Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nikki Fried falsely claimed reporters who examined her policies on sugar cane burning were paid by environmental activists.
Fried’s comment followed the publication of a 6,000-word investigation by The Palm Beach Post into Fried’s promise as agriculture commissioner to make “historic changes” to sugar cane harvesting.
The Post’s Aug. 11 report found that her changes to the state’s burn program failed to address the health risks people in Palm Beach County may face because of pollution. It also noted that Fried’s political committee receives contributions from groups largely funded by the sugar industry.
The sugar industry’s practice of burning acres of cane fields is a harvesting technique to rid the plant of its tough outer layer, according to the Post.
Fried went beyond simply dismissing the story when a reporter covering one of her campaign events asked her about its findings. She said the Sierra Club, an environmental group, wanted her to ban sugar cane burning.
“The Sierra Club had one mission and one mission only,” Fried said in Tallahassee on Aug. 14. “It’s unfortunate they didn’t recognize all the other tremendous achievements our department made.”
When pressed further, she said: “We also know they paid for those reporters.”
It’s not unusual for a politician to say unfavorable coverage is inaccurate or biased. But Fried’s claim suggested journalistic corruption.
PolitiFact found no evidence to support Fried’s accusation. The commissioner’s office said it would not answer specific questions about the claim. Her campaign did not return multiple requests for comment.
The Sierra Club doesn’t fund the Palm Beach Post
When we asked the Post about Fried’s claim, Executive Editor Rick Christie said none of the reporters, photographers or editors assigned to the latest investigation were paid by an outside entity, let alone the Sierra Club.
“It is unfortunate that the agriculture commissioner felt the need to initiate and propagate an outright falsehood,” Christie said. “We stand by our reporting.”
She did not clarify where she heard the allegation. Fried’s office only pointed to an Aug. 15 article by the Capitolist to support her claim.
The Capitolist is a business and politics website with a questionable relationship with the state’s largest power utility, Florida Power & light.
Consultants hired by Florida Power & Light bought a controlling stake in the website ahead of the 2020 election, the Herald reported. Articles were also revealed to be pre-screened by the consultants.
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Florida Power & Light used the Capitolist to “settle scores and bend the will of regulators, politicians and the public,” the Herald wrote.
The Capitolist article Fried cited linked to its criticism of a 2021 investigation into sugar cane burning that the Palm Beach Post published in partnership with ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news site.
As part of its Local Reporting Network, ProPublica provides grants to local news organizations for specific investigative journalism projects. A ProPublica grant funded the Post’s 2021 investigation.
In July 2021, the Capitolist said that the Post partnering with ProPublica for the investigation amounted to “a troubling and obvious controversy.” It also attempted to link ProPublica to the Everglades Foundation, a group working to restore the Everglades.
The Capitolist said both ProPublica and the Everglades Foundation received funding from the Knight Foundation, a longtime funder of journalism, communities and the arts.
Robin Sparkman, ProPublica’s president, told PolitiFact that funders don’t have a say in which organizations the publication partners with and which stories it investigates.
“They see our stories when the public sees them,” Sparkman said. “Additionally, we have never solicited or received funding from The Sierra Club or The Everglades Foundation.”
The Capitolist reported that the Everglades Foundation invested in the Sierra Club, but it did not establish a credible connection between the Sierra Club and the Post.
The Sierra Club also denied paying for news coverage of sugar cane harvesting.
“There is absolutely no truth to Commissioner Fried’s statement,” said Patrick Ferguson, organizing representative for the Sierra Club of Florida.
Fried said the Sierra Club “paid for those reporters.”
There’s no evidence for Fried’s claim. The Palm Beach Post and Sierra Club rebutted Fried’s accusation about the newspaper’s coverage of sugar cane burning. An article highlighted by Fried’s office did not uncover such a link, relying instead on a chain of association with no direct financial relationship.
Fried suggested unfavorable coverage was a result of journalistic corruption. Her claim is not only wrong but ridiculous. Pants on Fire!