The Wrap: Big controversies dominated the week

by | Aug 8, 2021

Every weekend, we look at the news stories shaping the conversations in Florida’s business, public policy, and political worlds. Here’s this weekend’s Capitolist wrap-up, which we call “The Wrap.”

DeSantis vs. Biden: Pandemic pits powerhouses against each other

The national sparring match between Governor Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden generated a trio of stories this week that garnered The Capitolist a fair share of internet traffic. DeSantis’s move to block school mask mandates kicked things off, but the Republican leader wasn’t finished making news. On Tuesday, he fired a shot back at Biden and the White House. It was one of those red-meat laden, “mic drop” moments (according to his own lightning-rod spokeswoman Christina Pushaw), in which he also took the media to task for creating “hysteria” around COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Then it was President Biden’s turn. When asked about the sharp remarks from Governor DeSantis, Biden retorted, “Governor who?” The remark was immediately followed by a wry smile, indicating he’d heard the question. As our own Jordan Kirkland wrote, the remark fueled a social media firestorm among supporters and detractors of both leaders.

The resurgence of COVID-19 and its attendant policy questions took some of the shine off DeSantis this week, with his relative position among potential re-election challengers dipping slightly, but so far, not enough to matter. The pandemic will continue to provide fodder for the national media, pitting DeSantis and his “trust-the-people” approach against Biden and the “government-must-do-more” crowd – and that will only endear DeSantis to his base as he looks for ways to expand support among the moderate middle.

The Palm Beach Post published prepaid political pablum

While DeSantis and Biden’s pre-2024 sparring match attracted a lot of interested spectators, the most traffic to the site this week came from a pair of stories focused on the Palm Beach Post’s misleading statements to its own readers about the source of funding behind a year-long reporting project they called “Black Snow.” The Post’s story attempted to discredit the long-running agriculture practice of burning off excess leafage before harvesting sugar cane stalks in South Florida, suggesting that farmers were causing breathing problems in the surrounding community. Sugar farmers and government health officials have stated flatly that there’s no evidence to support the Post’s claims.

Our interest in the story was two-fold: first, the way in which Post reporter Lulu Ramadan went about her year-long project, like an overzealous prosecutor gathering information to railroad her target rather than an objective investigation seeking to find the truth. And second, the way in which the Post promoted the project to its own readers, falsely implying the Post expended tremendous resources to conduct a fair and impartial investigation, when in fact the project allowed the Post to pocket the cash they’d normally pay to Ramadan while she was farmed out to the real funders behind the project.

Sources with knowledge of the matter told The Capitolist that the project was approved by ProPublica only after the Post promised a specific story outcome with an eye toward turning public opinion or public policy against the harvesting practice. That’s not traditional journalism, that’s partisanship and political activism. The Post and its defenders should stop pretending otherwise, but they’re having a hard time coming to grips with the truth.

Even after The Capitolist uncovered dark money links between South Florida environmentalists and the non-profit groups that funded the Post’s story, the Post has steadfastly refused to publish the grant application and contract with ProPublica that would better explain which of the Post’s editorial standards (if any) were applied to this controversial story.

The Palm Beach Post specifically says “we will explain to audiences our journalistic processes to promote transparency and engagement,” but if that were true, readers should be able to see a copy of the grant application and contract with ProPublica or whatever entity actually funneled the cash to Ramadan / the Post. 

The golden era of newspaper journalism is long gone. Only a few years ago, readers still knew it was the newspapers themselves that paid for hard-hitting investigative reports. The Palm Beach Post attempted to get its readers to believe that was still the case with “Black Snow,” when in reality the funding flowed from the Knight Foundation, which has also provided significant funding to the Everglades Foundation, whose various affiliates, including the Sierra Club and the Everglades Trust, have been outspoken opponents of cane burning.

The Capitolist’s stories struck a nerve with Florida’s legacy media defenders, many of whom didn’t take kindly to the Post being exposed for selling out to activist groups with an obvious political agenda. A number of reporters took to Twitter to unleash a torrent of snark, which only elevated the story further, shining an even brighter light on the Post’s unwillingness to come clean about what they promised in exchange for a significant chunk of grant money.

A growing controversy? Cities and counties gorging on federal cash

Four stories last week focused on how city and county governments are spending millions in “free” federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan. More than $4.1 billion has been earmarked for each of Florida’s 67 counties, and an additional $1.5 billion is going to 77 of Florida’s largest municipal cities.

As the cash starts to flow, many voices haves started to grow louder about how and where it should be spent, and we’re not even fully into the 2022 election cycle yet, when opponents of local officials will undoubtedly point out any controversies uncovered in the way the funds get spread around.

One of those early controversies: our own Karen Murphy revealed that while the federal government just extended an eviction moratorium until at least October, local governments are sitting on billions of dollars in affordable housing funds.

As the 2022 election cycle heats up, and local and county governments start deploying their grant dollars, we expect the issue to only get hotter.




%d bloggers like this: