Florida’s Watermark gets former and possible future governor on the record
by Chuck Colbert
A Florida-based LGBT publication nabbed a journalistic coup recently when Tom Dyer, founder and publisher of Watermark, interviewed Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor, now a Democratic candidate for the same office in the Sunshine State.
It was a groundbreaking, first-ever gay press interview for Crist, wherein he explains his party switch, gay marriage support, and why he’d like to be governor again.
Within hours of its posting on Dec. 31, 2103, on Watermark’s web site, the interview went viral, with other LGBT publications — Dallas Voice, Washington Blade, Windy City Times and Advocate.com — also posting it, thanks in part to Lisa Keen forwarding the Crist interview for her clients’ consideration. (Keen is chief correspondent and founder of Keen News Service, an Associated Press for LGBT news.)
Even mainstream outlets ran with the story as the Crist interview graced the front page of web sites for Huffington Post and MSNBC. In addition, Wolf Blitzer mentioned the interview on CNN.
Dyer also gave interviews with a couple local Orlando news network outlets.
In an interview with Press Pass Q, Dyer discussed his approach in speaking with Crist, the conversation’s significance, the interview’s genesis, readers’ reactions to it and Watermark’s brief tenure in the media spotlight.
“After the interview was posted online it kind of caught fire, with a different outlet — including some major ones — picking it up by the hour,” said Dyer. “It was fun. There were lots of comments. I didn’t expect it.”
How the interview came about
“One of his finance directors is a friend,” said Dyer, referring to Crist. “So when I heard he was running, I told him that I thought the former governor had a lot of fences to mend with the LGBT community. And I said that if he wanted to have a dialogue with [the community] directly, I’d love to do an interview.”
Dyer said this finance director took the offer to Crist. “He likely shared that I was someone who would not ambush him,” Dyer said. “That I wanted to give him an opportunity to address these issues fully and in his own words and be judged by that.”
A takeaway message for LGBT media, Dyer said, is to “approach interviews of this kind in a respectful way, possibly through trusted channels.”
“I went through a trusted back channel. I think I have a reputation for being fair in interviews, and that may have made it an easier sell,” Dyer explained. “Charlie had issues with the LGBT community that needed to be addressed. Prior to the interview, I said this was an opportunity for him to speak fully and directly to them through a comfortable source. But I had no idea so many people would eventually read the interview.”
Veteran journalist Lisa Keen of Keen News Service offered her views on the importance of the Crist interview and Dyer’s journalistic prowess.
“Tom was really well prepared, he had a well-organized interview, and he got Crist to really answer some tough questions. Whether the answers stand up over time, we’ll see, but at least we have some kind of explanation for Crist’s ‘evolution’ on gay issues and this is a big race,” she told Press Pass Q.
“Florida is always so pivotal in the presidential election, so the LGBT community would like to see it go blue, but with somebody it can count on in the long run, not just for the race. And Tom got the interview — and got it early,” Keen said. “Tom really put Crist on the spot to explain his change of position on same-sex couples marrying, and he did so with a respectful professionalism that just didn’t let Crist slip off the subject.
|Watermark’s Tom Dyer interviewing Charlie Crist
“Tom … didn’t just let Crist say, ‘Ooh, sorry about that’ for supporting Florida’s ban on same-sex couples marrying, he pointed out the contradiction — that Crist once said the ban wasn’t important but then he voted for it and then spoke a few years later of how marriage is between a man and a woman, and saying ‘traditional families’ are better for kids. Tom explained how Crist changing his party affiliation and changing his position on marriage came across to many in the LGBT community as strategic political moves, not sincerely held positions.
“And then Tom went deeper and asked what, specifically, would Crist commit to doing for the LGBT community as governor. Crist managed to slip that one a little by saying, ‘I want’ to do this or that, instead of ‘I will’ do this or that, but then he came back around quickly — maybe Tom was giving him a look, like he knows Crist is picking his words carefully — and said he thinks pro-gay legislation needs to aim higher, go for marriage equality.”
Any number of readers and activists welcomed Crist’s change of heart and mind at the same time lauding Dyer’s efforts.
“I’m glad to see someone who has done harm publicly pledge to work to repair the damage. My activism is based on the premise that people can and do change,” said Nadine Smith, chief executive officer of Equality Florida. “I’m glad Tom Dyer … asked the questions that needed to be asked and that we deserved to have publicly and thoroughly answered. I can’t recall the last time I’ve heard a politician say, ‘I was wrong. I am sorry.’”
However, one rather unforgiving reader offered a different perspective. “Screw this weasel and anyone who trusts a word he says,” wrote Brian C. Bock in a posting on Watermarkonline.com. “Let him make amends first before asking us for anything. He did so much damage to gays and lesbians and now he’s ‘sorry’ because he wants to run for office in the other party.”
Taking Crist to task for supporting the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, Bock continued, “It’s a tad late now, isn’t it, Charlie? The amendment is on the books today and will continue to deny gay couples hundreds of rights for the foreseeable future. An apology is only a flimsy start to undoing the damage.”
In 2008, Sunshine State voters approved Amendment 2, which limited marriage to between one man and one woman. The ban would include civil unions and domestic partnerships. The measure, which required 60 percent of voters’ approval, passed by a margin of 61.9% in favor, with 38.1 percent opposed.
Crist’s support, said Dyer, may well have made voting for the gay-marriage ban “palatable” for “less than right wingers” to do.
“A lot of gay people are finding it very difficult to hear [Crist] say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then just respond with, ‘Well, okay, you’re forgiven,’” said Dyer. “A few of my friends say they will never forgive him, never vote for him. But I think that’s a real minority. Most people are more practical. They want incumbent [Republican] Rick Scott out, and they want a supportive Democrat in.”
Because this was Crist’s first interview with the LGBT press, Dyer felt a real responsibility. He was pleased that so many people “gave me strokes for the way I handled the interview, that I didn’t roll over and let him get off with the first apology, that I made him really explain himself. The interview itself was received positively.”
But Dyer also noted, “It was greeted with a great deal of skepticism in some quarters. Many still question his sincerity. Our community wants reassurance that what he said [in the interview] reflects his current belief system, and that he will truly support us if elected. We’re justifiably concerned that Charlie is a person who will say anything to get elected. And really, only time will tell.”
Dyer said his favorite reaction to the interview came from someone who described him as being “gracious but tenacious.”
Publisher Dyer, who is also an attorney, grew up in Madison, Wisc., and moved to Florida with his family while a teenager. He founded Watermark in Orlando in 1994. “Very quickly, within a year, I expanded it to include Tampa Bay,” he said. Every two weeks on Thursdays, Watermark prints 20,000 copies, which are distributed throughout 500 locations throughout Orlando, Tampa Bay and Sarasota.
The geography of Watermark’s distribution “is the middle chunk of the state, the I-4 corridor, which is hugely important in state and national elections,” Dyer said. “We’re kind of the swing area of the state, and there are large and vibrant LGBT communities in both Tampa Bay and Orlando, so we play an important role.”
Watermarkonline.com was launched in 1999. With offices in Tampa Bay and Orlando, Watermark employs a full-time staff of 12, as well as several part-time freelance contributors. The newspaper donates more than $200,000 annually in free and sponsor advertising to local and national LGBT non-profits.