The headline of Jim Meyers' March 4 Newsmax article reads, "Haridopolos Sets Record Straight on Book Controversy." In fact, all Meyers does is give Florida State Senate President Mike Haridopolos the opportunity to spin away a growing scandal.
Unmentioned completely is the fundraising Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy did on Haridopolos' behalf -- the third Florida politician in the past year to whom Newsmax or Ruddy has contributed money and/or fundraising schmooze-work on top of favorable coverage.
The giveaway here is how hard Newsmax worked to downplay and dismiss the scandal involving Haridopolos -- who just happens to be gearing up for a run at a U.S. Senate seat. Indeed, Meyers points out that he is "viewed as a strong candidate" for the seat, "which is why he has come under Democratic attack so early in the game."
Haridopolos was paid $152,000 by a community college in Florida to write a book about politics -- a book that the college didn't see fit to publish beyond the single 175-page, double-spaced manuscript he submitted (which could be viewed only by appointment), making his per-book payday much greater than J.K. Rowling's for the entire Harry Potter series. When news of Haridopolos' payday broke, the college made an electronic version of the book available through Amazon for $9.99.
With the book suddenly available, people could judge the quality of it -- and maybe get an idea of why it wasn't distributed in the first place. Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerebino noted that Haridopolos "somehow managed to write a political history of Florida that completely skips over the Florida recount of the 2000 presidential election," adding that it contains such crucial advice for aspiring politicians like "It is essential to study the issues before deciding to run."
You won't, however, get any of those juicy details from Meyers and Newsmax. After declaring that the scandal was "a non-issue that his political opponents are seeking to take advantage of," Meyers proceeds to let Haridopolos spin away:
"I've been a teacher and an author since 1993, and prior to this book, I'd written another book," he says.
"So I was approached by the college to write another book that would be a benefit to all students, not just here at Brevard Community College but potentially around the country.
"They approached me with the idea of writing the book over four years about what it's like to run for office and be in office.
"Over the course of the four years, I took a pay cut from my old job to do this. And as far as our critics are concerned, welcome to politics. This is just one way they go after us."
Asked why there is only one copy of the book, Haridopolos responds: "I'm not sure why. But the college, it's their book. I wrote it and they control the copyright. As far as I understand, right now [an e-book download] is on amazon.com for anyone who wants to purchase it."
Meyers quotes no one else in the article, and he makes no attempt to tell the full story. But that's not what he's being paid to do.
This was not the first time Newsmax has touted Haridopolos. The previous day, Meyers and Kathleen Walter did another interview with Haridopolos that made no mention whatsoever of the book. And Newsmax has promoted Haridopolos' views several other times.
History tells us that if Newsmax is promoting a candidate -- particularly a Florida Republican like Haridopolos -- it's also raising money for him. That is very much true here: Newsmax's Ruddy served on the host committee for a Feb. 18 fundraiser for Haridopolos, which reportedly netted him more than $100,000 for his Senate race. If he's fundraising for Haridopolos, chances are good that Ruddy has donated as well.
As with Ruddy's electioneering in the 2010 race for Florida governor -- first, support for Bill McCollum, for whom Ruddy also held a fundraiser, and after McCollum lost to Rick Scott in the Republican primary, rushing to back Scott, to whose 527 committee Newsmax donated $100,000 -- one has to wonder if slanting Newsmax's "news" coverage in favor of Haridopolos is one of the side benefits of getting money from Ruddy.
Needless to say, Newsmax has not disclosed Ruddy's support of Haridopolos to its readers, and no mention of it was made in the two post-fundraiser articles. That fits the pattern of non-disclosure Newsmax followed with McCollum and Scott.
After Media Matters summarized Newsmax's financial support -- and positive coverage and endorsements -- of Haridopolos, McCollum and Scott, Ruddy issued a response to Business Insider: "Newsmax rarely endorses candidates in primary and general elections. However, we strongly endorsed Bill McCollum during his primary for Governor. Our regular readers were well aware of our editorial perspective on the race. Like most major media companies, Newsmax allows its executives to make donations to political candidates and like most major media companies, such donations are not noted in its contents."
Of course, most major media companies' executives are not so closely linked to their editorial content as Ruddy is with Newsmax's.
Further, the issue is not just Ruddy's personal contributions but those of Newsmax Media -- which, again, gave $100,000 to Rick Scott's 527 organization at the same time Newsmax was announcing its endorsement of him.
It begs the question of whether there is a quid pro quo taking place. Newsmax may have a certain "editorial perspective," but how much of it, if any, was a function of its and Ruddy's donations to their favorite candidates? Was Newsmax's fawning coverage an explicit or implied side benefit to the candidate getting the cash? There's also the implication of another quid pro quo: is Newsmax getting, or is hoping to get, something in return for these donations?
There is some parochial interest involved; Newsmax is headquartered in West Palm Beach. But there's also more going on: In 2010 and continuing this year, Newsmax has been paying a lobbyist, Beth Kigel -- a Republican operative who, as it turns out, was the Palm Beach County chairman of Rick Scott's gubernatorial campaign -- to represent it before the Florida Legislature.
Ruddy's explanation that Newsmax's "regular readers" already know about its right-wing slant and, besides, he's not required to disclose his political donations is mostly meaningless. Newsmax presents itself as a news organization, which brings some expectation of the existence of standards.
The Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics states that journalists should "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived" and "Disclose unavoidable conflicts." Does Newsmax have an ethics code that it follows?
Ruddy is trying to have it both ways. Ultimately, the heart of the matter is that Newsmax needs to decide what kind of operation it wants to be. If Ruddy doesn't think his readers should expect anything more from Newsmax than mindless shilling for Republican candidates, it should stop pretending to be a "real" news site by surrounding said shilling with wire stories from actual reporters.
If Newsmax wants to be taken seriously as a news operation, it should be more transparent to its readers about its behind-the-scenes fundraising and donations -- or perhaps not make them in the first place and let its words speak for themselves.
Ruddy can't be throwing around his and Newsmax's money on the down-low to Republican candidates -- on top of the skewed coverage of them that seems to come with the cash -- and still insist they're running nothing more than, as one recent article put it, "an independent news site with a conservative perspective." Mere "perspective" doesn't involve putting one's thumb on the scale through biased coverage and behind-the-scenes donations.
Newsmax must be one or the other; it can't be both.
(This item originally appeared at ConWebWatch.)
Follow Terry Krepel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ConWebWatch