Scripps Script

Christopher Smith

"I'm Earl Maucker, Sun-Sentinel editor. How can I help you?"

Well, for starters, Earl, you can start acting like a journalist rather than a castrated helper monkey. If you can't do that, go ahead and pour me a double vodka martini. And throw in a full frontal lobotomy. Then I might really be able to appreciate your newspaper more often.

Big Earl is asking his craven question all over radio and television these days as part the paper's new ad campaign. It ends with his announcing, "I am the Sun-Sentinel."

It's not a commercial, really, so much as a public service. The Sentinel is finally defining its true mission to the public. It's not to inform the public of what the politicians are doing with tax dollars. It's not to investigate corruption. It's not even to entertain or amuse us.

It's to grovel like a five-dollar street walker with an empty crack pipe.

And the campaign follows in the best tradition of the newspaper's pandering past. Look at its blind backing of the billion-dollar expansion of the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, which will displace hundreds of homeowners and threaten environmentally sensitive coastal lands. While cheerleading for the grandest and most controversial version of the project, Sentinel editorialists have regurgitated bogus facts and basically urged the Broward County Commission to waste tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to approve it without studying the most cost-effective and least damaging way to do it.

Why? Because the newspaper's top brass is deeply allied with the Broward Alliance and other public-private business networks that are pushing for the project (see "Axis of Influence," March 25).

Now the Tribune Company-owned daily is using the same m.o. with the giant Scripps Research Institute project in Palm Beach County. The plan, which was secretly orchestrated last year by Gov. Jeb Bush, is to spend more than $1 billion in taxpayer money to lure the biomedical industry to Florida. To cover the fact that this is would be one of the most obscene corporate giveaways in modern times, Bush likened Scripps to the discovery of air conditioning and Walt Disney World and wildly inflated job creation numbers.

But even if the public wants to subsidize Scripps (and the army of developers and special interests that will follow in its wake), the planned site for the massive project -- which will include a huge corporate complex, about 7,500 homes, a shopping mall, and space for pharmaceutical and medical companies -- should be a deal-breaker. It's an orange grove way out on the edge of the Everglades called Mecca Farms and more agricultural turf and wetlands at neighboring Vavrus Ranch. Putting the project in the middle of nowhere will create the kind of thick urban sprawl patently despised by Homo sapiens of the nondeveloper variety. It will hinder the $8 billion Everglades restoration project, and it goes against every established tenet of smart growth in South Florida.

The project will create more traffic, harm the environment, and suck the life from the existing downtown core. "Look, Scripps is fine; we're just saying it's in the wrong place," says Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, which has staunchly fought the proposal. "It's going to promote urban sprawl. It's unnecessary to build it out there."

The newspaper's rank and file has done a passable job covering the thing. Palm Beach columnist Howard Goodman recognized the complexity of the situation. "Do we really want to flood the rural Mecca Farms and Acreage area with traffic loads already predicted to reach gridlock?" he wrote this past June 27. "To spur biotechnology, must we threaten the biosphere? Do we have to cut into conservation lands that taxpayers have spent millions to preserve?"

Yet the Sentinel's editorial page -- the soul of this Faustian newspaper -- has devoutly followed the Scripps script. It's been hawking the project like Jeb's brother sold the Iraq War, with a mixture of fear-mongering, hypocrisy, startling half-truths, and loads of misinformation. Worse, the Sentinel is obviously doing this because Scripps is expected to provide an economic engine for the newspaper's risky and costly expansion into northern Palm Beach. The newspaper has already opened an office in Wellington and placarded billboards with the Sun-Sentinel brand name all over town. If Scripps fails, the Sentinel's expensive bid to find its market up north would be put in serious jeopardy.

Ah, good old corporate self-interest at the expense of the people. The governor must be proud of Maucker's minions, most notably Editorial Editor Kingsley Guy. But then again, what would you expect from a fellow whose mama would name him "Kingsley"?

The paper has rah-rahed for the project since its inception in 2003 but has really ratcheted it up during the past several months. This past March, when Gov. Bush said that the Scripps deal wasn't as promising as it first appeared and noted it wasn't finalized, the editorialists cried foul. "This is not a good time for Gov. Jeb Bush to be tempering his zeal for [Scripps] with cautionary realism," they wrote on March 6.  

