By Anthony Man, Sun Sentinel
5:32 PM EDT, August 25, 2013
Seizing on big changes in both politics and journalism, the website Media Trackers is making life uncomfortable for some South Florida Democrats.
The group brought its brand of advocacy-activist journalism to the Sunshine State 16 months ago at mediatrackers.org/florida, combining its conservative outlook with old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting and sleuthing to turn up gotcha documents.
Media Trackers has made its biggest splash with investigations of the residencies of Broward and Palm Beach county Democratic state legislators. They've dogged lawmakers who claim to live in small apartments or with other people in their districts but still own comfortable homes, usually with their spouses, outside the districts they're elected to represent.
James Taylor, who oversees Florida content as the state communications director, said Media Trackers has four objectives: questioning others' news accounts that exhibit what he deems "a liberal bias," reporting on issues "the establishment media chooses not to cover or simply misses," holding elected officials accountable when they behave unethically, and holding elected officials accountable "when they claim to be conservative but govern as liberals."
State Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, said Media Trackers "really have been beating Democrats down very badly" through what he regards as "personal attacks."
Gibbons, said he lives in his district, but his residency has been questioned by Media Trackers, along with state Reps. Lori Berman, Jared Moskowitz, Hazelle Rogers and Perry Thurston and state Sen. Maria Sachs.
Gibbons said there are Republicans, none of whom he named, who don't live in their districts, but Media Trackers doesn't investigate them.
Its real impact has been spurring other news reports. After WPLG-Ch. 10 followed Media Trackers' work with a series of reports and the issue was mentioned in the Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, the questions sparked official inquiries in Tallahassee.
Publishing only on the Internet, Media Trackers also is different from its traditional news organizations with its melding of investigative reporting and opinion.
Taylor said Media Trackers is a "nonpartisan, conservative populist group that calls balls and strikes fairly, regardless of whether a person has an 'R' or a 'D' next to his name. … We're not just sitting here cheerleading for one political party or another. We're standing up for principle."
Democrats don't see it the same way.
"They pretend to be nonpartisan or fair and balanced, but they clearly are a hit squad against Democrats," said state Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, the Senate Democratic Party leader. "If you're going to be a conservative or right-leaning group, say it. But don't say, 'Hey we're nonpartisan.'"
It's a continuation of the trend away from traditional, objective journalism, said Kevin Wagner, a Florida Atlantic University political science professor who's teaching a media and politics course this semester. "People want to hear things that are consistent with what they already believe."
Media Trackers got its start in Wisconsin during the unsuccessful effort to recall Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2012, digging up dirt during on the other side. It then expanded to Colorado, Florida, Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania — mostly critical swing states that can determine the outcome of presidential elections.
It has a total of three staffers in Florida, but the organization declined to disclose who's funding it or the budget in the state. It's linked with the conservative political group American Majority. When American Majority president Ned Ryun was in Fort Lauderdale conducting political training last month, he lauded Media Trackers, which is run by his brother, Drew, a former staffer at the Republican National Committee.
Although the investigating is aimed at Democrats, the site has occasionally written critically of Republicans. Last September, when film company Digital Domain declared bankruptcy after receiving taxpayer subsidies, Media Trackers reported former state Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, had pushed the subsidies — and received campaign contributions from Digital Domain's CEO.
It's also reported interesting, though less significant tidbits, such as the legislative candidate whose website described a campaign worker as an "image consultant." The worker's online resume said her current job was working as a "Hooters girl."
Taylor, who is based in the Tampa area, said the staffer who does the investigative work, Tom Lauder — who has been active in the Republican Party — is based in South Florida. And, he said, South Florida has more to investigate than the rest of the state.
"In South Florida, elected officials tend to behave more badly than they do in the rest of the state," Taylor said.
While South Florida Democrats aren't big fans of Media Trackers, it's a model that's appealing to some.
Kartik Krishnaiyer, a Coconut Creek Democratic activist who blogs at the site Florida Squeeze, said via email that Media Trackers is doing a better job than Democrats and the political left. "While it may seem below the belt, it is an important weapon for the GOP going forward and one I would expect they use well to continue defining the Democrats in this state."
Taylor said he'd like to add more people. "We don't cover everything we'd like to cover," he said.
Wagner said that could pay off for Republicans and make life more difficult for Democrats. "If you have enough money, and you can send enough people searching for things the other side is doing wrong, you're going to find it."
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