The AJC’s skeptical coverage of Scott’s comments overlaps with the thinking of politicos in its own home region. “There’s a lot of frustration among policy makers on this issue that Atlanta is being cast as a villain, kind of unfairly,” the paper’s Greg Bluestein, who co-wrote an article outlining the prospect of a long, costly legal battle, said in an interview with CJR. “It’s not just an Atlanta versus Florida issue. There’s a lot of concern among farmers in South Georgia that Atlanta is consuming too much water. You see a lot of hyperbole unchallenged and you see a lot of the nuances go unreported.”
In terms of rhetoric coming from Florida, Bluestein might have been thinking of Ricky Banks, vice president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, who said, at the hearing before Scott’s announcement in Apalachicola Bay: “In Atlanta, they’re going to keep having babies. They’re going to keep needing more and more water. Let Atlanta stop watering their grass a little bit.”
Or maybe even Jon Steverson, executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management Distric. Steverson was perhaps pining for justice from a higher authority than the Supreme Court when he said, “The good Lord giveth and the [Army Corps of Engineers] and Georgia taketh away.”
Those quotes both come from a write-up in the weekly Apalachicola Times, which provided the most extensive coverage of Scott’s announcement and the field hearing. Times editor David Adlerstein’s article was polished and thorough, and showed a detailed understanding of the concerns of local oystermen.
But as Adlerstein acknowledged, the coverage didn’t capture a wide range of perspectives—which means it was short on critiques of the story Scott and the locals were telling.
“It is frustrating when there is a claim made by a politician to a totally receptive audience like they had here and there’s no fact-checking,” he said. “We just can’t. We’re two reporters. We cover Franklin County. We don’t have the resources to call up the Atlanta municipal water authority and find out what’s happening. I would say our reporting is well-sourced and accurate, but not necessarily balanced.”
And he’s open about the fact that his job as a small-town weekly editor includes advocating for the locals—“homey coverage,” he calls it.
“We can report, ‘this is what our oystermen have to say. This is what our politicians have to say.’ Georgia certainly has something to say and if you want to know what that is, you should go and find out,” he said.
(Adlerstein’s story did, however, include a response from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who questioned Scott’s motives. That’s more than the Orlando Sentinel offered its readers in an article that reads like a rewritten press release.)
Bruce Ritchie, another veteran of the water wars and a former reporter for The Gainesville (FL) Sun and the Tallahassee Democrat, made a similar point when I spoke with him.
Ritchie followed up on the story for The Florida Current, an online news outlet covering politics and policy. Ritchie’s article a few days after Scott’s announcement didn’t sugar-coat Florida’s situation—the state’s legal battle is likely to be long and costly, and may face long odds of success. The Supreme Court hasn’t agreed to allocate water between states since 1945.
Reporting on the issue suffers because there are few full-time environment reporters, Ritchie said. (One of the deans of Florida environment reporting, Craig Pittman, did cover the story; his article is worth reading if not authoritative, and provides some good big-picture context.) Ritchie believes the dispute actually gets over-covered in Florida with “parachute reporting,” but it’s hard to do justice to the story without sources in both states. Ritchie complained that he can’t get Georgia officials to call him back; the AJC reported that Florida officials didn’t call the Georgia paper back.
“There are some genuinely difficult issues here that are tough to resolve even if everyone is getting along,” Ritchie said. “I think there isn’t enough fact-checking. It’s difficult to get the facts across state lines. This is the result of there being fewer specialist reporters, fewer environmental reporters. But my publication is called The Florida Current. It’s not called The Go Up To Georgia Current.”
Does gag order impede accountability?
But there are opportunities for reporters on both sides to cover their own states aggressively. In our conversation, Adlerstein was rightly skeptical—more skeptical than in his coverage—about the timing of Scott’s announcement.
“For years, Governor Scott’s reaction to all of this was ‘I’m not a fan of litigation’ and ‘we’re talking’ though he said much less than Bush or Crist about how they were talking, how many meetings, when, where,” Adlerstein said.