Reporters Stampeded by Alligator

On Tuesday, Sen. John Kerry spoke on several environmental issues in Tampa, Florida, and took questions — one of which was about offshore oil drilling, a hot-button topic in Florida.

This is how The St. Petersburg Times’s Adam C. Smith reported Wednesday on what Kerry said about offshore drilling: “While Kerry has consistently opposed oil drilling off Florida, he said he supports drilling where it already has been approved.” This sentence came 415 words into Smith’s 1,000-word report, accompanied by no further detail or analysis.

The Tampa Tribune’s William March did not even include Kerry’s drilling remarks in his initial story on Kerry’s speech. Nor did Kerry’s drilling comments make it into The Miami Herald’s Wednesday account by reporter Lesley Clark.

The next day, Smith of the St. Petersburg Times returned with some vigor — and with fellow reporter Joni James — to the subject he had all but kissed off earlier, describing Kerry’s remarks on drilling as “imprecise,” and among evidence that “Kerry has a knack for ambiguity.”

Also on Thursday, Clark of the Herald joined the chase, leading with this: “For most Floridians, drilling for oil off the coast is akin to paving the Everglades or mutilating manatees.” Clark then describes Kerry as having “on Tuesday endorsed drilling ‘in the right places’ but left it unclear where he stood on drilling off Florida’s coast.”

And today, March, of the Tribune, also playing catch-up, wrote that “in his speech … Kerry did give a nuanced answer to a question about one of the most inflammatory issues in Florida.”

Given that offshore drilling is such a key issue to “most Floridians,” shouldn’t Clark — and Smith and March — have reported in full what Kerry said on the topic in their first stories on the speech — particularly if Kerry’s remarks about drilling were “unclear”? (And then, presumably, sought clarification for their readers?)

And what exactly happened in the time between the reporters’ first and second stories that caused them to revisit and reframe their original reports on Kerry’s speech?

A couple of things, as it turned out. First, a University of Florida student newspaper, The Independent Alligator, ran their own interpretation of Kerry’s drilling comments the day after his Tampa speech. Specifically, the Alligator’s Dwayne Robinson reported — unlike any major newspaper in Florida — that “Kerry said he would be in favor of drilling off the coast of Florida.”

The following day, Gov. Jeb Bush used the Alligator’s report to publicly rebuke both Kerry, for his alleged support of drilling off of Florida’s coast, and the Florida press, for failing to report Kerry’s alleged support.

The Governor’s criticisms — in which he was joined by a Bush-Cheney spokesperson, a Republican Senate candidate, and U.S. Rep. Porter Goss — became a story in their own right in Wednesday’s papers. By then, it seems, reporters Smith, March and Clark had determined that Kerry’s drilling remarks were ambiguous — and, to Smith, part of a larger Kerry ambiguity problem. Only then did the reporters do their best to clarify Kerry’s position — that he is opposed to drilling directly off the Florida coast, though perhaps open to drilling in the deeper waters of the Gulf where oil rigs already are — with quotes from Kerry, a Kerry spokesman, and Sen. Bob Graham.

Yesterday, the Alligator issued a correction that read, in part, “Sen. John Kerry does not support drilling for oil off the coast of Florida. Because of ambiguous language at a speech Kerry gave in Tampa on Tuesday, the Alligator reported otherwise.”

Had the Alligator, staffed no doubt by college students, not run its initial mistaken report, prompting Gov. Bush to blast Kerry, would the ostensibly grown-up reporters from St. Pete, Tampa and Miami have ever snapped awake and sought to clarify for their readers what Kerry said about a key issue in Florida?

Somehow, we doubt it.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.