At the same time one of Florida’s most visible television reporters brought the news to viewers around the state, he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars on the side from the government agencies he covered.
Mike Vasilinda, a 30-year veteran of the Tallahassee press corps, does public relations work and provides film editing services to more than a dozen state agencies.
His Tallahassee company, Mike Vasilinda Productions Inc., has earned more than $100,000 over the past four years through contracts with Gov. Jeb Bush’s office, the Secretary of State, the Department of Education and other government entities that are routinely part of Vasilinda’s stories.
Vasilinda also was paid to work on campaign ads for at least one politician and to create a promotional movie for Leon County. One of his biggest state contracts was a 1996 deal that paid nearly $900,000 to air the weekly drawing for the Florida Lottery.
Meanwhile, the freelance reporter’s stories continued to air on CNN and most Florida NBC stations, including WFLA-Channel 8 in Tampa.
On Friday, Vasilinda told the Herald-Tribune that his business dealings with state government don’t influence his reporting.
“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 said. “We absolutely keep arm’s length between the two divisions of our company.”
But Bob Steele, a journalism ethics professor at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, said Vasilinda’s state government work “certainly raises some red flags.”
“Journalists should be guided by a principle of independence, and their primary loyalty should be to the public,” Steele said. “When journalists have loyalties to a government office or government agencies, those competing loyalties can undermine journalistic independence.”
Steele said Vasilinda’s government contracts are the latest blow to media credibility following the revelation earlier this year that three journalists were accepting government contracts to promote certain programs.
In January, USA Today revealed that President George W. Bush’s administration had paid conservative columnist Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote No Child Left Behind, the president’s education reform law.
After the Williams flap went public, two more conservative columnists were exposed for accepting money to promote Bush’s beliefs on marriage.
In January, a Herald-Tribune reporter left repeated messages with Gov. Bush spokeswoman Alia Faraj requesting information about whether any journalists have received money from state agencies.
Faraj, who worked for Vasilinda at Capitol News Service before she was hired by the Bush administration, never responded. Faraj also did not return calls Friday seeking comment for this story.
You’d think they’d come up with something the would go the White House one better, say like hiring a drag queen — Helena Handbasket or Bertha Vanation — to ask Jeb some easy questions at press conferences. This is Florida, after all. (Well, we do have Katherine Harris…) But no, just your plain old garden variety conflict-of-interest.