1. Opinion

Editorial: Journalists are friends of democracy, not the enemy

President Donald Trump speaks appears at a July 31 rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds' Expo Hall in Tampa. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
President Donald Trump speaks appears at a July 31 rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds' Expo Hall in Tampa. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Aug. 16, 2018

It is real news that the Hillsborough County School District said this week it will accelerate testing for lead in drinking water and release the results after the Tampa Bay Times reported testing would take years and that until we asked families weren't told about lead levels that already had been discovered.

It is real news that Habitat for Humanity of Hillsborough County announced this week it would try to buy back a dozen mortgages, a day after the Times reported the mortgages were sold to a Tampa company with a history of flipping foreclosed houses.

It is real news that the Clearwater man who shot and killed a father in a dispute over parking in a handicap-reserved space has a history of road rage, a history the Times first reported and law enforcement cited as the shooter was charged with manslaughter this week in a stand your ground case that has attracted national attention.

Yet from Washington, President Donald Trump attacks the media that provides fact-based, independent journalism and holds the powerful to account in communities around the nation.

Trump calls journalists "the enemy of the American people.'' He regularly refers to "fake news'' and the "fake news media.'' Those assaults by the president cannot be brushed aside as theatrics, particularly when they are embraced by some of his strongest supporters and copied by politicians in Florida and elsewhere. That's why the Tampa Bay Times joins more than 200 newspapers throughout the nation Thursday in a rare, coordinated response to Trump's systematic effort to discredit journalists and independent news gathering.

A free press builds the foundation for democracy. Citizens depend on honest, independent media for accurate information they need about their government, their elected leaders and their institutions. That is just as important in Tampa Bay and in communities across the nation as it is in Washington, and the Times takes that responsibility seriously. To cite just three more examples of how factual reporting informs readers and impacts the community:

• It was real news when the Times reported CareerSource Tampa Bay and CareerSource Pinellas, the region's leading job placement centers, took credit for finding work for people who never sought their help and approved monthly bonuses for staffers who didn't meet performance goals. The long-time CareerSource president and CEO has been fired, and federal and state investigations are under way.

• It was real news when the Times revealed that the city of St. Petersburg released hundreds of millions of gallons of partially treated sewage in 2015-16. After federal and state investigations, the city is spending $326 million to improve the sewage system as part of a consent order with the state.

• It was real news when the Times reported that the Pinellas County School District failed to deliver on promised resources to five foundering elementary schools in predominantly poor, black St. Petersburg neighborhoods. The Failure Factories project in 2015 brought a fresh commitment by the school district to invest in those schools. It also won one of the Times' 12 Pulitzer Prizes.

The prizes are nice, but our goal is to inform readers and make a difference in our community. Far from being enemies of the people, we live in the same neighborhoods as our readers, eat in the same restaurants and shop in the same stores. Our kids attend the same schools, we get stuck in the same traffic jams and we worry about hurricanes hitting home.

Trump's assault on the news media ignores these connections, and it is having a corrosive effect in Florida. At Trump's recent rally in Tampa, some of the president's supporters directed disturbing anger and verbal attacks toward reporters. Legislators and candidates for governor have dismissed accurate news reports they don't like as fake news. A political consultant called it "fake news" when a Sarasota candidate for the Florida House lied about having a college degree; she dropped out of the race Tuesday and apologized.

Of course, public officials who don't appreciate scrutiny have long attacked the messenger. Supporters of an embattled Pasco County sheriff who was being investigated by the Times in the 1980s distributed bumper stickers declaring, "I do not believe the St. Petersburg Times.'' (The name of this newspaper then.) That sheriff was removed from office by the governor, and the low-tech effort to undermine that reporting sounds quaint in this digital era. A steady stream of tweets about fake news from the president of the United States has a far broader impact.

As Trump attacks established journalism institutions, there is indeed a dangerous proliferation of lies masquerading as news. What started with a tweet by a white supremacist wound up convincing some readers that Hillary Clinton was part of a child sex trafficking ring that used a Washington pizza parlor as home base — and prompted one man to start shooting inside the restaurant. The special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has resulted in indictments of three Russian organizations and 13 individuals. Among the tactics: Spreading false stories on social media.

In such a toxic environment, Trump's declarations undermine not just journalists and news organizations but the communities and democracy we endeavor to serve. It is an attempt to blur the difference between fact-based news gathering, and the lies and propaganda that spread like wildfire through social media. Ultimately, engaged citizens must play the vital role in distinguishing one from the other as they choose their elected leaders and shape civic life. In a commencement speech this spring at Indiana University, Times Chairman Paul Tash reminded new graduates: "Fact or fake? Democracy depends on our ability to tell the difference. Journalism can help. It can be a great civic asset. But the final responsibility rests with us as Americans.''

Without honest, independent journalism, where would citizens turn?


  1. Paula Dockery of Lakeland served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years.
  2. The United States' life expectancy has gone down four out of the last five years largely because of deaths in the 25-64 age range.
  3. Michael Bloomberg, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump
  4. In this image from video, the vote total, 53-47 for not guilty, on the second article of impeachment, obstruction of congress, is displayed on screen during the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump in the Senate.
  5. Nurse manager Amy Hunt holds the special stethoscope that allows nurses at Tampa General Hospital to record a heartbeat while they listen to it during a routine exam.
  6. Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections worker Andrea West adds mail ballots to an inserter at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Service Center in Largo. Workers are preparing to mail 260,000 vote by mail kits for the November General Election.
  7. Left tot Right: US Army Reserves Captain Jessica Purcell, 37, St. Petersburg, spends time with her 10-month-old son Jameson, and her attorney Natalie Khawam on Jan. 21, She has breast cancer and has filed a medical malpractice claim. Photo by SCOTT KEELER/Times
  8. Oil can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico on April 21, 2010, as a large plume of smoke rises from fires on the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig. The company at the center of that disaster, British oil giant BP, announced a zero emissions target this week.
  9. Three teens died in a fiery stolen SUV crash on Tampa Road in Palm Harbor in August 2017.
  10. Les Miller, Hillsborough County commissioner and chairman of the county's transit agency board, made the motion to fire chief executive officer Ben Limmer during a special meeting. Only one board member voted no.
  11. This columnist will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs.