TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Journalists who cover Florida’s capital complained to industry leaders Tuesday that the new administration of Gov. Rick Scott is skirting free-press traditions and attempting to control their work by limiting access to events and being slow to provide public records.
Speaking to the board of the Florida Society of News Editors, nine Tallahassee correspondents said Scott’s team is imposing an unprecedented level of control over access to Scott and to events that previously would have been considered open. The governor’s office also has tried to “cherry-pick” reporters to provide pooled reports to the rest of the press corps, instead of allowing the journalists to choose.
Bob Rathgeber, senior staff writer for The News-Press of Fort Myers, said Scott, a former health care executive, apparently wants to continue operating as if he were still in the private sector, not public office.
“He doesn’t care whether we have complaints or not,” Rathgeber said. “He’s from the private sector and he’s a private guy.”
The journalists pointed to several examples, including a post-inauguration reception held on the scenic 22nd-floor of the state Capitol, where Scott’s staff restricted access to only a select few.
The event was in a public building and the entire state Legislature had been invited, noted Mary Ellen Klas of The Miami Herald. “That, on its surface, struck me as a public meeting. … There’s no reason they should be shutting the public out.”
But Klas and others, including an AP reporter, were booted out. The reporters said Scott’s staff said a pooled report would be provided and argued that the journalists had accepted the arrangement. She and the other reporters speaking Tuesday said they’d never accepted such a deal. Pool reports typically are only agreed to when space is unavoidably limited, such as aboard an airplane, and the selection of the journalist is made by the participating media groups.
A voice message and an e-mail seeking reaction Tuesday from Scott’s communications director, Brian Burgess, were not immediately answered.
The reporters also pointed to an incident last week, when Scott and several lawmakers gathered at the governor’s mansion for a dinner. Scott’s staff made no announcement about the dinner but, upon deciding the press should be alerted, quickly sought a reporter to provide a pooled report.
Dave Royse, executive editor of the News Service of Florida, said he was invited to be the pool reporter although the dinner was nearly over. He could not accept, but offered a reporter from his staff in his place. When that reporter was rejected, Royse said he declined to participate for ethical reasons. The person or group being covered “can’t pick and choose the reporter,” he said.
The correspondents said they would consider creating terms for pooled reports, such as an ordered list of reporters to be called on. But Paul Flemming, state editor for Gannett’s Florida bureau, cautioned against encouraging greater use of pools: “I think it’s dangerous to go down a pool path at all.”
Jim Baltzelle, FSNE president and Florida chief of bureau for The Associated Press, said the incidents raised concern about the freedom of the press. He said FSNE would consider how to formally respond.
Aaron Deslatte, Tallahassee bureau chief for the Orlando Sentinel, said he’s been given very little access to the governor because during Scott’s campaign, his staff considered the newspaper “hostile.” He said his only recourse has been to make several requests for public records. But the administration, he said, has been slow to respond and, in one case, said it would charge him $400 for printing by an outsourced provider even though Deslatte said the information is available electronically.
Royse and others said their requests for public records have gone unanswered. Also, questions that previously could be handled by spokespeople within a given department are now routinely routed to the governor’s office, resulting in delays. They acknowledged, however, that Scott’s team is undergoing a natural transition and still is learning how to work with the media.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, suggested that reporters allow the foundation to begin tracking their requests and the administration’s responses. She noted, however, that Scott may choose to limit press access in many ways and still be within the scope of the law.
Bill Cotterell of the Tallahassee Democrat said previous governors have all sought to control access in their own way, “but not as rigidly, as starkly, as Rick Scott seems intent on doing.”