Publishers pretended to listen to these people so that their line editors and beat reporters didn’t have to. Like Orson Wells in the first reel of Citizen Kane, they believed that a newspaper was a living, breathing being with a heart, a soul and a personality all its own. Cereal companies and widget factories made products for consumers. Newspapers had readers, and everybody knew that everyone from the chief bean counter to the print shop foreman worked for those readers and not for advertisers or, heaven forbid, the government.
Bit by bit, publishers who thought of themselves as public servants got retired or fired or bought off, and the infrastructure that made it possible for Florida reporters to conduct the public’s business without fear or favor began to crumble.
A lot of people saw what was coming and knew they would not be able to live with it. Florida Public Radio Network’s Susan Gage traded her microphone years ago for a career in massage therapy, leaving behind a resignation letter that might have been written by Paddy Chayefsky, the prophetic pen behind Howard (“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”) Beale, the fictional anchorman in “Network.”
Others, like El Nuevo Herald Editor Angel Castillo and Norm Davis, the news director at WJXT and, later, WPLG, who lead the fight for cameras in the courtroom, developed successful law practices without pimping out their journalism Rolodexes to shady clients in search of reporters willing to put bylines on press releases.
The road that Castillo and Davis paved continued, and last month ace investigative reporter Scott Hiaasen, a second generation Miami Herald newsman, took off to clerk for a federal judge. He left just ahead of the wrecking ball that’s about to come down on One Herald Plaza, the building in the Cinderella City that used to be Mecca for generations of the best journalists in the world.
Florida Voices founder Rosemary Goudreau was one of them. She and Rosemary Curtiss poured their blood, sweat and personal savings into this valiant little website. But they could not compete in the “whores of Babylon” environment that Howard Troxler so eloquently described in his last months as a columnist for the then-St. Petersburg (now Tampa Bay) Times.
Two years ago, Taxwatch issued a disturbing report on Florida’s multimillion dollar “communications” departments. In these bloated fiefdoms, people receive salaries that cops, teachers and reporters can only dream about to crank out happy talk and obstruct the efforts of the handful of real reporters still on the job. The Taxwatch white paper was widely ignored, and we are no longer surprised when someone with a press card jumps the journalism ship and grabs a taxpayer- funded life preserver provided by a public official who is not a Friend of the First Amendment.
But the really big bucks are in “the private practice of journalism” a newer and more pernicious brand of public relations involving the unabashed bullying, bitch-slapping and intimidation of newsrooms that no longer have a Perry White to deal with blowhards trying to justify fat fees for “crisis communications.”
Against great odds, great stories still, somehow, continue to surface. It may be -30- for Florida Voices, but as long as we have a First Amendment and people unafraid to use it, things will, somehow, be OK.