John F. Sugg: Feasting on sacred cows

Journalism, to me, is just another drug — a free ride to scenes I’d probably miss if I stayed straight.

—Hunter S. Thompson

It was a hot day in July 1996, and I was standing in line at the Hyde Park cinema to see Independence Day. Great Googly Moogly, I sputtered in surprise. Just inches from me were two spawn of maximum public-purse looter Malcolm Glazer, who the year before had purchased the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Glazer hatchlings, Joel and Bryan, were chortling and guffawing about how public officials would kowtow to their father in his effort to purloin taxpayer funding for a new stadium.

This peek at the secretive misanthropic clan was just too precious. The Glazer lads lacked the brains to avoid sneering at Tampa while they slouched along in a crowded movie queue — or maybe they had acquired the reptile arrogance of their father, attested to by a federal judge who had described the paterfamilias as a “snake in sheep’s clothing.” I was quite happy to feign looking in the other direction while I studiously eavesdropped on the Glazers’ conversation.

That was a summer of great discontent for Tampa. But for me, it was a grand time to be a journalist at an alternative newspaper. The Tampa Tribune two years earlier had ousted Doyle Harvill, the last great, give-’em-hell publisher and editor the newspaper would have as it dissolved into civic irrelevance. A fanatical, tax-dodging, self-serving, agenda-driven cult in Pinellas — I could only be talking about the St. Petersburg Times — used bombast, deceit and intimidation to thwart the public on key issues, from a baseball dome to museums to stealthily putting one of the newspaper’s lawyers in the mayor’s office. So, yes, being an editor at the Weekly Planet was a feast of sacred cows to turn into hamburger. We didn’t have much money, few staffers, but — as with alternative weeklies across the nation — we were kicking butt as the big dailies began their slow dance of self-immolation.

The Tampa Bay area was erupting in news. Dick Greco had been elected mayor — again — and what with his Don Juan reputation and many old ties to another Don, the late godfather Santo Trafficante, the city’s el jefe alloyed the many cultures and conflicts that made Tampa such a fascinating place.

Meanwhile, Tampa was careening toward a September referendum on the football stadium. Glazer had dissembled that he’d pay for half of a new stadium. He used the well-worn blackmail of the National Football League — give me a stadium or I’ll move the team. Hillsborough County officials slurped the Kool-Aid ladled out by the Bucs, a despicable brew of combining much-needed funds for schools with money for Glazer’s stadium. If your kids needed decent classrooms, you had to kiss Glazer’s nether regions and give him a pleasure palace filled with obscene riches.

Things were percolating at another sports franchise, the Lightning hockey team. The Lightning, and its effort to build a coliseum, were beset by a gale of pratfalls and problems, not least of which, as I would report, that according to one federal lawsuit, the team was run by a Japanese “gangster.” By 1998, my investigative articles in the Planet detailed that the owners were deadbeats, and had snookered officials about their Japanese assets (largely nonexistent) in order to get funding for the coliseum.

There were rumblings about Tampa General Hospital (TGH) being privatized (the Planet broke that story). Racial tensions in St. Pete — exacerbated by an indifferent-to-minorities white power structure, including the vanilla boys club that ran the Times — was about to spill over into riots in late 1996. Both daily newspapers would launch inflammatory, highly unethical assaults on minorities: The Trib against Muslims, which pushed federal agents into a 10-year, $50 million jihad ending in a trial in which the jury brought no guilty verdicts, clearly underscoring the bogus nature of the newspaper’s and government’s case; and the Times against the Seminole Tribe and Scientologists, in which the newspaper had forgotten the first rule of honorable reporting, mentioning the “other side.”

So much news, but the Planet was up to the challenge.

I had moved to Tampa at the behest of then Trib Publisher Harvill. The Times had abruptly voided a long-standing agreement that neither paper invade the other’s home county. Harvill drafted me (and many other fine scribes), and we won the circulation war. Harvill was done in by a cabal led by Tom McEwen, the Trib sports editor who, as the Planet would first report, was hugely on the take from the very teams he covered. In September 1996, I left the Trib and joined the Planet when one of Harvill’s successors told editors that our role would be cheerleaders for Glazer’s stadium. That isn’t journalism, and I am a journalist.

So, until late 2001, as Hunter Thompson would say, I was on a wild trip at the Planet. And, my “drug” was people, the folks who depicted dimensions about the city. Greco, for sure. Harry Teasley, the retired Coca-Cola exec and Reason Foundation chairman, who joined me in opposing some of the more outrageous giveaways of taxpayer money. Phyllis Busansky, Pat Frank, Fred Karl, Ed Turanchik, Pam Bondi, and mayors-to-be Pam Iorio and Bob Buckhorn, tops among public servants. Jan Platt, “Madam Ethics.” Lawyer Bill McBride was a civic giant. Owen Whitman, the guy who somehow got information other people had long tried to bury. And many, many more.

Ben Eason, founder of Creative Loafing/Weekly Planet in Tampa, deserves special note. We conspired, both with the paper and a series of non-profits — Speak Up Tampa Bay, the Good Community Alliance and, with McBride, Hillsborough Tomorrow — to make the city a better place.

I was still a Trib editor in early 1995 when Eason invited me to a meeting of his “Friends of the Planet.” He told me: “We need good newspapers, and if we have real competition, we get better and the city is the winner.”

Unfortunately, both daily newspapers have withered; their sin has been anti-competitive, public-be-damned strategies. Creative Loafing also has been scorched in the media implosion. But, if you look at Creative Loafing’s value today, it’s at least in the low seven-figure class; while the purchase price of the Trib last year, discounting the value of real estate, is a mere $500,000 for the newspaper.

That’s not quite a fair comparison. And the Trib’s new owners have done more to energize the newspaper in the last year than the old owners did in almost two decades. But, Tampa needs healthy media of all kinds — we need watchdog journalists, perceptive social analysts, classy critics, and a few wags to make us smile. I look forward to the next 25 years of Creative Loafing.

John F. Sugg was Senior Editor, then Co-Editor of the Weekly Planet from 1995-2001, then moved to Creative Loafing Atlanta, continuing to write occasional columns for the Planet after the move.

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