Image Building or a Forum for Arrogance?

To anyone familiar with the competition between the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune over the last decade and a half, news of the “St. Pete Times Forum” is no shock. No more than public-records hypocrisy.

When the Times secured the naming rights to the Ice Palace, it was a logical, if arrogant, extension of its modus operandi . It’s known for its aggressive marketing, such as sponsorship arrangements with Centro Ybor and International Plaza, as well as its penchant for putting it to the Trib .

Ever since the gentlemen’s no-poaching agreement was discarded in the late ’80s, the Times has cherry picked Trib staffers, often outhustled the competition on metro stories, added the CityTimes and planted its flag in downtown Tampa with the high-profile Times building.

Now the Times name will perforce show up in copy of Trib coverage of events, such as Lightning games and concerts, at the erstwhile Ice Palace. Call it the House of Chutzpah — and a lot worse. But call it hardball marketing — and tough to take for the Trib — and any number of downtown Tampa interests.

Finding The Right Fit for 9/11

Don’t get me wrong. I can be as jingoistic as the next guy. I’ll be among the thousands on Bayshore Boulevard Wednesday morning. I’ll be there with a flag, a ladder and a camera. I want to be part of something good that comes out of something evil. I also want to update my seared consciousness with united-we-stand images.

But the media-led, societal countdown to Sept. 11 — and all of the planned remembrances for that day — may be so much more than we need right now. It’s the patriotic counterpart of media drum beating for hurricane season. It’s important; it’s necessary; it’s just overdone.

In the name of good taste, it mustn’t be festive. In the name of good mental health, it must be more than a haunting memory of America under attack and a solemn eulogy to the fallen.

Here is a modest suggestion. It’s offered in the good name of remembering victims and heroes, recalling who and what we are, and reaffirming why we must win the war against Islamic extremism.

Wouldn’t it be fitting if, at 8:46 a.m. — when American Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center north tower — every church, mosque and synagogue with a bell would ring it? It would call all Americans to a collective, reflective moment. And it would do so inclusively. No hyphens allowed.

It would remind us — regardless of where we are and what we’re doing — to stop and reflect. And remember what we all lost; what we still have; and why we fight to keep it.

Stopped at a red light? Smile and nod to the motorist next to you. At the office? Extend a hand or give a hug. At home? Kiss the kids again.

It wouldn’t be a spectacle and wouldn’t require choreography. And that’s the point.

Cathedral As Fortress

How appropriate that the newly dedicated, asymmetrical Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles looks like a cross between a penal institution and a fortress. Given the Catholic Church’s bunker mentality borne of its sexual abuse scandal, it’s surprising there isn’t a moat around it.

Among the celebrants and protestors was someone carrying a sign that asked: “What would Jesus do with $200 million?” It’s no longer a rhetorical question.

More Manifest Signs: Speaking of signs, there was an ironic one on display recently at the University of South Florida. In a photo carried by the Tampa Tribune, we see a number of students rallying on behalf of controversial Palestinian professor Sami Al-Arian.

The most prominent sign said “Don’t B an Oppressor, Reinstate the ‘Proffessor.'” The point, at least, was unmistakable. The Al-Arian case is less about terrorist ties than it is about academic freedumb.

Helpful Ronda? Not The Storms Trooper

The old line about going to a fight and a hockey game breaking out seemed all too apropos the other day. In this case, amid the shrill display of a high-powered, political assault weapon, a decorous candidate forum kept threatening to break out.

It was the Tampa Bay Tiger Bay Club gathering for county commission candidates representing Districts 4 and 5. Also known this day as the Ronda Storms Show. No wonder Stacey Easterling was a no-show. When the whole world is a stage, no one wants to be a floorboard upon which this actor treads. Storms, the poster pol for the dysfunctional body that is the Board of County Commissioners, is that perversely transcendent.

The Storms Trooper caricature as the brashly insulting, avenging angel of Southeast Hillsborough County precedes her. And she lives down to it.

She attacked her opponent, Arlene Waldron, from the get-go, launching right from her opening remarks. No perfunctory thank you’s to the forum sponsor or the attendees. Just ready, fire, aim; much of it personal.

But here’s what’s most disconcerting. Because of her pugnacious personality, cheeky body language and insensitive soundbites on issues, Storms becomes the issue. Arguably, to the detriment of the “issue.”

She acknowledged as much.

“I know that happens,” she said afterwards, “but I can’t help it. I’m not desperate to be popular. I don’t know how to be different. Then I would come across as a fake.”

Like it or not, Storms represents a legitimate point of view, inflammatory, off-putting rhetoric notwithstanding. She’s not the only one, for example, who saw through the FAMU Law School charade. Nor the only one who thinks sophomorically sleazy programming isn’t proper fare for public access television. And she induced a put-up-or-shut-up response out of those soapboxing about building moratoriums.

She’s not liked — let alone endorsed — by mainstream newspapers, watchdog organizations or the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. And she clearly doesn’t care. But she does represent a bona fide constituency. Sure, she panders to it, but that’s hardly a novel concept.

