Capitol News Founder Fires Back

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Capitol News Service founder Mike Vasilinda fired back Monday after a story in Sarasota, Fla.-based newspaper the Herald-Tribune, picked up by TheNew York Times, pointed out that he supplied stories to Florida NBC affiliates and Cable News Network about state government agencies with which he also had contracts through his Mike Vasilinda Productions.

"I have processes in place to make sure the products we put out for our news clients are free from bias from any source," Vasilinda told the paper, but at least one journalism ethicist, the Poynter Institute's Bob Steele, was raising questions about the practice.

The combination of news organizations and government contracts has become a hot-button issue in the wake of growing concern over Bush Administration pay-for-play PR contracts and video news release policies, though in this case it was the Jeb Bush administration in Florida and Vasilinda says the government contracts had no effect on the news operations and were not PR.

On Monday, Vasilinda responded to the paper's story, saying that his non-news production is, and has been, handled by a separate arm of the company.

Forrest Carr, News Director at client NBC affiliate WFLA Tampa came to Vasilinda's defense.

According to a letter to Steele posted on Capitol News Services' Web site, Carr pointed out that all TV stations and newspapers "have production departments producing products other than news. So does Mike's company. TV stations typically take money for non-news services from people or organizations whom they cover, or might reasonably be expected to be called upon to cover at some point. In fact, you will not find one commercial TV station or newspaper for which this is not true. It's true for Mike's company as well."

Carr said that if Vasilinda's operation was unethical, so was every TV station that has a news department and also produces the lottery TV show for the state.

In his online rebuttal, Vasilinda said:

"In an ivory tower world, newspapers and television stations wouldn't sell advertising, but that is not the world in which we live. For more than 30 years, I have balanced my role of media entrepreneur and journalist in an ethical way.

The premise of the story 'TV reporter earned money from state' and its lead paragraph suggesting I earned money on the “side” or secretly, is aimed at creating a false impression of my business dealings. That my company has two divisions, one news and the other production, have been clearly laid out publicly for all to see for decades. We have never compromised our journalistic ethics or disregarded the public trust.

"The Florida Capitol Press Corps is among the largest and most aggressive in the country. To be considered one of the most aggressive of this bunch is quite and honor and disputes the premise of the story.

"In an attempt to minimize this un-disputed fact, the reporter quotes journalism professor Dr. Robert Steele, who questions what questions we didn't ask. The fact is we are not on an island. The staff of Capitol News Service competes head to head every day with the St. Pete Times, the New York Times, and dozens of other papers. We do an excellent job leading the pack, not following it.

"This competition is an inherent check on the credibility of every story and every reporter. Our news staff and I ask tough questions each and every day and our first loyalty is to the public who has a right to know what its government is doing. It is a trust we have never broken.

"To mention national “pay for play” scandals involving direct payments to pundits by an administration to promote a point of view in the same story is unfair, unbalanced and inflammatory. It is a conscious attempt by the reporter to sully my reputation when the two situations are as different as night and day.

"Other facts are incorrect as well. We do not engage in public relations as reported, and left unsaid is the fact the production services we provide are primarily technical with a high overhead, such as duplicating."

Vasilinda's full response is available at http://www.flanews.com/news1.html.

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