A Primary Made For–And By–The Media

How important was that Iowa caucus win for Ted Cruz and that razor-thin victory for Hillary Clinton? Just ask President Santorum.

For now, it’s about expectations. We’ve heard the spin from the non-winners. New Hampshire will provide context and a degree of clarity.

What Iowa is at its quirky caucus core is a political anomaly, one that is demographically unrepresentative of America. As in largely white, non-urban and evangelically skewed. It’s also known for its dearth of voters, relatively low turnouts and weird rules. Yes, you can caucus in a gun shop. Yes, there are coin-toss tie-breakers. There’s not even a secret ballot for Democrats. Talk about peer pressure.

It’s also a quadrennial stimulus package for the Hawkeye state, which has six electoral votes. This year, upwards of $200 million was spent on political ads.

And every four years–basically since Jimmy Carter’s breakthrough in 1976–Iowa becomes the epicenter of presidential politics. Spotlight on the silo majority.

Regardless of who actually wins, the Iowa caucus is first and foremost a self-indulgent media event. Much more than it is a predictive event. Just ask President Huckabee.

The media plays the role of enabler and accomplice with its saturation coverage and ratings competition. They reference–or create their own–polls, which are suspect snapshots these days because of cell phones and increasingly reluctant participants. They interview candidates, staffers, supporters, waitresses, farmers, Drake undergrads–and each other.

I heard this CNN pundit exchange over the weekend: “So, do you think turnout will be a key factor?”

“You know, Wolf, I do think turnout will be a key factor.”

For once, I’d like to hear someone say: “You know, I doubt very much if turnout will be much of a factor at all. I think doing well in selected polls and preparing statements about exceeding expectations will be the real keys.”

Gasparilla Postscript

*Gasparilla is now the third largest parade in the country–after the Parade of Roses in Pasadena and Macy’s in New York. But a sure sign of the big time is when you attract the full complement of sign-carrying, street-corner evangelists. “Repent Or Perish” adds a nice, perverse touch. “Trust Jesus: Ask Me Why You Deserve Hell” could actually drive you to drink.

Personally, I preferred the purely secular “Time Flies When You’re Having Rum.”

*Given the challenges, uh, inherent in Gasparilla, it’s hard to believe no one has thought of a catheter concession. Arguably, even more important than funnel cakes and Bud Light. At some point, seems like a practical alternative to a long-lined Port-o-Let or a grassy knoll. Maybe souvenir naming rights could be part of the package. Call it “Go Hillsborough.”

* Allowing police officers to use a residence bathroom: There’s no greater look of gratitude.

* Generally speaking, spectators who attend Gasparilla for the parade are not an issue. Even those who linger late. Those on a constant loop through alleys and side streets, seemingly oblivious to an actual parade–that can’t be seen from there–are the problematic sorts.

* Police can’t be everywhere, so there are still trespissers–although not like you used to see. But context is important. Ever since the Boston Marathon, the foremost priority is ultimate national security. Security cameras, hovering helicopters and strategic deployments are not policing drunken disorderlies.

* There are plenty of city-provided trash receptacles. Too bad more aren’t utilized. It’s not all drunks with a bad aim.

Tampa Theatrics

Over recent years the relationship between City Hall and historic Tampa Theatre has been an amiable one with bottom-line considerations. The city owns the building and allows the Tampa Theatre Foundation to use it rent free. It also kicks in an annual subsidy of about $100,000 for the iconic structure. It helps, as Tampa Theatre is constantly hunting for grants and gifts to renovate, upgrade and meet the serious infrastructure needs of a 90-year-old building.

Another Tampa Theatre need: alleviate administrative staff crowding. It was recently addressed when its Foundation board approved the purchase of an office condominium on the southern flank of the theatre building. The money will come from ticket revenue.

Only one problem. Apparently no one gave Mayor Bob Buckhorn a heads up. He reacted the way any fiscally-conservative mayor–who’s also a sound-bite maven–would when blindsided. To wit: “I’m going to look very carefully at any additional funding requests for the Tampa Theatre, when they can’t pay for their basic upkeep but they’re out there buying real estate they don’t need.” Ouch.

