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Story Tools

Date of Issue: March 12, 2008

It's about the message, or is it the messenger?

As journalists and news professionals, we gotta scratch our heads. Like the empty womanizing character in the movie “Alfie,” Michael Caine in 1966 and Jude Law in 2004 playing Alfie Elkins, we gotta wonder, “What’s it all about?”

In our case, what’s the media bashing all about?

In January, the head of Keep Manatee Beautiful decided news racks are unsightly and a complaint to the city of Bradenton resulted in the public works department’s removal of some 20 newsracks on the Palma Sola Causeway. But, darn it all, the daily papers’ boxes were untouched. And why?

Only after filing a theft report with the Bradenton police did we learn that the boxes were removed and discarded by the city.

Bradenton staff said - with some apologies later on - that the three daily paper news racks were left in place because they contained money. The KMB director said only the “advertising” papers were removed - and then suggested some papers would be invited to participate in a rack by the rest rooms that would be constructed sometime in the future.

By the rest rooms? Is that where the Fourth Estate has been sent off to serve its customers? At the public rest room? Not in the picnic area. Not near the boat ramp or its dock. Apparently the beautification committee thinks the newspapers belong with the toilets.

And to worsen the matter, the KMB director failed, even after exchanging several e-mails, to recognize the free speech rights of ALL publishers (remember Larry Flynt?) guaranteed in the the First Amendment of the Constitution.

To put it simply, we said, think of the box as a person standing and speaking the news (remember soap boxes?) and the right of that person to speak his or her mind. It’s the same right: The publication speaks for its writers, photographers, owners and advertisers.

Hopefully, the committee will understand the rights of publishers of all sorts of printed matter. And hopefully, they’ll consider that the printed word does not belong at the bathroom door. We’re far mightier than waste paper.

We hope to protect the rights of all publishers to “speak” on the causeway by addressing the KMB board at its next meeting and their enlightenment comes at an opportune time, as journalists everywhere focus on the importance of “your right to know” during Sunshine Week, March 16-22.

Now comes Bradenton Beach, its chief of police (and enforcement) no less, to tell media representatives they must wear name badges at meetings.

Who possibly mistakes the person with the small notepad or laptop computer as someone who must be singled out and identified with a label?

We consulted with a few experts - media experts - such as the Florida Press Association, the First Amendment Foundation and the Society of Professional Journalists on the subject of singling out the media to wear name badges.

None had ever experienced such a practice.

One such response states that meetings are supposed to be fully open to the public and open to ALL persons who choose to attend. The First Amendment Foundation pointed to Florida attorney general opinion 05-13, which says that “the city may not require persons wishing to attend public meetings to provide identification as a condition to attendance. This has a ‘chilling’ effect on the public’s willingness or desire to attend.”

It continues, “In providing an opportunity for public participation, reasonable rules and policies that ensure the orderly conduct of a public meeting and that require orderly behavior on the part of those attending may be adopted. However, the requirement that persons attending a public meeting must provide identification as a condition of their attendance would not appear to be related to those goals.”

It was written by former attorney general, now Gov. Charlie Christ. (Read the full opinion at www.islander.org.)

Another seasoned professional said the badge requirement hints at discussion by elected officials outside the public purview, who asked, are they worried that someone without a badge may be listening?

Why does anyone care if attendees of a meeting are journalists, contractors, real estate agents, retirees, Kiwanis members or of any ethnic or religious persuasion?

The Bradenton Beach chief says that the commissioners just want to know who’s asking questions and who’s talking to them.

We say, after 15 years of attending and reporting Bradenton Beach meetings, only the faces of city government, officials and staff have changed, and maybe they should wear the badges.

And maybe they should stop complaining about the media and consider that we are their “messengers.”

One message that has been misconstrued in Bradenton Beach is that of the city attorney to the commissioners, saying the city won the lawsuit filed by The Islander, seeking disclosure of records and conversations regarding the sexual harassment claim of one employee against another.

The city did not win. The judge ruled that the city violated the public records act - just as the newspaper had maintained all along. The judge did not rule that the city did not violate the Sunshine Law, but that there was insufficient evidence to prove they had private meetings.

And, most certainly, the newspaper could have appealed the judge’s decision on the Sunshine Law, but a win is a win and we chose to settle for that.

The city is not and was never entitled to recover its legal fees from the newspaper and to say differently is a lie. The Florida statutes are clear on that and shame on the attorney for again misleading the city, and on the individual commissioners for not being better informed.

The city’s attorney was paid monthly for all its invoices and no one had a greater risk in the matter than the citizens, who, sadly, also were misled.

And does anyone yet know the truth of the matter that was so deliberately hidden by the mayor and the city attorney? No. At least no one in the public arena. And that’s the shame of it all.

They should be embarrassed for trying to strike back at the messenger and require name badges, and for ridiculing and badgering the press at nearly every public meeting since the matter came up.

Fortunately, for us, they’re only elected for a “time.” And their message - it passes to us to inform the voters, and inform we shall.

We are advocates for the people, and many times the voters would be unaware of the government’s deeds without the media. We carry the message - good or bad - to the people. (Remember? Don’t kill the messenger.)

Just what is the message from the cities?

“What’s it all about?”

Your opinions are welcome, www.islander.org.

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