Selling Out at the Miami Herald
Talk about conflict of interest.
Early next month, Miami Herald county hall reporter Matthew Pinzur leaves the newspaper for a $115,000-per-year job as special assistant to Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess.
The move has caused outrage in the Herald newsroom, prompted head-scratching in the halls of power, and raised questions about coverage of the annual $7.4 billion local government budget, which is larger than that of many states.
"I'm personally, unbelievably disappointed," says Charles Rabin, a Herald reporter who shared bylines with Pinzur. "I feel jilted."
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Miami-Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez is also concerned about the quick change from fourth estate to top brass in Florida's largest local government: "I have concerns about Matt's objectivity, especially how this was done," Gimenez says. "The timing of it ... makes me very suspect."
Paired with the recent disclosure that the newspaper's former education reporter, Tania deLuzuriaga, apparently carried on an improper relationship with the new Miami-Dade schools superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, it raises questions about credibility and ethics at one of America's most storied newspapers.
Of course, journalists covering civic affairs sometimes make the transition into government-related work. Former Minneapolis Tribune columnist Raymond Thomas Rybak is now that city's mayor. Here in Miami-Dade, former Herald county hall reporter Eston "Dusty" Melton left journalism decades ago and became a successful lobbyist. Karl Ross, another ex-Herald county reporter, turned down a job offer from ex-County Manager Steve Shiver but now works as an investigator for the Miami-Dade ethics commission.
Moreover, the Herald recently has been undergoing significant job cuts. Just last week, the paper announced a 10 percent reduction. Many editors and reporters, as well as business-side personnel, have been seeking other work.
Pinzur, an 11-year news veteran, says the whole thing came up suddenly. As soon as Burgess offered him the job, Pinzur told his bosses. (His immediate supervisor, Ronnie Greene, an award-winning investigative reporter, didn't return a call seeking comment.) "It was important to me, the county manager, and the Herald that we handled this way above board," he says. "I didn't want anyone to misinterpret anything."
Comments Herald executive editor Anders Gyllenhaal: You will not find many papers that have been tougher and more aggressive and more probing than the Herald. [Its] preposterous to suggest that Herald coverage of county has been in any way soft.
Herald critics have begun reviewing recent stories about county government. Some believe the newspaper, which has helped bring about indictment of several county leaders in recent decades and won multiple Pulitzer prizes for doing so, has gone soft. (Gyllenhaal already announced a review of articles by deLuzuriaga, who this past Thursday quit a job at the Boston Globe because of the Carvalho controversy.)
Consider these three examples:
• This past February 12, Pinzur penned a 1,814-word piece gushing about County Mayor Carlos Alvarez's first year as a so-called "strong mayor." "It would be an oversimplication [sic] to suggest Alvarez is ignorant of traditional politicking; on the contrary, his rejection of flash and sizzle sometimes works."
• On May 16, Pinzur wrote an 887-word story exclusively quoting Burgess defending the county and the City of Miami for using $3 billion in taxpayer money meant for economic development in poor neighborhoods to build a port tunnel, a baseball stadium on the Orange Bowl site, and two museums in Bicentennial Park, as well as shore up the abysmal finances of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
• On September 19, he reported on the commission's approval of the county's $7.4 billion budget, which is prepared by Alvarez and Burgess. Pinzur led with the fact that the county had saved popular programs such as a teen boot camp and the ethics commission. Buried in the 544-word article was how the county planned to pay for those programs and stave off other cuts by using $68 million generated from an increase in countywide tax rates.
Pinzur explains he was offered a buyout when Burgess approached him shortly after the September 18 budget hearing at the Stephen P. Clark Center. He expressed an interest but said he would have to stop reporting about county government once they began talking about a job offer. He had finished writing a first draft of that September 19 story.
"I had already filed my story with my editors," Pinzur notes. "[Burgess] had heard about the new round of buyouts and asked me if we wanted to do something together.... It seemed like a good opportunity.
"I volunteered to run out my accrued sick and vacation leave time rather than be in the newsroom," Pinzur continues.
On September 19, Pinzur and Burgess met. Then they talked over the weekend about a position with the county manager's executive team. On September 22, the reporter met with Burgess and Alvarez to close the deal. Two days later, the county manager sent a memo to department directors announcing Pinzur's hire. According to the memo, the 31-year-old scribe-turned-county-executive will "focus primarily on external affairs including intergovernmental relations and fostering positive working relationships with decision makers in our community."
A debate erupted in the Herald newsroom. One issue was an electronic file Pinzur completed on his way out the door this past Monday night, according to a source at the Herald. It was a "professional obituary" for Burgess in the event the county manager ever resigned or got fired (writing such "prebits" is common at daily newspapers to avoid last-minute mistakes). The source claims the never-published draft read like a "sloppy blowjob."
Tallahassee bureau reporter Marc Caputo posted an angry screed slamming Pinzur in "Readme,'' the newspaper's internal electronic bulletin board. It included direct quotes from the aforementioned faux obit. But it was quickly pulled and replaced with the following: "Minding the Golden Rule supplication above, I've stricken my angry rant on the recent departure of one of our former colleagues. Suffice it to say: It reeks of offensive deal-making."
Rabin wouldn't say whether he thought Pinzur's coverage could have been stronger. "Once in a while we had a difference of opinion," he comments, "just like all journalists do."
Responds Pinzur, who begins his new job October 6: "Chuck [Rabin] is a spectacularly good reporter. I have a huge amount of respect for him."
Pinzur adds that his county reporting stands on its own merit. "I think there are plenty of stories that administration didn't like and plenty they did like. I never judged my reporting on what the people I was covering thought. I never slanted stories one way or the other, and certainly not in anticipation to get a job."
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