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Newspaper Series Smears Seminoles

By Charles Flowers

Who is the St. Petersburg Times and why is it shooting at the Seminole Tribe of Florida?

Last month, Dec. 19-21, the Times published a three-day, front-page series - the results of its year-long investigation of the Seminole Tribe people and government. The investigation itself had made news, not only in this newspaper, but in the journalism profession itself, for the ham-handed way its "computer-assisted" reporters and editors attempted to pry their way into the business records of the Tribe, and the Skunk Ape-sized tracks they left with letters the Times mailed to Tribal employees seeking snitches.

More on the snitches later. The biggest problem with the Times' series lies in its motives and its methods. Not its results. Why did they commit the human and computer resources, not to mention the ink and paper, to "expose" the Seminole Tribe? Do they care about American Indian issues, welfare, culture, education? Or, are they, as the second in their three-day onslaught of articles suggests, more interested in the non-Indian taxpayers whose money the newspaper says the Tribe "squandered?" Are they on the side of the casino patrons, who may have won too often, as one article claims. Or those who lost too much? Are the revenues the Tribe has received from bingo and gaming too much - as the opening article in the series suggests - or too little, as the last one hints?

"You could make the case that the Times is racist," says John Sugg, a senior editor and media critic for the Weekly Planet, a Tampa-based alternative newspaper, "just from the language of the letter they sent to Tribal employees that said, in effect, only the newspaper, only these white guys in suits can save the Seminoles from the Seminoles."

Mark Madrid, who works with the Florida chapter of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in St. Petersburg, agrees.

"In the five years that I've been up here, they have consistently ignored us," Madrid, who is of Creek heritage, said. "And now I know why." Madrid said the newspaper has yet to print any letters critical of the series, including several from Indian organizations, although it did print an editorial urging federal authorities "to force the Seminoles to unplug their slot machines."

The Times is the second largest daily newspaper in Florida, after the Miami Herald. Published in Pinellas County, the Times boasts a Sunday circulation of 436,669. The newspaper's primary competition is the Tampa Tribune. The Times Publishing Co. also prints the monthly business magazine, Florida Trend.

Times Publishing is owned by the non-profit Poynter Institute, also in St. Petersburg, where journalists come to study the thorny issues of ethics and professionalism in a business that to the general public usually seems lacking in both. The unique arrangement -- a tax exempt corporation owning a highly profitable commerical newspaper business, -- is seen by some critics as a clever way to skirt taxes -- the very charges the newspaper levies against the Seminole government.

As a business, the Times Co. employs one-third more people than the Seminoles have people - 3,600-plus compared to Seminole Tribal enrollment of 2,440, and has its fingers in a few related ventures, including the Congressional Record. The Tribe's businesses are more diverse; and some are still in the start-up phase. Although print media sales are relatively flat, the Times Publishing Co. managed to eke out $1 million more in 1996 than 1995. According to the Tampa Bay Business Journal, the Times Co. was the 11th largest privately held company in that region, with $236 million in sales. Times CEO Andrew Barnes' annual income is more than four times that of the Seminole Tribal Chairman

The Times' gross sales were more than $100 million greater than the Seminole Tribe netted from gaming in 1997, a year which saw individual Tribal member dividends double before falling back to a 50 percent increase over 1996. Gross gaming revenues - before award payoffs and management fees - are projected at $497 million for the fiscal year ending in June.

Last year, Times Publishing Co. ranked 46th among privately-held Florida companies, according to the Times Co.'s own Florida Trend. Although the Seminole Tribe is not a private company, if ranked solely on the basis of 1997-98 revenues, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. would rank first among minority-owned businesses, ahead of both Sedano's Supermarkets ($274 million) and Farm Stores ($200 million).

So, while the Times Co. was profitable enough to devote a year's work of two reporters and the resources to mount an exhaustive investigation of the Seminole Tribe, the Tribe was also profitable enough to counter-attack - to investigate the investigation, scoop the Times on its own story and publish the Tribe's findings on the Internet -- much to the chagrin of rfeporters and editors camped at the Times glass "Tower of Power" at 490 1st Avenue South in dolwntown St. P:etersburg.