No, governor, with this much money involved, we must stick with the wild fantasy you used to sell the thing to the public. They ended the editorial with this line: "This is no time for warnings, just action."

I couldn't make this stuff up. When environmental groups threatened litigation over the Mecca site, the Sentinel was reduced to spitting out not so much an argument as an incoherent cry for help. "The green group is drawing a new line in the sand: Abandon Mecca or we'll sue," read an August 13 editorial. "How is that helpful? If the county does decide Mecca is the best location, it must make that decision on the merits, not for fear of unreasonable threats."

Sounds like a new Sentinel slogan: "Don't challenge the government. It isn't helpful."

Especially when the newspaper is trying to conquer the Palm Beach market.

Those pieces (of what, I'm still not sure) were among about a dozen editorials with the same theme: Build first, ask questions later. That, of course, is bassackward, not to mention a direct contradiction to the raison d'être of any self-respecting newspaper. On September 25, under the headline "Stop Risking the Whole Project," the paper again touted Mecca, stating unequivocally that it was the only possible site that "enables the county to recoup its costs." Then came an October 13 editorial headlined, "Time to Make a Decision."

"Scripps is more than a vision. It's a humming, percolating reality, a promise of more to come," Guy's guys wrote breathlessly, like teenyboppers in love. "If only its future home was as definitive. Palm Beach County commissioners have yet to decide where to put it despite months of study, bickering, and vacillation."

There was, however, a very good reason for the bickering. After the Sentinel attacked those crazy environmentalists for their obstructionism, a new critic of the Mecca site came into the picture: the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers in August urging the agency to reject the site, arguing that it would harm wetlands.

Oh, and Palm Beach government staff also undermined the Sentinel's crusade, releasing a study that found that taxpayers would never be able to recoup the hundreds of millions of dollars planned for Scripps. This came after the Sentinel assured us of the opposite.

But that didn't slow the charlatans at our favorite newspaper from continuing to back the Mecca site: "The debate is not really about protecting the environment, and it's no longer about cost," Maucker's men wrote, again falsely. "It's about stopping suburban sprawl from consuming Mecca Farms, which the county will sell for development with or without Scripps. Sprawl, then, is inevitable..."

It's time the editorialists went back and looked at their past scribblings. Back in the mid-1990s, the Governor's Commission on a Sustainable South Florida condemned the idea of putting massive developments on the edge of the Everglades and urged the "Eastward Ho!" program of reinvigorating the urban centers. The Sentinel championed the plan with a 1996 editorial that blared "Let 'Eastward Ho!' Be Our Motto to Fight Sprawl, Protect Glades." In that little screed, the Sentinel trumpeted the need to "reduce unrelenting westward growth pressure now imperiling the Everglades, the water supply, and the region's future quality of life..."

It continued: "Those themes should constantly be kept high in the consciousness of local political and business leaders, voters, and taxpayers. They offer great promise for protecting and enhancing South Florida's future if adopted... and pose great risks if ignored."

But heck, the newspaper can't be burdened by goody-two-shoes concerns about South Florida's water supply and future now, not when it's trying to take over the Palm Beach newspaper market. I'm sure it will worry about the Everglades and our quality of life again... after Scripps is built.

The hypocritical and irresponsible Sentinel scribes appear to have been effective, though -- the county finally approved the Mecca site last month. Just goes to show that a cacophony of nonsense and lies can beat out sober reasoning any day.

The bastards haven't won yet. More development related to the Scripps project must be approved on the nearby Vavrus Ranch, which is even more environmentally sensitive. The Florida Wildlife Federation and the Audobon Society have jointly filed one lawsuit, and more are to come. Approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is still questionable. And just last week, the county conceded that it wouldn't have the Mecca site ready on the deadline of January 3 because of delays caused by hurricanes, administrative problems, and the upcoming litigation.  

So you really can help us, Earl. All you have to do is keep your newspaper from lying to the people and promoting gargantuan, populace-robbing boondoggles. Oppose the disastrous Mecca Farms site and put your best reporters on a no-holds-barred investigation to see if Scripps is really, truly worth that billion of our dollars.

I know you can do it. After all, you are the Sun-Sentinel, right?

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