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In media circus, we're Big Top

If it gets headlines around the world, it probably happened in Florida.

Published February 23, 2007


Why Florida?

Seriously, can you name any other state at the epicenter of so many things weird and wacky?


A diaper-wearing, knife-wielding astronaut. A stressed-out girl with nonstop hiccups. A city manager mister who wants to become a miss.

And a former pinup girl, famous for being famous, whose death at an Indian casino hotel creates nothing short of a 500-ring media circus.

Yep, all headline makers. All in the nation’s fourth-most-populous state.

And that was just in the last month.

Let’s not forget the glowing publicity from the chad-hanging-who-really-is-our-president 2000 election, or that the 9/11 hijackers who learned to fly where?

The Sunshine State.

Or is it the Strange State?

“That is one of the great questions,’’ said Gary Mormino, a University of South Florida professor and author of the book, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams.

Don’t forget the latest bizarre tidbit blasted on airwaves around the world Thursday: a Tampa middle school principal arrested for buying crack cocaine.

In his office.

At school.

“I ask you,” a puzzled Mormino says, “could that happen in Fargo, N.D.?”

MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann regularly talks about the “weird stuff” from Florida on his show Countdown.
'Exuberant cesspool’

Florida author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen has made a living mining the state for corruption stories and weirdo types.

“This is a place where people come, and they’re either running away from something or running after something,” Hiaasen once said. “It’s not where a stable, honest person comes. … Anybody who lives here is just teetering on the brink of lunacy. And once you get used to the fact that you live in such an exuberant cesspool, then the art can begin.”

Miami humorist Dave Barry attributes all the strangeness — O.J. Simpson, Elian Gonzalez, Versace’s broad-daylight South Beach killing — to a South Florida Giant Underground Weirdness Magnet.

“It’s buried here somewhere,” he wrote in his weekly column that ran Friday. “It has to be. How else can you explain why so many major freak-show news stories either happen, or end up, in South Florida?”

It’s not just South Florida, pal. Don’t forget Terri Schiavo’s dying days in Pinellas Park that were marked by a full-blown media frenzy, including a juggler, outside her hospice.

But, seriously, what is up with all the Florida lunacy?

St. Petersburg retired hospital administrator Cliff Meyers, 60, became so frustrated with the nonstop TV craziness surrounding the death of Marilyn Monroe wannabe Anna Nicole Smith in Hollywood, Fla., and the oddball judge overseeing her delayed burial, he dashed off a letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

“Why does it always appear that only idiots live in Florida when we are in the national spotlight?”

Reached later, Meyers was still steaming, but armed with a few theories.

“Maybe the weather’s so nice, maybe all the kooks come down here,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the 24-hour news channels. They don’t have enough legitimate news so they find all this garbage.”

Tampa’s Chuck Shepherd, 61, who has written the nationally syndicated News of the Weird newspaper column for 19 years, has thought a lot about the question of why.

In November, he started the F State blog (creativeloafing. for Creative Loafing, dedicated specifically to gathering quirky news from Florida, “a civilization in decline.”News or the media?Shepherd believes it’s not the news so much as it is the news media who are more attuned to oddball stories.

“Now every day, it’s 'Look how weird we are,’” Shepherd says. “'Look at what’s happening.’ There’s not so much embarrassment anymore.”

Mormino, the USF professor, said that since the 1980s, Florida has replaced California as the Strange State.

“Florida is a dream state,” Mormino says. “And the dream comes in many versions. You can reinvent yourself here. You could be bankrupted twice in Illinois and move here and change your name.

“It’s a state of strangers. I think we’ll have a hold on the weird sightings for a while.”

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or

[Last modified February 23, 2007, 22:09:43]

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