its investigation.
Today, we are proud to announce that The Capitolist’s original story has now been selected by The Capitolist to receive The Capitolist’s 2022 Brian J. Burgess Excellence in Media Accountability Award. The prize is named after The Capitolist’s founder, who coincidentally wrote the story and chose it as winner out of hundreds of stories published by The Capitolist in 2021.
“I am honored to receive this prestigious award for shining the spotlight of truth on our state’s agenda driven journalism,” I said. “It’s not every day that someone like me gets to hand myself an award for the outstanding work that I do every day.”
The Capitolist’s award-winning investigation found that the Palm Beach Post misled their readers about the funding behind the story, initially claiming that the Post itself invested a “great deal” of their own resources to produce it. However, the financial investment that paid for the Post’s story came in the form of a grant through another media outlet, ProPublica, which in turn received those dollars from the Knight Foundation.
The Capitolist’s “prestigious award” comes at the same time that the Knight Foundation bestowed its own “prestigious” award on the Palm Beach Post for the very story the Knight Foundation paid the Post to produce in the first place. April Fool’s Day was Friday, so that last part was not a joke. And it’s worth repeating: the group that paid the Palm Beach Post to produce an “investigation” has now bestowed a “prestigious award” on the Palm Beach Post for doing what they paid them to do.
The Post’s story, “Black Snow,” was the culmination of a year-long reporting project focusing on the age-old practice of pre-harvest sugar cane burning by farmers in Southeast Florida. Burning sugar cane before harvest eliminates extraneous leafage, helps prevent wildfires, pests and disease, and makes harvesting the cane safer and more efficient.
So, just to keep things straight – here it is one more time. According to the Palm Beach Post, their Knight Foundation-funded story was selected by the Knight Foundation itself to win the Knight Foundation’s 2022 Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional science journalism. Undoubtedly, the competition must have been tough, but in the end, the Palm Beach Post somehow managed to convince the organization that paid tens of thousands of dollars for the story in the first place, that it was worthy of their prize.
To be sure, the news media is fond of tooting its own horn. From boasting about Pulitzer Prizes like the nearly bankrupt Tampa Bay Times is so fond of doing, to Peter Schorsch actually using his platform to beg people to vote for his own publication in a recent media readership survey, or even to the blatantly partisan Mary Ellen Klas and her 2018 Sunshine Award that she brags about on her own website, prizes seem to matter a great deal to journalists and their employers. Even prizes that are made up or less “prestigious” than the journalists claim.
But setting aside the remarkable level of self-congratulatory contortionism necessary to pat oneself on the back with such vigor, there are serious issues of truth to contend with even in the just the news story written and published by the Palm Beach Post about the winning of their “award.”
The original “Black Snow” article was already rife with misleading claims and flawed analysis, which we have previously pointed out in our own “award winning” investigation. But even a cursory reading about the story behind the Post’s “award” reveals brand new lies thrust upon Palm Beach Post’s readers. Here’s a quote in the story from the Knight Foundation judges who bestowed the award:
“This series had scope. The graphics were superb. It had great impact,” the judges said. “It is an example of truly tenacious reporting against significant obstacles.”
Superb graphics? Maybe.
Great impact? Demonstrably false.
The Post’s only real claim of actual “impact” is that they convinced government officials to replace an allegedly malfunctioning air quality monitor. This claim is false in two ways. First, the Post’s own data, when compiled and analyzed using federal methodology, was consistent with the allegedly “malfunctioning” monitor. Second, the monitor’s replacement was already in the works before the Post published it’s story.
Tenacious reporting? Significant obstacles? Pure fiction.
The Post’s reporter who led the story basically was essentially farmed out – that is, bought and paid for by the Knight Foundation’s money, funneled through ProPublica. This meant she knew her job was secure for a full year, and could focus primarily on producing exactly the outcome that ProPublica and the Knight Foundation envisioned. This is not the kind of “tenacious reporting” that used to happen when a journalist would follow a hunch, bring some preliminary findings to her editor, and had to fight for budget approval with the editor and the newspaper’s lawyers to continue digging deeper in the investigation. No, this was a prepaid investigation with a predetermined outcome. No tenacity required. Just good storytelling skills.
And it’s not like the Post had to duke it out with community leaders or powerful special interests to tell the story. The reverse is actually true. The Post was granted unprecedented access by Florida sugar farmers so their reporters could witness sugar cane harvesting operations, including prescribed, pre-harvest cane burns and see for themselves that they are not dangerous. The Post’s reporters were allowed to take photographs of the practice. They flew drones over sugar farms. They were provided access to sugar farming executives, who answered questions, provided data and bent over backwards to accommodate what they knew was a pre-ordained journalistic assassination attempt on their business operations.
But sure, the Palm Beach Post’s team engaged in “truly tenacious reporting.”
Sadly, the true story of the Post’s “reporting” is that they ignored actual scientific data and instead bought their own, significantly less reliable consumer-grade air quality monitors that aren’t designed for federal air quality monitoring in the first place, then they analyzed their own flawed data to produce what ProPublica and the Knight Foundation expected them to produce. And they were given an “award” for it.
Truly prestigious “science reporting awards” aren’t usually given when reporters ignore real scientific data. But we live in unusual times, and that’s exactly what has happened. While the Post didn’t share their raw data publicly, an analysis of their data, which was obtained by U.S. Sugar, and made public here, and shows how the Post’s unscientific analysis is badly flawed and thus ridiculously overblown.
According to that analysis, about 98.6 percent of the air quality samples the Post collected on their own fell within acceptable air quality standards set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency. Of the 1.4 percent of air quality samples that contained levels of air pollution outside the EPA standard, only 0.56 percent were taken at a time when a prescribed sugar cane burn was scheduled to take place. In case there’s any confusion about that very small size of that number, it’s not fifty-six percent of the samples. It’s zero point five six percent of one point four percent. As in, nearly zero of the Post’s air quality samples showed elevated pollution levels that could even be loosely connected with sugar cane burns.
So there you have it. We at The Capitolist are proud of our work, and we’re proud of our made-up 2022 Excellence in Media Accountability Award. Almost as proud as the Palm Beach Post is of their Knight Foundation Award given to them for excellence in producing exactly the sort of content the Knight Foundation paid them to produce in the first place.