Hillsborough sheriff rescinds ban on Ch. 10's Mike Deeson

It may be the shortest feud in Tampa Bay area media history.

After meeting with top executives from WTSP-Ch. 10, officials in the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Thursday rescinded a ban on providing news releases and notifications of news conferences to the CBS affiliate.

On Wednesday, , the Sheriff's Office circulated a media alert announcing they were suspending contact with WTSP. Sheriff's officials accused reporter Mike Deeson of verbally berating a civilian employee and having a vendetta against the agency because he was turned down for a job there in 2004.

Both sides said they have resolved their issues for now after a summit Thursday at the Sheriff's Office. The meeting included Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, Chief Deputy Jose Docobo and Deputy Larry McKinnon. From WTSP were general manager Ken Tonning and news director Darren Richards.

But neither WTSP nor the Sheriff's Office would say specifically what will change to address the allegations outlined in the media alert, despite the fact that officials in Gee's office have accused Deeson of serious misconduct as a journalist.

"We felt that the meeting was very productive … (allowing us) to express our concerns and to have a voice," said McKinnon. "We felt confident that they were sincere when they said they would review our concerns."

Richards said Deeson would continue to offer incisive stories — he offers a regular report on government waste called "What's That Costing You?" — though Richards declined to say specifically how the station would address Gee's concerns.

"We don't want to go into what we will or will not be doing," said Richards. "Clearly it was not in the best interests of the either party to continue the suspension."

One area where Richards said they agreed to disagree: the allegation that Deeson once sought a job from Gee's office, which the reporter has repeatedly denied.

The action by Gee's office Wednesday surprised many local politicians and media experts, who could not recall a similar announcement by a local governmental agency in the Tampa Bay area.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, for example, acknowledged she has had occasional disagreements with Deeson. But the mayor stressed she wouldn't cut off access for an entire TV station over the actions of one reporter.

"You may not always like the way everyone asks questions, but you have to find a way to work with everyone," said Iorio, who declined to name specific stories she found problematic. "The way I've handled it is by being direct — tell (reporters) how I see things … and then the next day is a new day. And, oh yes, Mike and I have had a few new days."

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats also said his office had never cut contact with an entire news outlet over problems with a single reporter. But Coats now refuses to give one-on-one interviews to Deeson.

"I do take issue with him and his style of reporting," said Coats, who has been the subject of more than one stinging story by Deeson. "He's been overly aggressive and demanding in his requests… He clearly … does report out of context."

As evidence, Coats cited a story Deeson reported back in March noting that the sheriff gave airplane rides to Pinellas commissioner Susan Latvala back and forth from Tallahassee 10 times in 2007.

Coats said he explained that the trips can help avoid hotel charges and overnight stays for elected officials, offsetting the cost, but his feedback wasn't adequately presented in the story. An online version of the story notes Latvala and Coats said the flights save money.

Deeson said Coats may be more upset about a more recent story including him among a group of "double dippers" — sheriffs who retire from one job and return to a similar position, getting a salary and retirement benefits from the government.

But on Wednesday, the media alert from Gee's office also accused Deeson of unfairness: "For a period of time Mr. Deeson has embarked on an unethical, dishonest and personal campaign to discredit the work of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office and Sheriff David Gee. It is clear to the Sheriff's Office that Mr. Deeson has lost his journalistic objectivity."

Deeson, a 27-year employee of WTSP, continued to deny the allegations Thursday, particularly the notion that he applied for a job at the Sheriff's Office.

As proof, Deeson said he signed a three-year contract in 2003 to stay at WTSP. Former WTSP reporter Bill McGinty, a longtime friend of Deeson's, also e-mailed the St. Petersburg Times from Spokane, Wash., to say he called Gee for a job in 2004 and the sheriff may have confused the two men.

"We did everything to put this behind us," Deeson added. "I will be less aggressive in my phone conversations and dealing with the Sheriff's Office, but not in my reporting."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough sheriff rescinds ban on Ch. 10's Mike Deeson 10/01/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 1, 2009 11:41pm]

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