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Sarasota Thursday, Mar. 25, 2010 7 years ago

My View: Sarasota County-media empire

by: Rod Thomson

Most people are probably not aware that Sarasota County is building its own media empire — all through taxes and fees paid by residents for its own purposes.

This is troubling on many levels that should be obvious. But a major problem is that apparently it is not.

First, let’s dispense with any hyper-conspiracy ideas. The county is not trying to eliminate the independent media, nor is it about to attempt to nationalize media outlets, such as third-world dictators, like Hugo Chavez, of Venezuela do.

But it does not have to go that far to be a threat.

Let’s start with what they are actually doing. Gone are the quaint days when local government media operations consisted of printing newsletters for its employees.

Sarasota County (like most larger municipalities) now has its own television station. Ostensibly, this is to broadcast a range of programming that might generally fall under the “your local government is doing great things for you!” category.

There is Commissioner’s Corner, County Talk, City Focus, Sarasota County Weekly, City Life, Facing Foreclosure, A Gulf Coast Journal, Capitol Update, Face to Face and more. Sounds like a normal television station. But it is your government station. And that should not be normal.

The county also has its own Web site, with 58,000 unique visitors per month. Nothing wrong with that; there are many useful purposes for a Web site and, indeed, no organization and certainly not local government can be without one.

But on that Web site, in the center of the home page, the most dominant element is “County News.” Trust me, those are not feeds from the local newspaper. Those are generated by government …reporters? Some of it is just the boring nuts and bolts, such as contracts approved for street resurfacing. But a fair bit of it also falls under the “your local government is doing great things for you!” category.

There is more — more television on the net. One show is “Sarasota County Weekly,” described on the site as “a 30-minute show that focuses on all ‘good news’ in our community.”

There is another recent 30-minute addition called “Sarasota Business Today,” which is produced by the county Economic Development Corp. and “features a review of local business news and focuses on county economic development initiatives and opportunities.” Get it? All the great things your government is doing for you!

Here’s a description of a recent program: “The current program looks at plans for the Orioles spring training and the recent Ringling International Arts Festival and reports on the success of Tervis Tumbler in expanding its product line and adding 70 jobs to the company.”

The Orioles situation is a controversial deal that split the community. What could government television be “reporting” to us that all the local, private reporting did not? Could it be the government’s spin on it?

There are myriad local publications — private, for-profit publications — that reported on the Tervis Tumbler job additions. Why is the county devoting taxpayer resources to do that? Perhaps to pat its own back along the way?

But wait, there’s still more.

The county has also created a local e-mail blast to about 1,200 people called “Community Connections” that further promotes all the good stuff your government is doing for you! The e-mail blast includes a link to the county’s Board Report YouTube site that hosts videos of Warren Richardson — a former newspaper reporter turned public relations employee at the county — doing a televised roundup of the County
Commission action that is eerily similar to what private enterprise does.

This is just a heckuva lot of government media, most of it duplicating topics already covered in our media-saturated community. Between daily and weekly newspapers, business publications, television stations, radio stations and more and more bloggers, it is a crowded market. Why does the county muscle into it with public funds and resources?

County Administrator Jim Ley explains it this way: “It is our job as stewards of community resources to be transparent, and the primary means of transparency is open communications and access to information.”

But access by the public is not the same as the government generating its own news content through its own media. Government has an almost spotless history of expanding aggressively in any new area into which it moves. It has every incentive to in this area.

Perhaps the government is simply doing what everyone else is, using multimedia and social networks. But government is unlike any other organization. It takes our money by force, legally. It has more power than all other organizations combined. It is why the Founders fought so hard to limit, limit, limit it. And we just keep empowering it and will eventually get what we deserve.

It is more than troubling that so few people, if any, appear to be concerned at all about the concept of government being in the media business.

What is to stop government from obtaining more television stations, maybe starting a small paper and, yes, selling ads. The argument is obvious: Ads would defray some of the costs and save taxpayers money, or they could save county jobs and services. Sounds great. Except then it would be a full-scale, bonafide competitor to The Observer Group, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Pelican Press, WWSB ABC 7 and so on.

Am I being paranoid?

The government is running General Motors and Chrysler Corp. It is dictating the salaries of top executives at huge American companies. It wants to run your health coverage. Who would have thought just a few years ago that such things were possible?

Is a full-fledged government media conglomerate so unbelievable?

Rod Thomson
is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected].

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