No more Mr. Nice Guy

The rumor began circulating through City Council Chambers like whispers around a school yard. The mayor was going to "slam" the Orlando Sentinel. Hood, the whispers said, was angry at the stepped up coverage of City Hall, particularly the three-part series accusing city officials of handing the former Navy base to a mega-rich developer two years ago.

What followed at the Nov. 12 council meeting was unprecedented in the history of Orlando government. With six television cameras focused on the proceedings, Hood and several of her top executives gave a 90-minute overview why the Sentinel had engaged in "journo-terrorism," as one city official called it. During the presentation, city officials flashed 13 fact discrepancies on an overhead projector -- everything from the value of the 1,000-acre Naval Training Center to how much land was set aside for an elementary school. Emphasizing the 'Say-what?' tone of the city's criticism, each discrepancy was followed by three incredulous question marks.

Hood, of course, responded in her trademark style -- by trying to make herself look good while making an adversary look bad. "By a creative and convenient combination of adjectives, suppositions and memory," she said, "a story was cobbled together that epitomized the phrase, 'Don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.'"

Hood took pains to point out that the Sentinel had endorsed the project during the six years it took to transfer the property from the Navy to the Chicago-based Pritzker family. Gasping in wonderment, she remarked that the Sentinel had "enjoyed a most mysterious epiphany."

What many City Hall observers were saying was that the Sentinel was finally showing some balls. Until last year, when new editor Tim Franklin took control of the paper, Orlando's only daily treated Hood as if she were head of a girl-scout troop instead of chief executive of Central Florida's most-recognized government. The paper's coverage of City Hall was mostly limited to Hood's replies to some minor accusations or a fluff piece about her many public-relations appearances.

Among the hard-hitting headlines from the past several years: "Swinging Time: Hood to Show Off Dubsdread," "Mayor Wants to Get Tough on Crime," "Hood Rebuffs Staff Proposal on Freebies," "New Park a Team Effort," "Hood Touts Smart Growth," "Hood Lets Public Get Glimpse of Her Faith," and the classic, "Light Rail Shows Never-Quit Style That Has Guided Hood for 7 Years."

Of course, the Sentinel occasionally reported Hood's thornier issues, such as a failed recall effort, her unsuccessful attempts to bring light rail to Central Florida and the council ganging up on her before her third-term reelection last year. But even then it seemed like the news was slanted in Hood's favor. You didn't have to read between the lines to realize her adversaries were tainted as obstructionists, gadflies or opportunists. Or they simply were given no ink.

"There's been an obvious effort not to cover the complete view, but only the view of the mayor," says District 1 Com-missioner Don Ammerman. "Opinions or statements different from the mayor have not had coverage."

What gave impetus to this view was the reaction from the Sentinel after the three-part series ran. In particular, Hood's enemies were salivating over information included in the Nov. 11 column of Manning Pynn, the paper's public editor. Pynn said that former City Hall reporter Dan Tracy, who authored the three-part series, had perceived a "prohibition on reporting anything critical of Hood" back when he was a beat reporter. Pynn went on to say that "no hard evidence" of a prohibition had surfaced.

But Pynn's column raises a number of questions. Was there any evidence, hard or otherwise, that the Sentinel was taking it easy on Hood? Did she enjoy a special relationship with John Haile, the daily's previous editor, or any of the paper's staff? If not, why the perception by Tracy that he had to slant the news?

Tracy, who covered City Hall for 11 years, won't discuss his relationship with Haile or the Sentinel editors. "John Haile is gone," Tracy said in a message left on a reporter's answering machine. "History is history, and I don't care to talk about it. Tim Franklin runs a good, aggressive newspaper and I enjoy working for him."

Haile, editor of the Sentinel for 15 years, now runs an international media- convergence business with a Chicago address. He could not be reached for comment and did not respond to interview requests made through the Sentinel<'i>'s publisher's office.

But several longtime editors at the paper were willing to provide some insight into its coverage of City Hall. Pynn, in an interview with Orlando Weekly, says he was "astounded" by Tracy's statement that Hood was off limits to negative reporting. In interviews with Tracy and other reporters, Pynn says he found nothing to indicate that there was an embargo on bad-news coverage of Hood. He says he has seen nothing to indicate that Hood enjoyed special treatment from the paper's editors -- no lunches, dinners or other extraprofessional gatherings. "Public officials come by here and talk with us fairly regularly," says Pynn, the paper's former editorial page editor. "Sometimes we go to their place. It's business. We have to find out what's happening."

Sentinel editors generally agree that Hood has enjoyed more friendly coverage than county officials. The editorial board has swung her way more often, Pynn says, because the city's positions were considered more responsible.

Jane Healy was Haile's managing editor for most of the time that Tracy covered City Hall. Healy, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Sentinel for a series of editorials on mismanaged growth in 1988, says the structure of city government makes news gathering more difficult. City employees are likely to show loyalty -- out of fear or respect -- because the mayor is essentially the boss of the entire city, she says.

