Florida journalists are speaking out after their state's legislature passed a proposal making it far more difficult to report on cases involving the controversial Stand Your Ground law.
Florida's Stand Your Ground law has repeatedly made national headlines because of its role in the deaths of teenagers Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. On Thursday, the Florida House passed an NRA-backed proposal that includes an amendment which would expand the Stand Your Ground defense to those who fire warning shots to deter potential attacks. The bill also allows for the expunging of records in Stand Your Ground cases where charges were eventually dropped. The bill is now headed to the Florida Senate.
As the bill makes its way through the legislative process, top Sunshine State journalists are worried that making these records unavailable to the public will damage their ability to do proper journalism.
Among those speaking out are top reporters and editors at the Tampa Bay Times, which conducted a lengthy 2012 investigation into Stand Your Ground that won industry praise and raised concerns about the applications of the law, including the fact that in nearly four out of every five cases involving a Stand Your Ground defense, homicides were deemed justified if the victim was black.
"Closing records and putting controversial cases that involve violence into the dark is a bad idea, it is against democracy," said Neil Brown, Times editor and vice president. "This would have inhibited our work further. Our work was done based on court records as well as the stories of the incidents when they occurred."
A Media Matters analysis found that Florida newspapers including, The Orlando Sentinel, The Sun-Sentinel, The Tampa Bay Times, and The Tampa Tribune, largely failed to cover the key details of Medicaid expansion in the lead up to the state's legislative session, including the specific benefits of expansion and the negative impact the failure to expand would have on the state and Floridians.
The Tampa Bay Times failed to note the extremist past of David Yerushalmi -- an anti-Muslim lawyer and activist -- who authored the model legislation for a Florida bill which would attempt to ban Sharia law in the state.
Florida's largest paper focused its coverage of the anti-Sharia bill on the comments made by politicians on both sides of the debate in a "he said, she said" fashion, including those of the bill's sponsor, Rep. Larry Metz (R-Yalaha), who couldn't name an instance when the law would be needed, instead calling it a preventative measure. In addition, while the paper mentioned that Yerushalmi drafted the model legislation in a blog post, it failed to go in depth into Yerushalmi's history with anti-Sharia laws and racist rhetoric. His role was not included at all in any of the paper's print coverage of the anti-Sharia bill.
Yerushalmi, who founded the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE) and is senior counsel to anti-Muslim activist Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy, wrote the model legislation for the Florida bill and bills in several other states, entitled "American Laws for American Courts."
However, Yerushalmi has a history of negative rhetoric towards immigrants, Muslims and African-Americans. As the Anti-Defamation League pointed out in a report calling Yerushalmi "a driving force behind anti-Sharia efforts in the U.S.," he has previously called for creating "special criminal camps" to house undocumented immigrants, said that African-Americans are a "relatively murderous race killing itself" and discussed how some races are better "in Western societies and some better in tribal ones." He's also claimed that Muslims are our enemies and that "Muslim civilization is at war with Judeo-Christian civilization," while demonizing millions of Muslims worldwide:
Yerushalmi has created a characterization of Shari'a law (i.e., Islamic law) that declares there are "hundreds of millions" of Muslims who are either "fully committed mujahideen" or "still dangerous but lesser committed jihad sympathizers" who, because of Shari'a law, would be willing to murder all non-believers unwilling to convert, in order to "impose a worldwide political hegemony."
Yerushalmi's group, SANE, has previously called on Congress to declare war on the Muslim nation and asked them to define Muslim undocumented immigrants as "alien enemies 'subject to immediate deportation.'"
Yerushalmi also has strong connections with other anti-Muslim activists including Pamela Geller and Gaffney, both of whom have been criticized for their extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions and were quoted in the manifesto of Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in a Norwegian mass murder to allegedly prevent "Islamization."
The Tampa Bay Times' oversight in not reporting Yerushalmi's influence on the Florida bill leaves its readers unaware that the bill is not a "preventative" measure as the bill's sponsor claims, but rather a systematic attempt to rid the United States of Islam by an anti-Muslim activist.
The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times failed to connect the American Legislative Exchange Council model legislation to the current efforts to change the pension plans of Floridians.
Ashley Lopez of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting highlighted a piece in The Palm Beach Post that had a lengthy description of ALEC's role in the process to overhaul the state's pension system:
Critics trace the campaign back two years -- to New Orleans, where dozens of Florida lawmakers gathered for a conference hosted by a controversial advocacy group that helps corporations and conservative interest groups write bills for legislatures across the country.
Jonathan Williams, a policy director for the American Legislative Exchange Council, told The Palm Beach Post that the organization's three days of meetings in August 2011 helped affirm the need among many legislators to take a hard look at public employee benefits.
"The momentum for pension reform is stronger today because many governments are still seeing the effects of the recession on investment returns," Williams said. "It's going to be a long time before things improve. Florida legislators are aware of this."
Currently, the Florida pension fund is 87 percent funded. Employees already contribute 3 percent of their paychecks to the pension fund and have the option to enroll in a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan. However, under the Florida House version of the bill to change the plan, new employees would be forced to enroll in a 401(k)-style defined-contribution pension plan instead of the current defined-benefit plan that has more than 500,000 state workers enrolled. However, in the Senate version, new employees would be automatically enrolled in the new defined-contribution 401(k)-style plan unless they request to be in the current defined-benefit plan that most pensioners use.
Now that the Obama administration and Congress are engaged in a debate over immigration policy, a Media Matters review of major news outlets has found that when it comes to immigration coverage, anti-immigrant commentator Mark Krikorian continues to be the media's preferred conservative voice. Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a group associated with notorious nativist John Tanton and whose research has been called into question -- but these facts are routinely ignored in coverage of his remarks.
Climate change was almost entirely absent from the political discourse this election season, receiving less than an hour of TV coverage over three months from the major cable and broadcast networks excluding MSNBC. By contrast, those outlets devoted nearly twice as much coverage to Vice President Joe Biden's demeanor during his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan. When climate change was addressed, print and TV media outlets often failed to note the scientific consensus or speak to scientists.