“I have been the woman I have promised my constituents I would be,” she’s prone — and proud — to say. Often.

Ironically, she’s one politician who keeps her word.

Election Season Hectic for Editorial Boards

The run-up to an election is an especially hectic time for candidates, campaign staffs — and newspaper editorial boards. For the latter, it means a barrage of candidates, good and bad, coming and going; a serious societal responsibility as voter surrogates; and a number of tough calls. It also means missed or hurried lunches and unforgiving daily deadlines.

Take it from Tampa Tribune Editorial Page Editor Ed Roberts. Please. His phone is on permanent voice mail these days because of the predictable onslaught of calls, many less than polite, representing all those not endorsed by the Trib .

“This is a very tough time for us,” acknowledges Roberts. “We have to get out our opinion pages every day. We have to schedule the candidates one right after the other. It’s that time, and it’s our job.”

Which begs the question: how much impact does this job have?

It depends on the race, say both Roberts and Robert Friedman, deputy editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg Times . The bigger the race, the less the impact.

“For example, voters don’t need us for information on presidential candidates,” notes Friedman. “For constitutional amendments and the more obscure races, it’s more important.”

According to Roberts, “It’s very important for judges, school board and county commission,” where voters are often relatively uninformed.

“The real problem,” adds Roberts, “is where we have a race where we don’t like any of the candidates. Then we have to pick the lesser or least of the evils out there. So then we make it a point that we are perhaps less than enthusiastic on a particular endorsement.”

And speaking of endorsements, ever notice that where the Trib “endorses,” the Times “recommends.” The difference?

“I never really thought about it,” says Roberts. “When we endorse, it is a (well-researched) suggestion not a command.”

Explains Friedman: “From what I’ve been told, it goes back to (founder) Nelson Poynter. In his mind, ‘recommend’ meant this is the person we believe is the best choice of those available. ‘Endorse’ meant to embrace and vouch for — as in character — which is beyond just recommending.”

Now you know.

Campaign Trail Mix

The contention — and not just by the Bill McBride campaign — that Gov. Jeb Bush is trying to sandbag McBride via attack ads to assure a Janet Reno primary continues to look like a credible — but ultimately unsuccessful — strategy.

Even Republican insiders will admit on background that Bush has alienated too many not to be at least theoretically vulnerable. But much less so, they say, if he’s juxtaposed to the Samsonite candidate in the red pick-up.

Moreover, this fall Bush will have to contend with cleverly placed constitutional amendments and weather a torrent of national fund-raising and big-name Democratic surrogates. It’s a given that the flow of money and non-Hollywood heavyweights would be far greater for McBride, the preferred candidate of the party establishment. Then there are the pay-back wild cards represented by the “we-wuz-robbed” and “disenfranchisement” crowd, as well as those anxious to send an economic or civil libertarian message to George via Jeb.

There’s also a gut feeling — and not just limited to the McBride campaign — that McBride’s late media push plus some last-minute, epiphany-like assessments of Reno’s candidacy, persona and health will prove determinative.

Granted, Reno still has — however eroding — good poll numbers, and McBride didn’t take full advantage of last week’s debate forum to effectively introduce himself to Floridians. But one state GOP official — with Tampa roots and connections within the Oval Office — still unequivocally predicts: “McBride all the way.”

And he’s hardly pleased about that prospect.

NASCAR’s Message: Fans Come First

I never thought I’d find myself saying this: NASCAR could teach us all a thing or two. Let me back up for some frame of reference, but stay with me on this.

NASCAR was pretty much an alien concept for someone growing up in Philadelphia, the home of Doo-Wop, Bandstand, Chubby Checker and cheese steaks, as well as the Phillies, Eagles and 76’ers. Not to be confused, of course, with Country & Western, The Grand ‘Ol Opry, Porter Waggoner and grits, as well as the Winston Cup. Tracks were for horses and the Penn Relays.

Sports meant real athletes, those who ran and jumped, blocked and tackled, and threw and hit. Driving, no matter the vehicle, speed, distance or conditions, didn’t count. Everyone drove; precious few could hit the curve, elude an NFL linebacker or drain a perimeter jump shot with a man in your face. Auto racing was as foreign as curling, only less interesting.

While today I can marvel at pit-stop teamwork and the reflexes and nerve of the drivers, I still don’t get anything else about the sport. The numbing noise, the motorized monotony, the human billboards. Then there are the crashes, near-crashes and occasional fatalities. They’re not my adrenaline rush hours.

But you know what? The major professional team sports today — baseball, football and basketball — could learn a lot from NASCAR.

There’s a cultural connect that’s obvious between drivers and fans. Loyalty is not something you only owe your posse. You don’t have to love the sport to respect the relationship between celebrity drivers and their fans. Good ol’ boys and their families watching other good ol’ boys race.

