Tallahassee Reports has learned that Tallahassee Democrat columnist Gary Yordon is being paid by the Curtis Richardson Campaign. Mr. Richardson is seeking to retain his seat on the City Commission.
On February 1, 2016 the Tallahassee Democrat reported that Gary Yordon “serves as a Florida correspondent for CNN and writes a column for Gannett newspapers.”
On June 29, 2016, a reporter for Tallahassee Democrat wrote “The pages of the Tallahassee Democrat are home to yet another award-winning writer. Columnist Gary Yordon won second place in the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest category.”
On July 16, 2016 the Curtis Richardson Campaign for City Commission wrote a check to a company owned by Gary Yordon for $26,090. The campaign reported that the payment was for “TV Production, Mail Design, TV Buys”
Yordon wrote a column for the Tallahassee Democrat as recent as August 13th, 2016.
This relationship has not been addressed by the the Tallahassee Democrat, and it is has not been reported in the articles written about the race featuring challenger Steven Hougland and Curtis Richardson.
The potential conflicts with the relationship could be significant.
Consider these points.
First, Mr. Yordon was a registered lobbyist for four different companies with the City of Tallahassee as earlier as 2015.
Second, anyone who knows Mr. Yordon will tell you he is a fierce advocate for his campaign clients.
And third, at least one Tallahassee Democrat journalist has used Mr. Yordon as a source in their election coverage.
Given these facts, it appears rather easy to develop scenarios where Yordon could influence the Tallahassee Democrat coverage of the Hougland-Richardson race.
For example, has Mr. Yordon’s time with the Tallahassee Democrat resulted in relationships with reporters that leads to conversations that benefit Yordon’s clients?
Are reporters which have developed a relationship with Yordon reluctant to pursue stories that are critical of his clients because they know they will get a phone call from a “colleague”?
Take for example the issue of campaign contributions and vendors.
The Tallahassee Democrat, through the exhaustive reporting of Jeff Burlew, has published numerous stories over the last two years about the campaign contributions made to Leon County Schools Superintendent Jackie Pons by vendors that received contracts to do work with Leon County Schools.
However, when Mr. Rchardson’s opponent highlighted, in a press conference, the curious relationship between Richardson’s votes and campaign contributions of vendors doing work for the City of Tallahassee, Mr. Burlew, the Tallahassee Democrat labeled “watchdog reporter,” failed to pen one article.
Did Yordon play a role in this decision? This is unknown. Would he push back on a reporter over this type of story as an advocate for his client? Absolutely.
These questions are why most newspaper ethics policies state employees should strive to avoid even the appearance of conflict.
Several sources, reluctant to go on the record, thought the arrangement provided the opportunity for candidates to question the Tallahassee Democrat’s election coverage given Yordon’s deep ties within the political community.
The National Society of Newspaper Columnists, the group that gave Yordon an award, states on the Code of Conduct section of their website that columnists should “disclose potential conflicts to readers whenever possible.”
The Society of Professional Journalists write that journalists should “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”