November 23, 2014

The Great Lobster Debate

Rick Edmonds | 2/1/1996
A group of Florida legislators and the journalists who cover them convened in St. Petersburg recently for what was to be a high-minded dialogue on the role of the media in keeping representative democracy healthy.

They spent a good bit of time instead debating the ethical merits of a certain lobster dinner in Tallahassee last spring. The dinner in question came on the eve of a House committee vote on an important and complex telecommunications bill. The hosts were lobbyists of major telecommunications corporations that would benefit from the legislation. Invited guests included all the members of the committee. When the Tallahassee press corps got wind of the event, they had a classic little "gotcha" story -- enhanced by one representative who injudiciously bragged that it was an especially pleasant evening since the media was not present.

This may sound like a descent into the petty, but I don't think so. The lobster dinner debate represents a gulf in values that affects much of what you read about the Florida Legislature -- or about Congress and local government, for that matter. To media folks, with strict "no free lunch" rules where they work, it is unseemly and newsworthy (though not illegal under current law) for legislators to be feeding lavishly at a trough stoked by lobbyists. Legislators beg to differ. Lobbying is part of the system. Evening events underwritten by interest groups are part of a lonesome and hectic life during session in the state's capital. No one's vote (well, hardly anyone's) is for sale for the price of a good dinner.

Since we are in the ethical mode here, let me disclose that I was a co-producer of the conference, hosted by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and put on by the Collins Center for Public Policy. It was the second of four seminars on the Legislature, the brainchild of House Speaker Peter Rudy Wallace and largely paid for with state funds.

The two sides were able to agree, for starters, that the public reading state government news comes at it in a fairly cynical frame of mind these days. As one legislator put it, they are like the auto racing fans who care who wins but station themselves at the curves watching for a crash.

But about here, viewpoints diverged. Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., who moderated the discussion, described the news accounts of the lobster feed as accurate but incomplete.

For their part, reporters and editors acknowledged that the dinner probably did little or nothing to determine the outcome of the bill and that it probably was coincidence it came the night before a key vote. Scott Clemons, a young legislator from Bay County, who chaired the committee, bemoaned that months of hard work and careful deliberation were superceded in the public's mind by the lobster flap.

Former Rep. Sam Bell, now a lobbyist himself, went a step further, suggesting that the story was "news" according to a pat formula but not the "truth" of the matter, as the reporters themselves knew. And Rep. Jim King of Jacksonville complained, more broadly, that the media seem to dismiss the possibility that campaign contributions follow the positions legislators stake out rather than vice versa.

Lobbyists do have a practical role in getting the work of the legislature done, providing information and technical background not readily available otherwise. At a previous session, one of the legislators compared the process to a judicial one in which the legislator makes up his or her mind after hearing paid advocates for opposing sides.

I didn't hear much dispute of any of this from the media, but the journalists stuck by their guns on the merits of the lobster dinner story and the larger point of which it is illustrative. Larry Kaplow of the Palm Beach Post, noted that any capitol reporter has watched lobbyists running in amendments late in session that get approved with cursory attention. "Individual issues come and go," he said, "but the issue of integrity lingers."

Mark Silva, Tallahassee bureau chief of the Miami Herald, argued that businesses would not invest in their lobbyists and the accompanying wining and dining unless there was a payoff. We are only a few years removed from expensive hunting junkets and trips abroad. In the bad old days before the last series of reforms, legislators used to claim they could accept these without being unduly influenced. Silva also pointed out that in the typical session there are probably more than 100 issues on which legislators must cast votes for which there are competing commercial interests but no clear public sentiment (the optometrists versus the ophthalmologists is a classic example of the genre).

Moderator Ogletree posed a revealing hypothetical variation on what actually happened last spring. Suppose, he asked, a legislator had put out a press release saying he was attending the dinner but had already made up his mind on the telecommunications bill and would not be influenced? Maybe such a release would include details of the menu.

"Well, you just killed the story," Silva conceded. "You killed the thrill of the hunt." It is partly reporters telling eager editors they have caught legislators doing something inappropriate that fuels journalism of this type.

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute said that for journalists a "no freebies" rule seems obvious. It wasn't so many decades ago that before the holidays cases of liquor and other goodies routinely used to be wheeled into business news departments at most papers. Legend has it, Clark related, that editors at the St. Petersburg Times realized all this was going too far when one day "a delivery man arrived in the lobby with a canoe for the outdoors writer." Clark's question to the legislators: "Why can't you just pay for your own damn dinner?"

Things got a little testy. "You just don't understand," several legislators replied in chorus. They're seeing constituents all day, mealtimes too. "They're my friends," Rep. King said, of the lobbying crowd. "What do you want me to do? Eat with my enemies?"

And so it went. One journalist suggested the legislators follow the judicial code of ethics and avoid even the appearance of impropriety. But the exchange of meals, rounds of golf, gifts at Christmas and other such perks certainly falls in the realm of normal business practice in Florida and elsewhere, too.

State law forbids legislators accepting gifts of more than $100 value from lobbyists or groups that employ lobbyists but allows them to take as much food and drink as can be consumed at one sitting. The Times' Lucy Morgan took note of a few of the more flamboyant end-arounds that have come to light: a legislator running tabs at a local watering hole on a lobbyist's bill, a legislator turning up as an unannounced guest at a private club and charging expensive bottles of wine to a lobbyist-patron, a company throwing a big party in a legislator's honor.

Speaker Wallace, a politician so upright that he has been known to declare gifts from his wife on disclosure forms, had said previously that the House ought to reassess its dining-out-free tradition, if only for appearance's sake and to remove a distraction from the public's understanding of the real business of government.

But Wallace conceded that his view might not command a majority among his legislative colleagues. If tougher rules were accompanied by an increase in legislative pay or meal allowances -- well, that might be controversial, too.

David Broder, the noted Washington Post columnist, listened to part of the lobster debate and offered some suggestions in a speech on legislator-press relations. Legislators, he said, should be sure the laws are tough enough to root out abuses that sap public confidence. Journalists, for their part, might consider backing off a reflex position that money in politics is evil per se.

Sensible proposals, but don't hold your breath waiting for an age of amity between legislators and the Tallahassee press corps. Watch for more lobster dinners and more gotcha stories in 1996. Come to think of it, as Broder suggested, a certain residual tension between the press and elected officials may be a good thing, so long as it doesn't preempt or crowd out serious coverage of serious issues.

Media Briefs

An improved advertising climate and the Fox-initiated affiliate wars have perked up what had been a droopy market for TV stations. West Palm Beach entrepreneur Alex Dreyfoos agreed to sell WPEC-Channel 12 to Freedom Communications in September for a reported $150 million (a nice run-up of his $3.5 million purchase price 23 years ago). The Phipps family has agreed to sell WCTV-Channel 8 in Tallahassee and other holdings for an undisclosed price to Gray Communications, a specialist in mid-sized Southern markets, based in Albany, Ga. On the buying side, Miami's Telemundo Group paid $44.7 million for WSNS-Channel 44 in Chicago, a Spanish-language station and its largest affiliate.

Miami ad agency Beber, Silverstein and Partners prospered a few years back largely on the strength of its clever ads for Helmsley hotels, featuring fussy, demanding Leona Helmsley. Leona went to prison for tax evasion, and Beber, Silverstein's fortunes faded. Now, a new ad campaign ("Say what you will, she runs a helluva hotel") signals the return of Leona -- and of Joyce Beber and Elaine Silverstein, who again have the account.

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

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