No Fan Of Real Journalism, SnF Seems To Be Trying To Craft Its Image The Old Fashioned Way… Through ‘Wheeling and Dealing’ – and That’s NOT All
Analysis/Opinion/Commentary by (You Guessed It) Jim Campbell, ANN CEO/Editor-In-Chief
Over the years (not so much lately… because the event seemed to be quickly fading into obscurity and we had better things to write about), we’ve had some things to say and write about concerning the doddering fortunes of the Lakeland, FL-based Sun ‘Fun Fly-In… from the many demonstrated hazards we uncovered (and got punished for), from the strange dealings and complaints of the vendors and exhibitors (who are starting to walk away in serious numbers), from the special treatment given to SnF insiders and friends of the administration (even when those friends were known to be less than proper/ethical folks), their seeming lack of concern for the attendees and vendors who paid SnF’s way up until now, and most recently; the emergence of a group, made up mostly of former SnF volunteers and staffers who suggest that the Fly-In is failing and that something must be done to save the Fly-In – from itself.
ANN is well aware of these issues… having been ‘banned,’ threatened, harassed, attacked and even assaulted whilst attempting to cover the event in years past. It didn’t matter that our warnings about hazards and dangers at Lakeland were followed by actual accidents (and in so occurring, proving our concerns to not only be true, but of an even more ponderous nature than we feared), some of them fatal -- EVERY TIME we raised the flag, or that we were supposedly protected by the Constitutional protections afforded every journalist practicing the craft in the USA… none of this seemed to matter to Lakeland… so long as they could keep ringing the cash register while demanding (over and over again – ad nauseum) that we “only write nice things.”
But now… desperation seems to be setting in.
After more recent events saw ANN receiving complaints from attendees, volunteers and vendors over receiving strange bills (for ‘clean-up’ costs) for damage done to their aircraft in a storm that hit the Fly-In some years ago … after volunteers complained about not receiving reimbursement for injuries in the same event… and after more and more vendors indicated that they were abandoning or curtailing their participation in the Fly-In over a number of complaints and concerns; we’ve learned that SnF is allegedly attempting to extort “Freebies” from those ‘approved’ media persons/organizations that still cover the event… or may be seeking to.
A recent email alerted us to the presence of some worrisome content on the SnF ‘media’ page. Therein, SnF appears to expend a lot of verbiage trying to detail how important they are and why journalists must prove themselves acceptable to the organization in order to receive coverage credentials. And while there is language on the page that seems to set ‘standards’ for what is and is not a journalist in the convoluted minds of the historically ‘anti-press’ (IMO) media center and officials, a bit of bizarre text is included/detailed in order to solicit special treatment or consideration from media parties who may be worried that Lakeland will not issue them credentials.
“SUN 'n FUN will consider media credential requests from individuals who help promote our events on their media based websites or social media. (As a 501c3, your contribution to SUN 'n FUN can be considered a donation and we will pass any request from your company to our finance department for proper acknowledgement.)”
Another, more detailed, paragraph is even more blatant… “SUN ‘n FUN is soliciting promotional support from all of our media partners. This can also be used in lieu of available historical coverage information. In exchange for first-time media credentials, we are requesting that the SUN ‘n FUN event poster (or SnF logo with event dates) with a link to the current Annual SUN ‘n FUN International Fly-In & Expo page on the SUN ’n FUN website be placed on the front page no laster (sic) than mid February. You may choose to simply include editorial copy about the event. A tax-deductible statement is available to the media outlet for the value of any advertising promotion.”
So… according to their so-called standards… all the folderol they output about what is, or is not, an accredited journalist may be swept aside if you give them something that would otherwise cost them a lot of money.
Quick interrogatories to other aviation events, some of whom are much larger and more respected entities, indicated that they had no such policies and seemed at best, amused -- and at worst, insulted, by the questions we asked in regards to whether they conducted themselves at all like this Fly-In (even reading them whole paragraphs like those included above).
While there are legitimate reasons for wanting to build promotional support with media partners (when conducted carefully and ethically – and not when used a condition of approval of covering the event OR as “editorial copy”), putting such inflammatory (and some say, extortionate) text within the media permissions and request pages seems intended to send a message – ‘promote us, treat us right and we’ll do the same for you – and oh, yeah, we don’t want to pay for all the free advertising we’re soliciting.’
In addition to the solicitation for free promotion, SnF (much like the NFL and other, more prosperous, events) states that they own the rights to much of the work product conducted on the Federally funded and publicly supported airport grounds (YOUR tax dollars at work, by the way). Worse, SnF asserts that media entities must get their permission or approval before the broadcast and/or publication of SnF events, imagery or affiliated media coverage. Much of that verbiage, according to numerous experts in the legal/media side of things is highly questionable and tends to concern journalists and the media companies that employ them, in no uncertain terms.
