eye on Pinellas County: The ethics of naming rights for St. Pete Times Forum may go deeper than previously reported

Saturday, October 18, 2003

The ethics of naming rights for St. Pete Times Forum may go deeper than previously reported

an editorial by Wes Fager (c) 2003.

In September 2002 the Saint Petersburg Times broke new ground by being the first media source ever to buy the naming rights to a major sports arena causing an uproar from journalists warning that such a deal could cause a newspaper to lose its objectivity and truth in reporting. Little did they realize that there had already been other naming right deals by the Times or that the Times may have already breached objectivity and truth. Had the St. Pete Times killed a story on child abuse involving a prominent Republican hero in exchange for certain naming rights?
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On Sept. 3, 2002 the Saint Petersburg Times announced it was buying the naming rights for Tampa's Ice Palace, home of the NHL Tampa Lightning. The new name soon would be St. Pete Times Forum. No media company had ever done that before. And worse still, the deal was shrouded in secrecy. Times editor, Paul Tash, would not even tell one of his own reporters who was investigating the story the cost of the purchase. The deal brought a flurry of protests from writers like Bob Steele, director of ethics programs at The Poynter Institute which owns the Times. He questioned the hypocrisy in a newspaper that is a watchdog in some situations but a guard dog when it comes to looking into its own books. Steve Weaver, president and publisher of the competing Tampa Tribune, noted that by having the Times' name on the arena there is "an implied endorsement of the events which are hosted at the venue, including concerts, political rallies, religious functions, etc." Lana Whited of the Roanoke Times in Virginia wrote a piece called "Florida newspaper buys name, sells credibility" in which she asserts that a newspaper's currency is "truth and objectivity."

The Colorado Rockies play at Coors Field, the San Francisco Giants at Pacific Bell Park. The difference with the Times Forum name is that if the St. Pete Times Forum were to host the politically controversial Dixie Chicks, how could the Times objectively editorialize against the group if it wanted too. Or suppose the 2004 Republican national convention were to be held at the Times Forum. Would that put pressure on the Times to endorse the Republican candidate? So newspaper ethicists protested the arrangement last year because it gives rise to the potential for a paper to lose its sense of objectivity and truth in reporting. What the ethicists had feared most of possibly happening, had, perhaps, already happened. The real, un-reported story is that while the Times was negotiating its secret deal, it had already stopped a story which could hurt the buy. During all the ruckus over renaming the Ice Palace, the Times did not report a story on child abuse involving a prominent local Republican because the Times wanted to host the 2004 Republican national convention from the St. Pete Times Forum. And the story goes even deeper. Beyond the naming rights for the Ice Palace, the Times may have killed the story on the politician in order to get naming rights for entertainment stages at certain venues built by that man. Or so all of this would appear. Here's the untold story.

Melvin Sembler: the man who sells swampland in Florida. The man at the center of the controversy is Tampa Bay shopping center developer Melvin Sembler, Mr. Republican Party in Florida. For those in the know, he is the man in the shadows who controls the Republican Party in America. Florida Trend Magazine calls him "kingmaker" adding [he is] "a self-made millionaire, anti-drug crusader, community benefactor and self-avowed family man, Sembler personifies the conservative, successful image that Republicans hold dear." [Update 9-1-03 Andy Barnes was chairman of Trend when that magazine praised Mel Sembler. Paul Tash, the former editor of Trend, was vice president of Times Publishing--the owner of The St. Petetersburg Times and Trend--at the time.] It was Mel Sembler who dreamed up the concept of Republican Regents--the 139 individuals and corporations who have donated $250,000 to the GOP since 1999. He's been the national finance chairman for the GOP and is one of the few living men who have held two ambassadorships. His wife of 50 years, Betty, was Florida Governor Jeb Bush's finance cochairman. When the Bushes (any of them) are in Tampa Bay they stay at Mel's house.

But Sembler has his critics too. They say he buys Republican respectability because of his political largess. They point out that he paid $127,600 to be Ambassador to Italy. They say he ran a controversial drug rehabilitation program for kids known as Straight, Inc. In 2000 during his Senate confirmation hearings for the Italian job, Sembler told the assembled senators, "For 17 years, I served as chairman of the board of Straight. Other than our children, nothing was more rewarding than this effort." But Straight has a dark side and that's where this story of the Saint Petersburg Times and naming rights really begins.

Headquartered in Saint Petersburg, Florida, Straight was the world's largest chain of juvenile drug rehabilitation programs. Perhaps as many as 50,000 kids were tricked or forced through its doors. Straight's method is to strip a child down of his self esteem and then to build him back up in a non-"druggie," straight image. Clinically this behavior modification process is called thought reform or "brainwashing." There are reports that some Straight clients were made to defecate, urinate and vomit on themselves; that youmg girls on their periods soiled their chairs. Straight used food and sleep deprivations and unwarranted restraints. Many kids were treated for drug problems they just did not have--one 12 year old girl was admitted for sniffing a magic marker! Under such depravity and stress many kids resorted to carving on their bodies. The jury is still out on whether Straight was an overzealous attempt by self righteous businessmen to cure any youngster with red eyes from drug addiction, or whether it was just one big pyramid scam to put pressure on affluent white parents to seek the treatment while the top took in $100 million as a charity. But one thing is certain, today former clients are coming forward by the hundreds on the Internet claiming that they still suffer from nightmares, relationship problems, family estrangements, drug addiction, employment difficulties and post traumatic stress syndrome from Mel Sembler's Straight program. Some can not post; they are insane. Others are dead. At least 40 have committed suicide. In 2000 Sembler had told the senators that "with 12,000 successful Straight graduates the effort had been well worth it." However check out this web page where former graduates are denouncing their graduate status in droves.