In fairness to Tampa Theatre, it has more than a dozen employees crammed into ad hoc theatre spaces, included converted storage areas. Some work out of a “green room” used by performers. But when your existence is so dependent on governmental cooperation/budget priorities, the onus is on you to make sure that the most accountable, high-profile, public official is always in the loop.

And, yes, it would have helped if Gov. Rick Scott had not vetoed the $1 million that state lawmakers had allocated for Tampa Theatre last year.

Religious Pursuit

Sports and religion. There’s a Florida parlay for you. Jocks, free speech and separation of church and state. Once again school public prayer at football games is being studied. As in broadcasting a prayer over a public announcement system before kickoff.

Forget, for now, the technical legalities. We’re missing what should be a critical point to those who fervently care. This trivializes religion. Even if Tim Tebow and Ted Cruz disagree. The Almighty, in effect, deserves better than: “Praise the Lord. Now let’s kick some ass.”

Sports Shorts

* Not that it’s a surprise to anyone, but among those favoring a Tampa site for a new Rays stadium is former-Rays-now-Chicago Cubs-manager Joe Maddon. “To me, it always had to be on this (Tampa) side of the Bay. I just couldn’t say it,” acknowledges Maddon, who still lives in Tampa and co-owns Ava, a trendy South Tampa restaurant.

* Here’s the bottom-line reality to the negligent, self-servingly sloppy way the sordid rape-allegation case involving Florida State University’s Jameis Winston–who was never charged–has been handled. That $950,000 (Title IX) settlement to the accuser was, in effect, athletic overhead. Call it the cost of doing business as a big-time, highly successful major college football program. Also call it unconscionably sleazy. This comes after the boosters picked up $1.3 million of FSU’s $1.7 million in legal fees.

FSU has now circled the football-brand wagons and gone into its two-minute PR drill: institutional spin that promises to make a commitment to sexual-assault awareness and prevention programs.

*A lot of folks, including at least one local sports columnist, seem to agree with Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s assessment of why some fans don’t like him. Well, I’m not one of them.

Newton recently said, “I am an African-American quarterback that may scare people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.” While there may still be fans pining away for Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr, Newton misses the point.

Arguably, he just might be the most gifted athlete to ever play quarterback. His detractors would acknowledge as much. He can do it all. And, at 26, he can still get better, which should be the “scary” part. As in scary good.

What takes some fans aback is that Newton has also become the avatar of what too many NFL players, whatever their athletic prowess, have too often become on the field: bombastic, show biz boors. Hell, we can get that with our presidential candidates.

* Can we just get rid of some All-Star games? If it’s a contact–and collision–professional sport, there is no need to go through the charade of All-Star games where the foremost priority is participants not getting hurt. So, the NHL’s All-Star game and the NFL’s Pro Bowl should be put out of everyone’s misery. As to baseball and basketball, they’re harmless exhibitions that don’t require players to pull their best punches.


* “Iran is the safest and most stable country of the entire region.”–Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, speaking to a forum of business leaders in Rome.

* “Just as the United States is doing its part to remove impediments that have been holding Cubans back, we urge the Cuban government to make it easier for its citizens to start businesses, engage in trade and access information online.”–National Security Council spokesman Ned Price.

* “The possible links, only recently suspected, have rapidly changed the risk profile of Zika (virus) from a mild threat to one of alarming proportions.”–World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan.

* “Primaries have not become the democratic remedy (Theodore) Roosevelt was hoping for. Yes, voters have much more say now than they did in 1912, but primary contests have often pushed the parties toward their respective extremes, particularly the Republican Party, while the cost and length of campaigns skyrocketed. ‘Let the people rule’ remains more an aspiration than a reality in American politics today.”–Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”

* “Iowa has sent notice that the Republican nominee and the next president of the United States will not be chosen by the media, will not be chosen by the Washington establishment.”–Ted Cruz.

* “We finished second, and I have to say I am just honored.”–Donald Trump.

* “A big sigh of relief.”–Hillary Clinton.

