By Hal BoedekerContact ReporterStaff writer
Sheriff Jerry Demings and the Atlantic Institute criticize WFTV report as misleading and politically motivated.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings and a group that gave him an award for community service are blasting a WFTV-Channel 9 report as misleading, wrong and politically motivated.
Demings on Oct. 13 accepted an award from the Atlantic Institute Central Florida, an independent, nonprofit group in Casselberry that promotes diversity and understanding. The group in the past has honored Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs and John Hitt, president of the University of Central Florida.
On Oct. 25, WFTV aired a report suggesting that the Atlantic Institute was connected to a coup attempt in Turkey. Reporter Shannon Butler cited "sources" who warned that Demings and other community leaders should steer clear of the institute after the Pulse massacre.
"Sheriff Demings believes the story was an example of poor journalism and was also politically motivated against him," said Capt. Angelo Nieves of the Orange County Sheriff's Office. "He was solely there to receive an award for his community service."
Demings is seeking re-election next Tuesday.
A WFTV spokesman said the station was not commenting on its report.
But Huseyin Peker, executive director of the Atlantic Institute, said the report mischaracterized his group. The report highlighted Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania, who has been accused of orchestrating a failed coup in Turkey in July. Gulen has denounced the coup attempt and denied any involvement.
[Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings testifies before Congress about the prevention of terrorism]
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings testifies before Congress about the prevention of terrorism.
Gulen has neither ownership of nor membership in the Atlantic Institute, Peker said, and may not even know about the group.
"He is an inspiration to many people. He has no relationship to the institute," Peker said, adding that it's a faith-inspired group open to all.
The sheriff's office cautioned WFTV before the report aired, Nieves said.
"The reporter posed some questions in an email to me, regarding the Atlantic Institute and Fethullah Gulen and accusations that there were reports they were affiliated with terrorism," Nieves said. "I requested confirmation via email regarding WFTV's assertions. I then engaged them in phone calls regarding this developing story and cautioned them regarding the need for accuracy and factual information regarding any characterization of the parties they were reporting on. They were also cautioned it was inaccurate to report the sheriff had received recognition from an organization 'affiliated with terrorism.'"
Shortly before the story aired, Nieves received an additional email with more questions for the sheriff.
"Sheriff Demings was on the road and out of town driving to Weston, Fla., at the time of the emails and could not tend to them at that time," Nieves said. "He was briefed by me on the circumstances of the developing WFTV story and he was unable to respond to the emails from his car and was surprised at the assertions. The story then played on their newscast."
Peker registered deep disappointment about the report. "It was unfortunate to witness that the story related to our organization was aired without our perspectives on the issues," her said.
As for the Pulse massacre, the Atlantic Institute strongly condemned the attack and participated in prayer vigils after the tragedy, Peker said.
He also noted that the initial report suggested that the Atlantic Institute shares the same building with the "Islamic Cultural Center," but a sign shows that it is actually the Istanbul Cultural Center. The Turkish–American community gathers there and organizes events such as cooking classes, food festivals and language classes.
After the report aired, WFTV's Butler visited Peker at the institute for two hours on Friday. He is hoping the station will air the institute's reponse to the first report.
"I don't call it journalism. They rushed," Peker said. "Why the rush? … I don't know what their motives are. We do programs about peace."
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