Who is Sheldon Adelson? Florida Needs to Know

State's newsrooms haven't focused their resources on the super PAC story

FLORIDA — Who is Sheldon Adelson, and why does he matter to the presidential campaign? If you are a Florida voter and rely on your local newspaper for your information, you likely have no clue. Yet Adelson is likely to be—along with his wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson—one of the most important figures in determining who will win the January 31 Florida Republican primary.

On Monday, Miriam Adelson donated $5 million to the pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future. That sum came on top of $5 million her husband, Sheldon, gave to the PAC earlier this month, much of which of which bankrolled anti-Mitt Romney ads in South Carolina and enabled Gingrich’s come-from-behind primary win in that state. (Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates, though federal law bans coordination between super PACs and candidates. But, a super PAC supporting Candidate X staffed by Candidate X’s best friends and former aides? Not coordination, per the Federal Election Commission.)

On Tuesday, flush with new Adelson cash, Winning Our Future announced a $6 million ad buy here in Florida.

Given all this, you’d think that Florida news outlets would be rushing—like even a staff-strapped newsroom manages to do for, say, an area plane crash—to acquaint Floridians with the Adelsons (as the Washington Post, for one, did in an excellent article on Sunday) and to explore what they might want from Gingrich for their money (as Salon did for its readers Wednesday). And, how about a little scrutiny from Florida reporters, while we’re at it, of another big-spending super PAC, the pro-Romney Restore Our Future, which has spent nearly $9 million to date in Florida. Don’t forget the outside spending in support of the other GOP candidates and President Obama as well.

The Adelsons’ donations became public—courtesy of “people with knowledge of” the contributions—but voters likely won’t know much more about who else has funded these super PACs until at least the next required FEC reporting date: January 31—while Floridians are voting. (And this report will only cover the end of 2011, not January 2012.)

This is a moment when Florida voters should be able to look to their news organizations to dissect the attack ads they’re seeing and hearing, explore who is paying for these ads (to the extent it can be known, an admitted challenge) and, perhaps, why they’re paying, and to offer a primer on super PACs and the complex new world of campaign spending.

So far, from my reading and watching, Florida’s news organizations have largely fallen short. The state’s largest papers have reported the Adelsons’ contributions on their politics blogs and mentioned them on the editorial page. They’ve picked up wire service reports, including an AP profile of Sheldon Adelson. And immediately after the South Carolina profile, Scott Powers of the Orlando Sentinel offered a look at the ad barrage that was about to hit Florida, and the system that enabled it.

But there hasn’t yet been evidence of the sustained, serious digging, and explaining to readers, that this story merits. The easy explanations for this state of affairs have become clich├ęs—after deep cuts, newsrooms no longer have the staff to do in-depth reporting; or news reporters are busy tweeting, Facebooking, filling the news organization’s website and newspaper, and they simply can’t do it all.

But do those explanations remain acceptable? Most cuts took place long ago. Newsroom managers certainly have known for months that Florida’s presidential primary would be extremely important to readers and viewers, and that there would likely be oodles of hard-to-trace money spent this cycle on attack ads. They saw super PAC money pour into the races in Iowa and South Carolina and they knew their state was up next on the primary calendar.

What appears to be missing is not a sudden lack of newsroom staff but a failure by newsroom managers to plan and make temporary adjustments to bolster political coverage in the run-up to the primary. Privately, political reporters complain far less about the requirement to work on multiple platforms than they do about the unwillingness of newsroom management to shift resources to allow first-rate, in-depth political coverage.

By giving little attention to super PACs—their on-air handiwork in Florida, and the people bankrolling them—Florida newspapers are doing their readers a disservice. And while some may try to play catch-up in the days ahead (here’s hoping, there’s still a bit of time) they have missed the opportunity to inform hundreds of thousands of Florida voters who have already cast absentee ballots and those who have chosen to participate in early voting, which began on January 21 and ends on January 28.

Newsroom managers have failed their readers by not giving them the comprehensive reporting that Florida voters should be able to depend upon.

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Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.