* “Sen. Sanders’ self-described position as a socialist does not work in the general election.”
–Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis of Tampa.

* “New Hampshire voters reset elections. Next Tuesday we are going to surprise the world.”–Jeb Bush.

* “His (Donald Trump’s) campaign rallies are orgies of self-absorption, dominated by juvenile insults of those who criticize him and endless boasting about his poll numbers. He’s a narcissist, a huckster and an opportunist.”–Conservative commentator Cal Thomas.

* “No matter how carefully you choose a celebrity, they’re polarizing. Not everybody loves Justin Bieber.”–Peter Daboll, chief executive of Ace Metrix, on the calculated risk of celebrities in Super Bowl commercials.

* “Our language is stronger than in 2014 and it shows. The people of Florida are compassionate. We will win this election for the really sick people in our state.”–Orlando attorney John Morgan, on news that a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana had gained enough signed petitions to qualify for the November ballot.

* “Florida–The Future is Here.”–New slogan of Enterprise Florida. It replaces “Florida–the Perfect Climate for Business.”

* “It will enhance the liberty interests of our citizens, and it will ensure that we have safe communities.”–State Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the sponsor of House Bill 163 that allows gun owners with concealed-weapons permits to carry their weapons openly.

* “We want people to die with the disease (cancer), not from it.”–Dr. Thomas Sellers, Moffitt Cancer Center director.

* “We’ve been given the opportunity to participate in Hillsborough County, but the overriding goal for all of us is to keep the team here. We’ll put our best foot forward, but when it’s all said and done, if they were to choose Pinellas after being allowed to look, that would be a regional decision.”–Mayor Bob Buckhorn on the Rays stadium-site search.

* “Tampa Bay just opened a chapter that could be really positive in that (stadium search) process.”–MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.

* “(Open carry) threatens public safety, tourism, economic development, job creation and our quality of life. Moreover, I believe it is a foolish and ineffective solution to the gun violence epidemic sweeping our nation. More guns do not equate to safer streets.”–Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

* “Bring it on, Gilligan!”–Mayor Bob Buckhorn to Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla Capt. J. Rex Farrior III.

* “It would afford amazing views of the water and the bluff, and because of that I think it would be both a transportation and tourism activity.” Whit Blanton, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, on preliminary talks about a gondola transportation system to carry beachgoers straight over the congestion on the Clearwater Memorial Causeway.

Democracy Meets Media Marketplace

Primary season seems like a good enough reason to ponder media coverage–as in saturation and show-biz optics–and the evolution of the political media industrial complex. Spoiler alert: This won’t make you feel better about America as a paragon for informed, participatory democracy.

The media is everywhere, and it’s seemingly everybody who wants to play. Wonder if any First Amendment-enshrining Founding Father saw this one coming: A society so egalitarian that impactful bloggers can be their own editor, fact-checker, publisher and libel attorney.

We’ve obviously witnessed a sea change in technology with 24/7 internet news. And it’s accompanied by a change in culture. Reading, per se, can be so, you know, passé. Watch the network news? Why wade through current events on your parents’ medium when you can cut to the ideological chase. Why bother when you can cherry pick the news sources–online, talk radio, cable TV–that will validate you. From Breitbart to Rush Limbaugh to Rachel Maddow.

Politization of the news: We both like it and loathe it. Ours and theirs. How did we get here again? In short, there was a market for it. For something other than the status quo. There always is. And market, to be sure, is part of American exceptionalism.

There have always been newspapers with different editorial takes–from the New York Times to the Washington Times. But the rest of it was pretty mainstream. Tabloids of the left and right satisfied appetites for sensationalism and smart-ass headlines.

TV’s role was to provide images. It was a headline service with immediacy. As to meaning, that was the purview of newspapers with op-ed pages for pondering readers.

It used to be that network news was a loss leader. It was 15 minutes and a John Cameron Swayze talking head. More public service than profit center. Comedian Ernie Kovacs once defined TV as “a medium: neither rare nor well done.”

But as TV gradually took hold on the culture–especially after the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam–it became indispensible. Its assent helped define the “Mad Men” era.

