Straight, Inc. and a Protest: Was the Saint Petersburg Times Bought Off?
an editorial by Wes Fager
Cult watchers like us at the Oakton Institute ( www.thestraights.net ) up here in Virginia have always been proud of the Saint Petersburg Times for its fairness and excellence in reporting on cults. God knows sunshine has attracted its fair share to Pinellas County. So we were not in the least bit surprised on Friday June 7, 2002 when the Times published the article "In the middle of a nightmare" by Jeanne Malmgren . It was an article about three survivors of the Straight juvenile treatment cult and a conference they would be attending in Saint Petersburg on June 8 - 9. The conference was the Second International Conference on Adolescent Treatment Abuse and Reunion of Straight Survivors, and was chaired by Dr. Arnold Trebach of American University and the Trebach Institute, both in Washington, DC.
Common sense dictates that if you want to get the real poop about a local celebrity, businessman or politician you don't turn to a national level newspaper like Washington Post or USA Today; you read his hometown paper--if there is an honest one. That's why, historically, whenever we wanted to learn about Straight's co-founder--the prominent Saint Petersburg citizen Mel Sembler--we have turned to the Saint Petersburg Times (which prior to June 9, 2002 was was referred to by some of us up here as "America's paper"). When Mel Sembler bought his his first ambassadorship, the Times ran an editorial on November 12, 1989 titled "Money buys Bush Appointments." On August 24, 1987, the Times published an editorial about a Sembler shenanigan titled "Cooper's Point Deal is Rotten." This is the one where a city official in Clearwater opted not to buy a swamp for the city for $900,000 and then approached Sembler who bought it for $900,000 and almost got away with selling it to Clearwater for $3,000,000. Or how about "A persistent foul odor." That was the Times editorial on July 17, 1993 which talks about an IG report from the old HRS which concludes that Mel Sembler probably interfered with a state attempt to close Straight in Pinellas County in 1989.
But that was then. Mel Sembler is not the only man to buy an ambassadorship (though he's one of the very few to buy two!). Ambassadorships are bought and sold all the time and nobody but Common Cause and Bill O'Reilly bother to complain about it. On June 8, 2002 many Straight survivors had assembled outside Mel Sembler's American residence on Treasure Island. We were not protesting because he had bought his Italian ambassadorship. A lot of people are fed up with the rich buying up government posts or as Mr. Sembler so aptly puts it, "You pay a little more, you get a little more." But they don't protest. We were protesting because Mel Sembler had bragged to the Senate during his confirmation hearing that he had co-founded Straight. He told the senators, "other than our children, nothing was more rewarding than this effort." We were protesting Straight's reputation for child abuse. We were speaking for former Straight clients who are now insane. We were protesting on behalf of the more than 30 people who have committed suicide after Straight. We do not feel that it was appropriate for Sembler to buy the Italian job, or any ambassadorship for that matter. People drove down or flew in from all over the country to protest his appointment.
How often is an ambassador's private residence picketed in Saint Petersburg or anywhere else in the country? A photographer from the Saint Petersburg Times was there as were several non-uniformed police officers. At one point the photographer took shots of a least 18 people marching, single-file with banners in hand, in front of Sembler's house (others were on the grounds in the park across the street). Yet this remarkable event went un-reported. Did something strange happen between Friday June 7 with the publishing of the Malmgren article and Saturday evening when the protest report could have been added to the Sunday edition? All I know is that nobody flies to Florida from Detroit just to protest a political buy--unless there is something more to the story. The reporter was there. The protesters were there. The cops were there. Photos were taken. But the story was stopped.��
And then exactly one month later, it was announced that The St. Petersburg Times had entered into an deal with BayWalk in Saint Petersburg and Centro Ybor in Tampa (two properties developed by the Sembler Company) for EXCLUSIVE rights to newspaper sales and promotional rights . 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." So Mr. Tash, "Money buys Bush Appointments" but can it buy the Times from reporting a newsworthy story? How many protesters do we need to fly in next time before you consider it newsworthy; or doesn't it matter? Next time should we just contact The Tampa Tribune?
[I originally sent this editorial as a letter to the editor at the Times back in December, but they never bothered to respond. After a few weeks I called the editorial desk and spoke to an editor who identified himself as Pat, I believe. Pat assured me that the Times does not operate "that way;" that the business end and the news reporting end of their paper are two different animals.]