Not Enough Sunshine in the Sunshine State

Last month, Campaign Desk exposed an oft-quoted Florida political science professor frequently presented as a non-partisan expert. Turned out he’s a closet Republican activist. Now, thanks to an alert reader, we come across another Sunshine State educator posing as an objective source — and this one works for President Bush’s brother!

Towards the end of an otherwise excellent and informative piece that examines which way Florida will go in November, Slate’s Seth Stevenson makes a mistake that many a reporter has made before. He writes:

The CW is that while many will make this Bush-to-Kerry switch, almost no one who voted for Gore will now flip to Bush.

Not so fast! So says Susan MacManus, poli-sci professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa (and an oft-quoted commentator on Florida politics). MacManus predicts that for every Florida voter like my girlfriend’s dad, there’s an equal and opposite voter who will switch from Gore 2000 to Bush 2004.

But as Bob Norman of the Miami-area alternative weekly New Times demonstrated convincingly in June, while MacManus may indeed be “an oft-quoted commentator on Florida politics,” she also serves as an adviser to Florida governor Jeb Bush and was appointed by him to the Florida Elections Commission.

William March, who’s been senior editor at the Tampa Tribune for 10 years, agreed with Norman “that it’s good to identify MacManus as a Bush appointee when writing about either Bush.” Especially when MacManus is feeding a pro-Bush line to a widely-read outlet such as Slate.

The point here isn’t to criticize an out-of-state reporter for not being aware of a particular column that appeared in an alternative weekly over a month ago — especially when even veteran Florida reporters, including March himself, frequently make the same mistake.

But given that Florida is crucial this November, the press, national and local, should be alert for partisan spinners on both sides who will be doing everything they can to influence news coverage. Any time political operatives are able to pass themselves off as neutral experts, the real loser is the reader.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.