Hard to believe? Read on…
“SUN 'n FUN Fly-In, Inc.(SnF, Inc.) is the owner of all trademarks, copyrights and other proprietary rights connected to its SUN ’n FUN International Fly-In & Expo (SnF IFIE) and retains all worldwide rights. Any broadcast, rebroadcast, or use of any accounts, pictures, or descriptions of SnF IFIE (with the exception of news broadcasts by legitimately accredited and credentialed news media) without the expressed written permission of SnF, Inc. is prohibited. All SnF, Inc. events, including the annual SnF IFIE are proprietary to SnF, Inc., and attendance or exhibition at the same is subject to SnF, Inc.’s policies and requirements, as well as all applicable laws. Rights may have been granted to national and international broadcast, cable, and satellite services and additional restrictions imposed by those services may also apply.
This policy includes any and all Recordings (of any nature, to include broadcasts, moving and still images, sound etc. regardless of the means of capture or storage used - e.g. film, digital, video, or other format/media) from SnF, Inc. including but not limited to the following: all activities which may take place within the entire SnF, Inc. campus area, to include, but not limited to: flight line areas, the Florida Air Museum, SUN ’n FUN campground, Sunset Grill, ,Media Center, Paradise City, Davis Education Center, Buehler Restoration Center, Hospitality Center and The Pavilion.
Television stations, networks, cable systems, and other media outlets are prohibited from making recordings available to any other organization without advance written permission from SnF, Inc.“
And finally, it’s quite clear that SnF seeks to align itself with media and media partners who will say nice things about them (indeed, we had a former Mayor of Lakeland pretty much demand the same after a threat was issued by a former media director from SnF that told us quite simply, that if we wouldn’t be nice to and about them, that we could – and would -- be banned).
For years, the event saw its fortunes fading, and a few memorable scandals (especially when they were caught blatantly lying about attendance figures, ignoring press inquiries about questionable practices, trying to distance themselves from responsibility for a number of highly visible accidents, or when members of their board (past/present) openly interfered in the business of outside media entities (yes, like ANN), even attempting to get their staffers to quit and damage the organizations that they worked for (one of such attempts occurring at an AOPA function on the other side of the country, no less) – continued to tarnish the already lackluster image of what was once an amazing and popular event (no kidding, folks, in its heyday, this was a truly lovely event…).
Now, though, much of our concerns seem to be (finally!) shared, more and more, by those who are now willing to publicly counsel the SnF emperors about their poor fashion statements… and even their ‘see-no-evil’ buddies like AOPA (who must be getting whiplash from having to turn their backs on other members of the aviation community so often), can’t seem to stem the tide of dissatisfaction and concern over the course of this misguided event.
And, get this, these are folks with INTIMATE knowledge of the workings/failings/politics of this event.
In recent months, the aforementioned cadre of former volunteers and staffers, calling themselves the “Sun 'n NO Fun - Volunteers Unite” group (on Facebook and elsewhere) has raised a serious fuss. Leader Dale Faux, a former Senior SnF staffer and manager of several other aviation events, has gone on the record as being dissatisfied with the management of Sun ‘n Fun and is attempting to fix the mess. He seems to have the backing of at least one of the people that actually created and ran the event for many years.
‘Sun ‘n NO Fun’ notes that aircraft that were donated to the affiliated air museum are now being sold off to satiate the needs for cash from the organization, and that the leadership has turned a blind eye not only to the volunteer organization but to former leaders and senior staffers of the event. The grassroots group also expresses alarm at the decline in fortunes of the event, the conflicts of interest that they have noted in a number of business relationships with the organization, and the need for an ad hoc volunteer advisory board that has a say (one that the SnF Board will listen to) in the same event that THEIR labor and participation built and -- continues to support. SnF would fail miserably without all the free labor the volunteers offer the event, and while EAA has learned the hard lessons that occur when communications break down (a situation expertly countered by EAA’s Jack Pelton), the management of SnF seems to be, as yet, unwilling to respond
to such parties.
Among the SNFNF-VU concerns are some published statements that seem to require a response from SnF managers (who, by the way, don’t return our calls, either…).
In a September 2013 missive, SNFNF-VU notes that, “During the 2012 debriefing meeting, Leenhouts (the current SnF Boss) announced the attendance as 142,000. In the June issue of the Sun 'n Fun newsletter, the 2013 attendance was reported: "Attendance estimated at 150,000 was 9% less than an eleven year average" How can attendance be 9% less and still be higher than the previous year??? The 2013 was visibly FAR smaller than 2012. By the way.... the 1999 attendance estimate was 685,000+.”
A few weeks later, SNFNF-VU noted that, “I believe that conflict of interest is rife in the Sun 'n Fun Board of Directors and Sun 'n Fun Staff. A major example is the relationship between Avbid Auctions (which holds aircraft auctions during Sun 'n Fun including disposing of many irreplaceable museum assets) and the Sun 'n Fun Board Chairman, Sun 'n Fun President and a Board member.... all hold staff positions in Avbid which is a for profit organization. (See: http://avbid aircraft auctions.com/about-us.
