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Lucy Morgan

Scott throws up walls to press


Show me a man who brags that he doesn't read Florida newspapers, and I'll show you a man who is not well informed about what's going on in this state.

And, yes, I'm talking about you, governor.

If you hear only the news that those around you want you to hear or what you can find on television, you will never be completely aware of all of the things you should know about the state you have been chosen to run.

A lot of the governors we have known thought they had a staff that would alert them when the train was about to run off the track. Some of them learned the hard way that most state employees don't like to be the bearers of bad news out of fear that the messenger will be sent into oblivion.

Some governors, heeding advice from campaign consultants, are always trying to get us to listen to their "message" of the day.

It doesn't always work.

Gov. Rick Scott, a former health care executive in office for almost a month, wants to select the reporters who cover some of his events. And he's establishing a lot of new rules in an attempt to control the time and place that reporters can ask questions.

As you might expect, there is resistance.

This sort of struggle is not new. It happens to some degree almost every time we get a new governor. But most governors come into office knowing the reporters who cover them each day because they served in some other office or were introduced along the campaign trail.

Sometimes they shared long days in legislative halls, watching the state's history accrue one day at a time. They lived through fights over the Cross Florida Barge Canal or preserving the Green Swamp or the Everglades.

Or they got to know each other on hot sweltering days spent bopping around the state in small airplanes, crowded motor homes and attending an endless parade of chicken dinners and barbecues where the candidate rarely takes time to eat.

Scott spent $73 million of his own money to win the office with an anti-Tallahassee campaign. He refused to meet with editorial boards, but allowed reporters on his campaign bus. We don't know him very well, and he doesn't know us.

His staff has been critical of us for asking questions on topics that are not a part of his daily "message," and he wants those attending news conferences to remain in their seats and abandon the traditional attempt to pursue a followup question. They underscored the order with blue velvet ropes between the podium and the press at one availability.

This could be an interesting four years.

Some of the more difficult confrontations with the governor have come over quasi social gatherings at the mansion. Some governors, most recently Gov. Charlie Crist, have let reporters attend gatherings with legislators even when a strict interpretation of the public meetings law didn't require it.

The law allows us to be present when state business is being discussed, but there's no way to tell what's being discussed if we are not present. Although the governor's staff declares these events to be "social occasions," it's unrealistic to think that a governor and a bunch of legislators would gather for an evening and never discuss the state's business.

Scott wants a pool approach but he wants to pick the pool reporter, thus sparing himself from the presence of a reporter he doesn't like.

Most reporters don't like pool situations and agree to them only when space is a problem. We like the possibility having more than one set of eyes watching our public officials. In a pool arrangement, reporters from various news organizations rotate the job and file notes that are distributed to all interested reporters.

And so it was on a recent night when Scott gathered at the mansion for dinner with legislators. No agreement for a pool reporter could be reached. Scott insisted on handpicking a reporter to cover the event. The Capital Press Corps decided not to participate in the arrangement and took up a position outside the locked mansion gates.

The governor summoned Nancy Smith, editor of a Web news site called Sunshine State News, an organization that will not disclose the identity of its owners. Some have suggested the governor himself may have an interest in it since it was created just a year ago as he got ready to launch a campaign. He denies any ownership interest.

She entered the mansion advising reporters that she was not there to provide a pool report but as a guest of the governor. Guess what happened?

Four days after the event Smith published a column describing the governor as "utterly charming" and a "hero." She also criticized the press corps — of which she is ostensibly is a member — complaining that when the dinner was over none of the reporters outside the mansion asked her what was going on inside. Instead they questioned the legislators.

Reporters on the scene said they didn't ask Smith because she made it clear she was not there to provide a pool report. Despairing of a report from a disinterested party, the reporters turned to the next best thing: legislators who were quite willing to describe the event.

Getting information from the editor of a website that will not disclose who is paying the bills isn't my idea of getting reliable information. Getting information from a person who lavishes praise on a governor as a "hero" is nowhere close to getting an unbiased view of the event.

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at

Scott throws up walls to press 02/02/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2011 12:54pm]
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