In county government, Healy says, loyalty is diffused because many county officials -- such as the property appraiser, sheriff and comptroller -- are elected. They can provide reporters with information with relative impunity. "There are tons of leaks in the county that are not in the city," says Healy, who worked the county-government beat in the 1970s. "Nothing is ever covered up by the institution itself."

Healy adds that the city is run better than Orange County because the county's population has ballooned in the last three decades, changing it from a rural to an urban area. And its sheer size makes county government more accessible, she says: "There are, what, more than 8,000 county employees. There are only 3,000 in the city. The county is Ã? much more splintered."

Healy says she doesn't know where Tracy got the idea that he was prohibited from writing aggressive stories about City Hall. It didn't come from her or from John Haile, she says. (As managing editor, Healy, who is now the editorial-page editor, was not Tracy's direct supervisor. She says she was separated from Tracy by four levels of management.)

A Sentinel editor who used to work a government beat also says he never felt restrained by his editors -- even if the opinions of the paper's editorial board differed with the content of a news story. Yet the editor, who asked not to be named or quoted, added that he wasn't surprised by Tracy's comment in Pynn's column.

Whatever the case, the days of genteel journalism appear to be over. Haile's management style has been described as a kind of absentee landlordism: His interests were divided among a number of projects such as the Sentinel's website and television station. Tim Franklin, on the other hand, has been described as a kind of 41-year-old journalism gym rat whose main interest is the written word.

Already he has made a number of changes since Haile's departure. He has formed an investigative team, launched a Spanish-language version of the paper, reorganized the senior management team, hired a new managing editor (Elaine C. Kramer), beefed up Disney and Washington coverage and hired reporters from such notable publications as the Miami Herald and Wall Street Journal.

But he also helped put a blemish on the Sentinel. Many journalists say that the paper caved in to pressure last spring when the widow of race-car driver Dale Earnhardt began a political and legal campaign to prevent the media from examining autopsy photos of her husband. Instead of insisting on viewing the pictures under Florida law and the First Amendment, the Sentinel agreed to a mediator's appointment of an outside expert to view the photos.

Franklin defends the paper, saying the coverage helped raise awareness of NASCAR safety. "I'm really proud how we chose to handle it," he says.

But Florida University professor Jean Chance says the paper embarrassed the journalism industry. "The Sentinel has been perceived within the profession as caving in to public pressure -- from the Earnhardt family, from politicians -- on an issue very vital to public-information business," she says.

That situation aside, there is nearly universal agreement that the paper has stepped up coverage on all of its beats. What that means for the rest of Hood's tenure remains to be seen. From the perspective of the mayor's staff, Hood wasn't treated all that royally in the first place. Hood spokeswoman Susan Blexrud describes the coverage as mostly neutral. "Sometimes they've been kind, sometimes unkind," she says. "I don't know how it will continue. I don't know if they will look for opportunities to take shots at the mayor. That's not good journalism."

Blexrud agrees the city's 90-minute anti-Sentinel tirade -- which featured two power-point presentations and comments from two consultants flown in especially for the occasion -- was slightly over the top. "I never intended for it to take that long," she says. "It was the emotion of combat."

Blexurd says she doesn't anticipate using council meetings to rebut media stories in the future. As in the past, City Hall won't respond when journalists make small mistakes or when there's a difference of opinion. But she says the three-part series on the Naval Training Center had too many egregious errors that prohibited Sentinel readers from fully understanding the complex project.

Even so, the deal still looks sweet for the Pritzker family. The city's figures indicate the developer will spend approximately $125,000 an acre in costs of cleanup, sewer installation, curbs, sidewalks and streets. Should the Pritzker family divide each acre into three lots (extremely big by real estate standards) and sell them for $200,000 per lot (a conservative estimate), the mark up per acre will be $600,000 -- a 500 percent markup. That's much more than the 50 percent markup most developers expect from real- estate transactions. But the Pritzker family has also assumed the risk of environmental cleanup and a number of other variables beyond its control. What if the economy tanks? What if builders don't step forward? How much will the cleanup cost? (In 1996, the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen evaluated the base as being worth less than zero because so much would have to be spent on cleanup.)

In any event, it isn't true, as the Sentinel's series alleges, that city leaders shortchanged taxpayers by failing to negotiate for more public amenities. The city could easily have given in to pressure from developers to build directly around the perimeter Lake Baldwin. That didn't happen. The lake, which is more than twice the size of Lake Eola, will remain accessible to the public.

What's more, Tom Kohler, director of the downtown development board who was chief negotiator for the deal, was not interviewed for the story. He undoubtedly should have been. Says Kohler, "Mr. Franklin is in the selling-newspaper business. He's approaching his profession in what he deems the best way to sell newspapers. He's taking some liberties with the facts. That proves he's selling his newspaper to make a profit."