If you are, say, a state Senator who steered $1 million to a daycare center tied to your church but failed to disclose that your wife held positions in both organizations, it’s a good time to be walking the streets of Tampa Bay.
If you are a Hillsborough County Commissioner with a penchant for avoiding transparency who provided advance information to a major campaign donor about where a proposed baseball stadium would be built, it’s a great time to be alive.
If you are any kind of politician, corrupted or not, these are salad days indeed.
That’s because there is essentially no one left to watch the watchmen.
Over the last six months, Tampa Bay’s political media has been decimated.
By attrition. By firings. By transfers.
And with that, there are very few journalists left in the region with the talent to explain to readers and viewers what’s really going on in local politics. There are only a handful of reporters with the chops to break open the big stories all but begging to be exposed. There is almost no one left in town with the heft to hold the most powerful politicians accountable.
On the day this country is supposed to celebrate the legacy of George Washington and other presidents, the local, non-profit, left-leaning radio station WMNF sacked Rob Lorei, the on-air personality who helped found the station and was its public face. Why? Partially because he didn’t post to Facebook enough.
This writer has never been a huge fan of Lorei, mostly out of spite because he refused to invite me on to his weekly public affairs television show. But even I recognized Lorei’s place in the market and his enormous contributions to it.
He was a liberal do-gooder who patiently fielded calls from listeners who wanted to know, for example, why the Republican-dominated Legislature wasn’t acting more like a Democrat-dominated Legislature. He championed the environment, big government, public education, and a host of other progressive causes.
Lorei was also beloved by those in Tampa Bay who lean left. He emceed their annual banquets; he showed up at their rallies; he knew so many of them by name. He was as much an activist as he was a journalist, which was OK because he was working for the ‘little radio station that could.’
Lorei is already sorely missed. If I had the budget — and assuming Lorei would take a check from me — I’d hire him to produce a daily podcast on Tampa Bay politics because I know his audience would gravitate to wherever he is.
But, alas, I doubt Lorei’s voice will be as prominent tomorrow as it was yesterday. And so he joins an increasing number of Tampa Bay political journalists who were just with us, but are now out of the business. Consider:
— In September, highly regarded reporter Alex Leary, based in D.C. but often wrote about Tampa Bay politicians, left the Times for the Wall Street Journal.
— Veteran reporter Mitch Perry relocated to Tallahassee to cover state politics (I’m partially blame for this personnel move.)
— Pulitzer Prize recipient Daniel Ruth retired in October 2018, just as the Times shelved its once-vaunted — and feared — Sunday Perspective section. (We note for the record: Also that month, Jennifer Orsi, the Times’s managing editor and a 30-year veteran of the paper, took a job as “senior manager for editorial content at Carillon Tower Advisers,” a global asset management firm that’s a subsidiary of Raymond James Financial.)
— Investigative reporter Mark Douglas, who spent four decades scaring the pants off of local pols while working for News Channel 8, retired.
— In December, the Times’ highest profile political reporter, Steve Bousquet, exited that newspaper and is now a columnist for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
— Polk Award winner Noah Pransky, who used his TV reporting post to bludgeon secretive local officials, left the market.
— At the end of January, Times political editor Adam Smith left journalism for a job with a public affairs firm.
— Mark Puente, the Pulitzer finalist aptly described by his colleagues as a “bulldog reporter,” just announced he’s heading west to work for the Los Angeles Times.
And on and on. Even Times food critic Laura Reiley, who almost won a Pulitzer for a semi-political expose of the myths of farm-to-table menus, is no longer around.
In some cases, these reporters were replaced; the able Steve Contorno has been asked to fill the shoes of Leary, for instance.
But in most of these situations, the voids are still there. (Pransky, after all, was supposed to fill the gap left by Mike Deeson, so in reality 10 News is down not one, but two incredible reporters.)
The Times’ editorial page is now a shadow of its former self. There really aren’t any name brand TV reporters left to chase down runaway politicians.
Yes, there are still some solid journalists at the Times and elsewhere plying their craft.
What Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi exposed at All Children’s Hospital is devastating (and award-worthy).
Charlie Frago and Chris O’Donnell are thumping their beats in Hillsborough and Tampa’s City Hall. And I’m proud of what our Janelle Irwin does every day covering local campaigns. Columnist Joe Henderson‘s ability to distill local politics down to the very basics is so in demand that he splits time between us and the Times.
But who’s out there that really scares the local politicians?
Who is the columnist who can go toe-to-toe with, say, a Bob Buckhorn or a Bob Gualtieri?
What’s left out there in the political media landscape is commerce media. From the TV stations who are uninterested in deep-dive political reporting (while engorging themselves on the money made by selling political TV ads) to the local, pro-am blogs too afraid to publish anything controversial lest they scare off potential advertisers, the news desert in this community is as dry as its ever been.