However much their fame and fortune, the drivers know that without sponsors and fans they’re stuck in real jobs. So they sign the autographs; they do the interviews; they show for promotions; they banter; they hang out; they give back. Some things you just can’t fake. They let other sports monopolize drug busts, pregnant girl-friend assaults, bad tattoos and arrogant attitudes.

No sport does a better job of marketing to — nor respecting — its fan base than NASCAR. Drivers have agents and attorneys too, but they don’t get in the way of fan identification.

Baseball, as it approaches another strike deadline, couldn’t be a bigger contrast. What was once the national pastime is now well passed its time; more of a sleazy family feud among millionaires. To the eroding fan base that still cares more about pennant races and individual records than small-market scenarios and steroid-stoked stats, baseball responds with a nose-thumbing.

The message from baseball would seem to be: “How can we respect anyone who doesn’t see us for what we are — a competitive sham borne of owner egos and stupidity perfectly complemented by player greed and arrogance?”

Then there’s the lesson to be learned by the no-show fiasco that was the recent Shaquille O’Neal Celebrity Lost Weekend. Whatever the final cover story — beyond indifference and incompetence — the effect was this: too many kids had to learn the hard way what it’s like being treated like a pro sports fan.

Maybe it’s good they find out now. If the result would be fewer sycophantic, hero-worshipping, autograph-beseeching, lemming-like pro sports fans, it would be worth it.

Tampa On Track: A Desire Named Streetcar

This much we know. Come Oct. 19 — barring a hurricane hit, a meltdown between the city and HART or the wrath of former Mayor Sandy Freedman — there will be electric streetcars running in Tampa for the first time in more than half a century. Ridership numbers and economic impact remain intriguing unknowns.

Amid all the familiar names, faces and ceremonial fanfare surrounding the debut of the TECO Line Streetcar System will be a certain city planner who will allow himself the briefest sigh of relief. After the respite, WilsonMiller, Inc. senior planner Michael English goes back behind the scenes to continue culling prospects for station ($100,000) and car ($250,000) naming rights and resume ubiquitous trouble-shooting. For more than a decade he’s been a key streetcar player, including efforts to help land an important federal grant and lobby for special assessments on private property in the areas served by the streetcars: downtown, the Channel District and Ybor City.

English, an affable, mass transit true believer, is a seven-time president of the Tampa and Ybor City Railway Society, the organization responsible for promoting the return of streetcars to Tampa. He’s also president of Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit corporation that will manage the system.

“It was always intended to be a tourist and visitor-driven concept,” states English. “But this is not a toy. It can help accomplish subtle things. Encourage new residential development; help attract more people to downtown. But, then again, it’s not just an economic development tool. It’s effective transportation within the urban center.”

English, known in South Tampa circles as the civic conscience of the venerable Hyde Park Men’s Club, is also an urban anthropologist.

“One of the key principles of cultural anthropology is people’s behavior and how it’s representative of people’s values,” explains English. “I’ve always believed the streetcar can’t fail here. It still rests in the hearts of local people. Always has.”

Pragmatic progress or utopian vision, it’s back on track Oct. 19.

Who Was That Mosque Man?

Earlier this month USF’s controversial Palestinian professor, Sami Al-Arian, spoke to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg. Al-Arian, who denies charges that he has ties to terrorist groups in the Middle East, hasn’t made many such public appearances of late. So this Sami sighting drew a big media turnout.

Now we learn that Bay News 9 has been asked by the FBI to turn over its videotape for possible use by a federal grand jury. It’s problematic, however, as to what the feds would learn other than Al-Arian is well-and-out spoken, calculated and smart.

Smart enough to make no more appearances on the O’Reilly Factor. And smart enough to appear in public now to declare his innocence and love of America, free speech and academic freedom a few weeks before Judy Genshaft has to declare him fired or re-hired. Also smart enough to bring his lawyer.

And calculated enough to bring his son and wife. Harder to demonize a family man. He’s even added an after-dinner joke whose punch line lampoons scapegoating.

But the feds would also learn this: Al-Arian the Palestinian activist is uncannily unlucky. No one gets misquoted, misinterpreted and mistranslated more than this tenured computer science professor. Not even Charles Barkley, who was “misquoted” in his own autobiography, is so misunderstood.

Caught on tape declaring “Death to Israel,” Al-Arian explains it in Nelson Mandela-esque terms. “DTI” really means “death to apartheid, death to oppression, death to occupation.” But obviously not death to hyperbole. Besides, who could give a rousing stem-winder to an all-Arab audience without the obligatory, rhetorical overkill of “Death to Israel”? Nothing personal, just playing to the home crowd with killer applause lines. Sort of like Steve Spurrier used to do with Gator boosters.

Then there was Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the guy he sponsored and hired for his USF think tank, World and Islam Studies Enterprises. As luck would have it, doesn’t Shallah surface later as the leader of Islamic Jihad, the notorious Mid East terrorist outfit. Talk about your PR hits. But who was to know? There was no hint in his vita . Even Sami still asks, “Who was that mosque man?”

When the feds look at the Al-Arrant tape, they will see and hear for themselves; this guy is really unlucky.