Cary McMullen: An open letter to Peter Schorsch


Dear Peter,

First, a word of thanks. Those of us who are veterans of the opinion website Florida Voices were pleased when you picked up the remnants of that failed experiment, created Context Florida and made it work.

You offer us modest payment for our opinions, and it’s a great platform for an assortment of ex-newspaper columnists like me and politically connected types like yourself in the brave new digital world.

So, many of us who write for Context Florida were — to say the least — taken aback a couple of weeks ago when a story appeared in the Tampa Bay Times about you. It reported that with your other, more famous online project, SaintPetersBlog, you engaged in practices that raise ethical questions. In essence, the article says you shook down ad revenue from friends and enemies alike in exchange for writing favorable items or withholding unfavorable ones.

In the article, and in your response to it on SaintPetersBlog, you denied there was any quid-pro-quo going on, but you did use the term “pay to play.” You also confirmed that in one case, you did accept payment from a political enemy to remove negative pieces about him. Your explanation in that case is that he was harassing you and your family and this was a way to get him out of your hair.

Your response was essentially a complaint: The Times hates you. And the reporter used unreliable sources. And you characterized your arrangements with these politicians as solicitations for ads, not coercion. Allow me a few observations.

First of all, “the Times hates me” is not a defense. I would need to see a more detailed refutation of the report than I’ve seen so far to question its veracity. But let’s talk about the ethical problems the article raises.

I understand that you never claimed to be a journalist. SaintPetersBlog is a kind of political gossip column, full of insider tidbits about which lobbyist was seen dining with which politician, what rumors are being circulated about who is in line for which post, and what the prospects are for pieces of proposed legislation. It’s gleaned through your connections as a political consultant. We all get that.

So in a sense, perhaps you saw this approach to getting ad revenue as an extension of the political pay-to-play game. Everyone knows it looks shady, but it’s legal, so hey, why not?

Here’s why not. SaintPetersBlog purports to be a source of accurate information, disseminated to a mass audience. If that ain’t journalism, it’s mighty close for comfort, and that means de facto there are certain conventions you should observe, similar if not identical to the conventions journalists observe.

In our profession, there are lines you don’t cross, and one of them is allowing money to dictate content. There are two big reasons for this. One is that it simply destroys your credibility, but more importantly, it conceals the truth from the public. Whoever writes the check says what’s published, or isn’t.

When I worked at The Ledger, the sales staff was forbidden from talking to reporters about news coverage. I witnessed only one or possibly two instances in 16 years working for two papers in which I suspected coverage might have been slanted or curbed to keep a revenue stream flowing.

The reaction to the Times story among the journalists writing for Context Florida has been mixed. One or two want nothing more to do with you. Others are relying on your promise to give us editorial independence to express whatever we wish. I received such a promise from you with respect to this column, and I appreciate it.

The success of Context Florida is going to depend on having some journalists in its fold, and I hope this will serve as a friendly warning. “Pay-to-play” compromises credibility, and continued practices like this are going to leave some of us too uneasy to be part of your enterprise, valuable though it may be.

I’ll readily concede that all of us are still trying to figure out what journalism might be in the digital age, but some ethical principles transcend the medium in question. Here’s hoping that we can advance the cause of illuminating people without twisting the arms of those we write about.

Guest Author


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Drew Dixon, Roseanne Dunkelberger, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Cole Pepper, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Drew Wilson, and Mike Wright.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704