No one, of course, would ever confuse the St. Petersburg Times with the Tampa Tribune. They don’t even cost the same. But let’s not bother to count the ways. For purposes of this discussion, let’s just talk editorial policy. The Times generally to the left; the Trib to the right.
Rarely, however, has there been such a blatant editorial juxtaposition as was evidenced in the newspapers’ respective takes on the Bay Area’s two high-profile, nationally noted firings: St. Petersburg Police Chief Mack Vines and USF Professor Sami Al-Arian.
The Times’ take: bouquets to Mayor Rick Baker for firing Vines over his “orangutan” reference and stinkweeds to USF for a “craven charade” in giving the heave-ho to Al-Arian.
The Trib’s take: an opposable thumb down to St. Petersburg for permitting “racial sensitivity” to “run amok.” And thumbs up to USF, which had “compelling reasons to fire” Al-Arian.
The Times backed Mayor Rick Baker’s decision to fire Vines in an editorial benignly headlined “Rebuilding trust.” As in “moving on” being the alternative to “second-guessing Baker.” As if second-guessing were the only option to “moving on.”
Baker, noted the Times, had acted “to heal a potentially serious rift in the community, not only between black residents and their police department, but also between white residents who expected continued progress in their city and a chief whose ability to provide such leadership had been brought under question.”
The issue, as summarized in the head, was all about trust — and community appeasement.
The Times even followed up with a subsequent editorial: “A City Getting Back To Work” — an obvious variation on the “moving on” theme.
“A few loose ends need to be gathered as St. Petersburg moves forward, but the operative word is ‘forward,'” opined the Times. “Despite an unhappy event in the Police Department, the city is still headed in the right direction.”
The Trib’s stand had all the subtlety of punch in the mouth. The politically correct episode was well beyond an “unhappy event.”
“Acute Racial Sensitivity Seems To Run Amok In St. Petersburg” read the headline. One wondered why the qualifier “seems.”
Baker’s firing of Vines was, according to the Trib, “a blazing display of oversensitivity or moral cowardice.” It lamented how “seemingly harmless expressions can turn into racial and ethnic tinderboxes.” The Trib also asked rhetorically if a similar “orangutan” reference, if uttered by either Goliath Davis, Vines’s immediate predecessor, or Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder — both of whom are black — would have resulted in a firing.
No way the Times asks that question.
In its “USF’s charade” editorial, the Times got all over the university for the “dubious and dangerous arguments” it used to explain and expedite Al-Arian’s firing. In other words, Al-Arian was an embarrassing lightning rod for lousy — and disturbing — publicity.
His canning, said the Times, was couched in “flawed logic.” To wit: That Al-Arian violated his employment contract by failing to make clear that he doesn’t speak for USF; that he was an ongoing security concern; that he had violated an understanding by setting foot on campus; and that his controversial affiliation with USF was hampering recruiting and fundraising.
The cost of “getting rid of a nuisance now,” intoned the Times, “may have left the university vulnerable to much more serious encroachments on its academic integrity in the future.”
No such academic caveats were fashioned into the Trib’s editorial: “USF Gets Rid Of A Hatemonger.” Al-Arian’s “views are vicious,” stated the Trib, and he has sought “to raise funds for murderous Palestinian groups.”
In short, summarized the Trib, Al-Arian has “willfully allowed his political obsessions to unsettle, if not endanger, the entire university. He now is facing the consequences.”
And for good measure: “Good riddance.”
At least we know where they stand.
As for the St. Petersburg Police Force, it will only get worse. Racial agendas and politicized misperceptions are more than excused and encouraged. They are reinforced and rewarded. That genie’s not going back into the bottle any time soon. Certainly not while TyRon Lewis is still regarded as a “martyr.” It’s a mess in St. Petersburg, and spineless Mayor Baker made it messier.
As for USF, the balancing act between free speech, academic freedom and university tenure — and “Death to Israel” rhetoric and the founding of a sham Islamic studies institute still seems precarious to many. It’s not. Ivory tower types can unwad their shorts now.
Put it this way. If you’ve not hired, associated with or shilled for terrorists, you’re not likely to get fired over controversial positions. That’s the precedent.