It would develop serious marketing, savvy sponsors and brand-name anchors. Howard K. Smith, David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw. There was also an early incarnation of Barbara Walters, much to Harry Reasoner’s displeasure. But she represented “demographics”–not just viewers. Change was imminent.

Then came Ted Turner and CNN. News coverage seemed as ubiquitous as the news itself. What a concept. Everybody had to up their game.

And then came Fox. There was a right-of-center market.

Palin Tries Brand Comeback

Before heading out to walk the dogs, I finished my wine and lingered long enough to see Sarah Palin endorse Donald Trump. My bad. At least Tina Fey had a good excuse; she was taking SNL notes–although satirizing a parody is quite the challenge. I was just a political junkie with a perverse addiction.

But there she was: dressed to shill in a disco top. There he was: beaming instinctively for the help Palin would presumably provide to woo that fundamentalist, Iowa silo vote that would otherwise be inclined to favor Ted Cruz.

I figured she’d shrilly prattle on for a few minutes and everyone at the Iowa rally would act like she had uttered some patriotic, God-fearing truism, and that would be that.

Well, she shrilly prattled on–resurrecting “you betcha,” “hopey/changey” and more for nostalgic tea partiers–for nearly 20 minutes. She regaled that “media heads were spinnin'” and that the days of America “pussy-footin’ around” were over.

She layered in a little high-decibel rhyme and some alliteration to remind us that she had brought in some kind of speech-writing help for the occasion. Well done, Bristol and Track, the poster kids for right-wing family values.

And I couldn’t help thinking: This is less about a Trump endorsement than it is about the return of the Palin brand. The unintelligibly shrill, manifestly ill-informed veep candidate, failed reality-TV personality and former Fox News performer needed a forum to return to prime time.

That Trump had insulted John McCain, who had unforgivably put her on that 2008 ticket, about his POW status and was now dumping on Cruz, her good friend, didn’t matter. This is show biz, and this was comeback time.

The Palin brand was back. May Trump ultimately pay the price that McCain did.

You betcha.

Rays Reality

However this Tampa Bay Rays stadium scenario ultimately shakes out, there are aspects we should be able to agree on.

* Too bad Frank Morsani’s Tampa Bay Baseball Group, which almost landed the Minnesota Twins and wanted to build a privately-financed stadium in Tampa, wasn’t awarded the expansion franchise that went to Vince Namoli’s St. Pete bid. We’ll let it go at that.

* Good to see a realistic, regional approach to a stadium search come out of St. Petersburg City Council. Having a progressive, common-sense mayor has helped immeasurably.

* Having said that, St. Petersburg–on the western fringe of an asymmetrical market sans mass transit and corporate headquarters–should prioritize redeveloping those 85 Tropicana-site acres without a baseball facility. That’s the best bet to max out on economic synergy.

* Not that it will be an easy logistical and financial fit in Tampa, including Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s preferred Tampa Park Apts. site, but the bottom-line alternative to Tampa is out of market–or even out of the country (Montreal).

Moon Shot Player

By now, we’re used to the familiar, local refrains of ballyhoo–from City Hall to Visit Tampa Bay–about this evolving market. From Riverwalk pizzazz and Vinikville plans to millennial magnet and host of next year’s national college football championship game.

But it’s really special to also be able to say that one of our own is prominently on the case for the cause of curing cancer. Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center, which has already been in touch with the office of Vice President Joe “Moon Shot for Cancer” Biden, expects to be a leader in a ginned-up national effort.

Plaudits to Moffitt’s executive vice president and center director Thomas Sellers for taking the initiative to contact the Obama administration about utilizing the Oncology Research Information Exchange Network, a Moffitt-founded consortium of 11 nationally-recognized cancer centers.

When President Barack Obama gave that “moon shot” shout-out for a cancer cure at his State of the Union address, the folks at Moffitt–not yet 30 years old–knew they would be major players. But this isn’t about synergistic, economic development. Not this time.

This is about literal life. There’s no better reason to feel Tampa proud.