Welcome to the Seminole Wars, 1990s-style.

'Acting As Judge and Jury'

The Tribe also has its own newspaper to express the facts and opinions "Florida's best newspaper" - as the Times terms itself - doesn't see fit to print. Like the fact that its blundering "investigation" may have done more harm than good, invaded privacy of Tribal members and employees, lacked real journalistic balance, and was replete with lies and half-truths - many of which could have been avoided had the Times' reporting and editing effort been held to its own allegedly high standard. Here are three of the more glaring errors:

* "We always knew the mob was there. We just couldn't prove it." This juicy quote, from the Dec. 20 Times, is attributed to Bob Butterworth, current Florida Attorney General, in reference to Seminole Management Associates (SMA) who operated Hollywood Bingo from 1980 to 1997. Newspaper experts say it could be used as a textbook example of how not to use a quotation in a news story.

"If they haven't been able to prove mob influence in the 17 years that SMA ran Hollywood Bingo, then it is not fair to link the Tribe to the mob just on the say-so of Butterworth," said Maury Breecher, author of four books on reporting who holds a Ph.D. in journalism. "It appears he (Butterworth) is acting as judge and jury when he is only a prosecutor who hasn't been able to make a case.

"Also, the article mentions documents that 'allege' a link between the Seminoles' bingo hall, a SMA partner and the mob," Breecher continued. "What are those documents? The Times doesn't explain, but using unattributed documents to make unproven charges that imply wrongdoing is simply poor journalism. It's character assassination against the whole tribe."

One person who feels the St. Petersburg Times vilified him in their series, and in particular in an article supposedly detailing the Tribe's interest in a gaming business based in St. Maarten, is James "Skip" Weisman, who with his brother Butch managed SMA until the Tribe took over management last year.

"This has gone a little too far," Weisman told the Seminole Tribune after reading an article in the series headlined 'Seminoles Gain Entry In Caribbean Casino.' "Now they're defaming me in another country."

Weisman detailed a series of factual errors in the Dec. 20 article: the Internet site, which the article states "remains opened," has yet to open; portions of his statements from "a sworn deposition" taken from Weisman in a suit brought by fired employees were used out of context; and a quarterly profit number - $28,000 - was off by more than a factor of 10. He is considering filing a suit against the newspaper.

The Times even quotes a former legal counsel with the National Indian Gaming Commission claiming the feds knew things were bad in Seminole gaming, but that the NIGC took no action because it did not want to "embarass" then-Commissioner and Seminole Tribal member Joel Frank.

Former NIGC counsel Michael Cox denies making any such statement to the Times.

*"Tommie stepped down as chairman in 1979 after signing a deal for a cut of the Hollywood hall's profits." Without contacting Howard Tommie, the St. Petersburg Times re- hashed a 15-year-old Miami Herald story about the former Seminole Chairman, adding little more than an aerial photo of Tommie's home on the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale and a caption which included the above words.

The caption fails to mention that Tommie served as chairman from 1972 to 1979. When he left, the per capita dividend was $600 per year, compared to $18,000 in 1997. That represents a 3,000 percent increase in less than 20 years.

"As an exercise in leadership, Howard Tommie's chairmanship was a great success," historian Harry Kersey Jr. wrote in An Assumption of Sovereignty: Social and Political Transformation Among the Florida Seminoles (1996, University of Nebraska Press). "He exploited every facet of the Indian self-determination movement and delivered the Seminoles to the brink of economic and political independence, while guaranteeing their sovereignty..."

'Slime Washes Off'

* "(A) study in 1992 reported that only 1 percent of the tribe's youths actually earn a college degree." Wrong. The Times series grossly understated the educational achievements of the Seminole Tribe. In its Dec. 19 story, the newspaper reported, "The tribe boasts that it will pick up the cost of college for any Seminole who wants it, but a study in 1992 reported that only 1 percent of the tribe's youths actually earn a college degree."