Also See: http://www.sun-n-fun.org/YearRound/Board-of-Directors/SUN--n-FUN-Board.aspx)
Another example is Airboss Consulting owned by Wayne Boggs, Sun 'n Fun staff member, who just happens to hold operate in the airboss capacity during the event. I feel these types of conflicts are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!! THIS MUST CEASE!!!
The following is an excerpt from the National Council of Nonprofits web site. It states very succinctly the way a properly operated nonprofit deals with conflicts of interest.
A policy governing conflicts of interests is perhaps the most important policy a nonprofit board can adopt. To have the most impact, the policy should be in writing and the board (and staff) should review the policy regularly. Often people are unaware that their activities are in conflict with the best interests of the nonprofit so a goal for many organizations is to simply raise awareness and cultivate a “culture of candor.” It is helpful to take time at a board meeting annually to discuss the types of situations that could result in a conflict between the best interests of the nonprofit – and the self-interest of a staff member or board member.
A conflict of interest policy should (a) require those with a conflict (or who think they may have a conflict) to disclose the conflict/potential conflict, and (b) prohibit interested board members from voting on any matter that gives rise to a conflict between their personal interests and the nonprofit’s interests. Beyond those two basics, it is helpful for each nonprofit to determine how conflicts at the board and staff level will be managed. Keep in mind that the revised 990 asks not only about whether the nonprofit has a written conflict of interest policy, but also about the process that a nonprofit uses to manage conflicts as well as how the nonprofit determines whether board members have a conflict of interest.
See more at: http://www.councilofnonprofits.org/conflict-of-interest#sthash.8gsQKBFG.dpuf "
In February of this year, SNFNF-VU reported that, “It seems Sun 'n fun is still desperate for cash and that museum aircraft are a prime source of fast cash. Why would anyone donate anything to Sun 'n fun??? Most donations to the museum represent years of painstaking restoration effort to create a museum quality show piece. Donors generally donate with the idea that the aircraft will be placed on display for the public to enjoy. I was alerted to the placement of the museums 1930 Waco CTO Taperwing on EBay. Asking price is a whopping $145,000.00 (which sounds like it could also be about the same number as a certain Presidents yearly salary). Their reason for selling the aircraft is to "raise funds to further the restoration of aircraft for the viewing public and continuing education." Yeah?? They need to fix up a few more planes so they can sell them off?????????
Chairman of the Board, Bob Knight, stated as fact in June of 2012 (less than 3 months after the 2012 fly-in) that the SnF corporations were running on borrowed money. There is no doubt that the 2013 event was a financial dud and that Sun 'n fun is scrounging for any source of operating cash.”
Other parties and other sources indicate similar concerns and dissatisfaction with the current conduct of SnF… and we have other parties that are submitting info and statements, as I write this… but the big question that arises is this…
Can this event be saved?
Can the aviation world take the ‘hit’ that would occur if this event keeps heading south and, ultimately, fails?
While ANN has taken its share of abuse at the hands of the SnF cadre and (frankly) hasn’t even bothered to try and attend the event for some time (mostly because the event produces only a smattering of real news… we know about most, if not all, of it long before the event, anyway), we’d hate to see it fail. Still, as journalists with a strong affection for our Constitutional freedoms, we can not recommend that ANYONE attend this event until the rights and freedoms of ALL media persons and outlets are respected without restriction or any attempt to subvert proper editorial freedoms and processes… which means that they’re going to have to take their lumps when they screw up.
It's called AMERICA, SnF-- Get Over It.
Just as important; the stories of internal conflict, alleged/potential malfeasance, and other issues continue to escalate – and we hope that more expert and ethical persons from the industry can be brought to the fore to clean up the act of this failing (embarrassingly so), event. If and when the ‘fit hits the shan’ the aviation world will not look good at a time when we really don’t need any more such hits.
More info to come…
Editor’s Note:To the 3 or 4 SnF psycho-zealots who write me every time we have anything to say that is remotely negative about Sun ‘n Fun, please note that your threats will be reported to Law Enforcement immediately. The usual profanity, the “Sun ‘n Fun can do no wrong” nonsense, the threats of death or injury, the assertion that my folks were not married, and all the other nonsense… well… it hasn’t worked before and it won’t work now. We’re not trying to destroy SnF… but neither are we willing to cover up their BS. If you have a problem with these stories, fix the reason we have to tell them, and quit threatening my family, myself, and my staff… this nonsense simply has gotten way too old. More important, we are on the record as stating in no uncertain terms that if the leadership at SnF actually requested our aid and insight in fixing this mess, that they would have it... but
the phone hasn't rung. So Be It...