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Buckhorn's joke about pointing machine guns at media draws fire

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn fires a .50 caliber machine gun from a rigid hull inflatable boat during a  Special Operations Capabilities Demonstration at the Tampa Convention Center last year.JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn fires a .50 caliber machine gun from a rigid hull inflatable boat during a Special Operations Capabilities Demonstration at the Tampa Convention Center last year.JAMES BORCHUCK | Times
Published May 22, 2017

TAMPA — At a time when journalists are under fire both literally and figuratively, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's "joke" last week at a military conference about pointing twin 50-caliber machine guns at journalists and watching them "cry like little girls" rankled several war correspondents in the room.

Buckhorn's remarks at the Special Operations Industry Conference quickly became fodder for the Facebook page of Military Reporters & Editors, which represents about 300 journalists.

"Personally, I was appalled," wrote Susan Katz Keating, a freelance writer and organization board member who was in the conference room Tuesday for Buckhorn's keynote address. Katz Keading had guns pointed at her while covering unrest in Northern Ireland in 1988.

Buckhorn initially said late last week that his critics were being overly sensitive. "I think that is a silly reaction," he said of those upset by a story he has told "a dozen times."

But on Monday, after the Tampa Bay Times' report about his remark went viral, with mentions by the Washington Post and two links from the Drudge Report, Buckhorn's office issued an apology to combat journalists.

"This was a story that he had told for three consecutive years, and at no time was it ever construed to be serious or an accurate portrayal of what occurred," mayor's spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

"It was merely a humorous tongue-in-cheek description," she said. "Clearly that does not translate on Twitter, and, in light of the current rhetoric at the national level aimed at the media, (it) inadvertently served to reinforce some of those sentiments. That was not his intention. In fact, as the son of a former wire service reporter, he has nothing but the highest regard for the work of journalists and their profession and he apologizes to those he offended."

Buckhorn's apology came after some journalists in the room for his speech said they weren't being thin-skinned. No skin is thick enough to stop a bullet or bomb blast, something Daily Beast national security reporter Kim Dozier knows all too well.

In 2006, she was nearly killed in a car bombing that took the life of the U.S. Army officer her team was filming — Capt. James Alex Funkhouser, along with his Iraqi translator and Dozier's CBS colleagues Paul Douglas and James Brolan.

"As someone who had been under fire once or twice, and lost two colleagues to a car bomb in Iraq that nearly killed me, I didn't appreciate the remarks," said Dozier, who wrote a book about her experiences and efforts to recover. "The mayor probably didn't realize how many of the reporters in the room had risked their lives to bring Americans the story of U.S. troops in the field, including veterans-turned-journalists with prior special ops service."

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At the conference, Buckhorn told a crowd of more than 1,000 commando and defense industry leaders about his experience as a "hostage" during a demonstration of special ops rescue tactics. The highlight, he said, was when he was aboard a Navy special warfare boat, firing blanks from 50-caliber machine guns.

"And so the first place I point that gun is at the media," he told the crowd. "I've never seen grown men cry like little girls, for when that gun goes off those media folks just hit the deck like no one's business. It's great payback. I love it."

No one actually ducked or cried as he was firing the blanks. And Buckhorn, whose father was a wire service reporter, enjoys an unusually positive relationship with the local press.

So some journalists were both irked and puzzled by his comments.

"Mayor Buckhorn's decision to casually insult reporters ... was particularly regrettable when placed in the context of (Department of Homeland Security Secretary) John Kelly's remarks to President Trump about using a sword against journalists, and the President's own reported desire to lock up reporters," said Sean Naylor, who has come under fire during his nearly three decades of covering the military.

Like other reporters in the room, Naylor realized that Buckhorn was playing to an audience and said he "wasn't losing any sleep" over the remarks. But it was "unfortunate that Mayor Buckhorn chose to get a few cheap laughs by implying that somehow reporters were cowards adverse to physical danger," Naylor said.

Since 2001, nearly 1,000 journalists worldwide, including nine so far this year, have been killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While most of those responding on the Military Reporters & Editors Facebook page were critical of the mayor's joke, one journalist gave a virtual shoulder shrug.

"Dangerous and inappropriate handling of a firearm," wrote Travis Tritten, a Washington Examiner national security reporter. But all things considered, "I'd just wave it off."

Buckhorn said his comments were made "entirely in fun, tongue in cheek. They were not meant to be a reflection of my relationship with the media. I am the first one to defend the Fourth Estate. I am the product of it. I grew up with ink on my fingers. But you can't be so politically correct that you lose the humor of the situation."

Despite the flak, the mayor last week stuck to his guns.

Next year, the special operations demonstration will likely take place again. And Buckhorn said he will likely come roaring back to the dock, machine guns ablaze.

"I am firing blanks," he said. "I point the gun at everyone, not just the media. I have to point it at someone, and someone is going to get mad at me for pointing it at them."

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.