In fact, the Seminole Tribe is a leader in graduating Tribal members. Since 1985, the number of college graduates in the Tribe has grown from 12 to 62 - better than a five-fold increase - while the number currently enrolled has climbed from seven to more than 60, up over 800 percent.

According to the Tribal education officials, these numbers represent all degrees - from associates' to Ph.D.'s. According to Education Director Willie Johns, "The growth of our college enrollments is considered phenomenal by education specialists around Indian Country."

Like the Times, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has its own website on the Internet. Since intercepting the letter seeking "snitches," much of the battle has been waged in the cyber-trenches, with the Tribe firing volleys at the newspaper for ethics violation, and the Times reporters defending themselves on the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) listserve website.

Throughout the fall of 1997, the Seminole Tribune published as well as posted essays and editorials critical of the Times' investigation - a journalistic first - as well as a verbatim transcription of the lengthy interview with the St. Petersburg newspaper's reporters and Tribal officials including Chairman James Billie, Chief Financial Officer Ted Boyd, Housing Director Joel Frank and Police Chief Tom Hernan.

"They slimed us," said Boyd, who added that he received a follow-up telephone call after the Times' lengthy interview last October. "Slime washes off."

The Dec. 20 story about alleged Seminole Housing violations failed to mention that the audit which uncovered over a dozen housing problem areas was ordered by the Tribe itself. As this exchange between Times reporter Jeff Testerman, editor Tom Scherberger, and Seminole Housing Director Joel Frank shows, the investigators were informed of that fact no fewer than four times. Still, they failed to note it at all in their stories. From the Oct. 22 interview, which can be read in its entirety on the website www.seminoletribe.com:

Testerman: Recently, HUD took a look at the housing program. They found a number of problems in an audit.

Frank: . . .I had the audit done...to see where we're at and what needs to be done...I asked them to specifically look at our programs...

Scherberger: Just curious, why did you ask for this audit after that?

Frank: Well, I asked for it over a year ago.

Scherberger: Oh, did you? Did you have a feeling that there might be some problems?

Frank: No, as a good manager, I think that . . .even though a program is running good..you want to make sure you can do a better job and make improvements.

By leaving out this key fact, Times reporters and editors made it appear that HUD was investigating the housing violations, rather than the truth - that the Tribe was policing itself.

No Comment From the The Times?

Two other particularly irksome references in the Times series dealt with the reporters' sense of security when dealing with Chairman Billie, and their opinion that he squelched criticism by declaring a "bounty" for information about Tribal members or employees who were leaking classified information.

"I know where you live," they quoted Billie as telling them. Mixing cause with effect, they entirely missed what is known in English and even pop music (see Alannis Morissette) circles as irony.

Billie's statement was a joke -- obvious to anyone who reads the intervikew transcript; the statement, and the reward offer, came months after Times reporter Brad Goldstein had tipped his hand, revealing that he knew where members of the Tribe and Tribal employees lived, by the fact that he mailed letters to their homes and called them on their unlisted phone numbers. (Goldstein declined to comment, referring this writer to Times vice-president Paul Tash, who did not return a telephone call.)

To date, according to the Chairman, no one has sought the $5,000 he offered to find the snitch.

Oddly, despite Chairman Billie granting the reporters' request for a wide-ranging interview, they relied on information from the self-published -- and unauthorized --biography titled Chief: Champion of the Everglades, written by Barbara Oeffner -- a book the Chairman completely disavows as "filled with inaccurate information."

Had the reporters taken a drive to see where Billie lives, they would have found him on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. Not the Everglades, which is a geographically, politically and ecologically distinct region. They could have visited the Tribal Museum there and found out that Osceola was a war leader, not a Chief.

What has the St. Petersburg Times to say to this?

"The stories speak for themselves," said Times Managing Editor Neil Brown, through a secretary.

Indeed, they do.

-- Charles Flowers, a frequent contributor to the Seminole Tribune, is the winner of many press awards, including Best News Story for 1997 from the Native American Journalism Association, a 1990 Robert F. Kennedy Foundation Award, and three first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association. He holds a bachelor of arts in journalism degree from Michigan State University.

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