How do we know about Straight's abuses and more importantly about Sembler? We know Straight from professionals and the court cases. And we know Sembler and Straight from what the media has said with most of that coming from 17 years of hard-hitting reporting by the Saint Petersburg Times in articles like "A persistent foul odor", "Money buys Bush Appointments" and "Cooper's Point Deal is Rotten." Cooper's Point is the mangrove swamp Sembler bought for $900,000 using insider information and almost got away sticking his fellow citizens with it for $3 million until the Times exposed the deal.

Last summer the survivors from Sembler's Straight gulag assembled in Saint Petersburg to hold the "Second International Conference on Rehabs that Abuse." On June 7, 2002, the day before the conference, approximately 25 men and women assembled in the little park across the street from Ambassador Sembler's house on Treasure Island. People had flown in from as far away as Michigan, Maryland and Virginia to protest the hypocrisy of Sembler's appointment as Ambassador to Italy. Sembler had a private security guard, walkie-talkie in hand, positioned strategically in his driveway. Several plain clothes police officers sat in unmarked cars and vans in nearby parking areas. A reporter from the Saint Petersburg Times took several pictures, taking notes on who was there and where they were from. He took shots of a least 18 people marching, single-file with banners in hand, in front of Sembler's house (while others were on the grounds in the park across the street). But this remarkable event went unreported. In 1988 the Tampa Tribune ran a story with photo of just two local people protesting at Sembler's house.Exactly one month later, an article appeared in the Times announcing that The St. Petersburg Times had entered into a deal with the $40 million BayWalk shopping mall in Saint Petersburg and the $45 million Centro Ybor plaza in Tampa (two properties developed by the Sembler Company in 2000) for exclusive rights to newspaper sales and to promotions. According to the deal the Times "will be entitled to vending racks, promotional kiosks, on-site special events, signs and banners." The entertainment stage at Centro Ybor would become known as "St. Petersburg Times Stage;" the stage at Bay Walk would be named the "Infinity Broadcasting Stage at BayWalk 'presented by the St. Petersburg Times.' " Enlarged front pages of the Times would be on display at both sites. Craig Sher, president of the Sembler Company, had this to say, "We are pleased to be associated with the Pulitzer Prize-winning St. Petersburg Times in this sponsorship venture." Paul Tash, the president and editor of the Saint Petersburg Times, was so excited about the sweetheart deal that he made this public statement, "By positioning the Times prominently with these two popular venues, this agreement advances our place as the newspaper for the entire Tampa Bay area."

For 17 years the Times had carried the Straight story and, as usual, had sent a reporter to cover just another one. They paid a reporter's salary to show up and then killed the story. Two days before the protest, an article had appeared in the Times stating that a planning committee had been formed to propose a bid to hold the 2004 Republican national convention in Tampa. In the ensuing weeks it was learned from Bay area media sources that Saint Pete Times chairman and CEO Andy Barnes was on the proposal committee and that the committee's findings were being kept secret, though it was disclosed early on that the plan was to hold the convention at the Ice Palace. [It was learned that Mr. Barnes had actually briefly resigned from the committee until it had decided to open up its books.] It was disclosed that a pep rally was planned to kickoff the convention and that the rally might be held at Tropicana Field--another Times sponsored venue. And then it was learned that the Times had bought the naming rights to the Ice Palace where Times' chairman Andy Barnes was trying to entice the Republican Party to hold its 2004 convention!

So there you have it. Imagine. For one solid week all radios and televisions in America would hear the Republican national convention being beamed from the St. Pete Times Forum! Mel Sembler and the St. Pete Times were not about to let a handful of damaged adults spoil the plan to host the Republican national convention in Tampa. It appears to be just that simple. A report on the truth would embarrass Mel Sembler; harm the Republican Party; and hurt the St. Petersburg Times' pocket book. The story was omitted and a possible sweetheart deal involving "exclusive" selling rights was thrown in to boot. Or so it would appear.

In all fairness to the Saint Petersburg Times, the Times did carry an article about Straight on June 7, the day of the protest at Sembler's house. Times' writer Jeanne Malgren wrote "In the middle of a nightmare" which tells the horror story of three former Straight clients and also announced the conference. But Sembler had not been tipped off that that story was coming. The best we figure at this stage is that the wheels of damage control started with the protest.
Last September amidst all the hullabaloo about the St. Pete Times Forum, Paul Tash had written, "My favorite quote in the coverage about the name change came from a GOP bigwig who noted that most Republicans in Florida had started out as Democrats but been converts. 'Maybe,' he said, 'we can even convert the St. Pete Times.' " But Mr. Tash, didn't he really tell you, "Maybe we can even buy-off the St. Pete Times?"

See the related article Has the Tash Times been soft on Tampa's Dynamic Duo?

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