By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
Once Dougherty allowed himself to be provoked, the paper became vulnerable to charges from the governor's men that the Tribune's reporter was simply a hothead out to avenge himself upon Symington.
The Mesa Tribune wanted to make sure readers had no questions regarding Dougherty's continued ability to be fair.
But this was not the end of the dustup.
When interviewed about the confrontation, Jay Smith said that it was the reporter who initiated the call to fists.
So Symington's team first attacked Dougherty's professional skills, then accused him of picking the fight. In the February 29 edition of the media trade publication Editor and Publisher, Smith said, "He [Dougherty] asked me to step outside. It is not my habit to invite people outside to fight . . ."
Nor, apparently, is it publicist Smith's habit to tell the truth. A tape recording of the meeting clearly captures Smith challenging Dougherty to "go outside."
Dougherty feels that Dowd and Smith calculatedly provoked a confrontation, hoping to get the reporter pulled from the story. His editors agree.
"The Symington people got what they wanted--but it has to be this way," Tribune managing editor John Genzale told New Times shortly after the incident. "Look, John Dowd came out to bully us--we knew that beforehand. We were kind of laughing about it: The high-powered lawyer from D.C. who comes to Hickville and pushes a lot of bumpkins around. I would have loved for them to have failed. But they didn't fail--not at pushing us around, but at getting our guy to react too emotionally."
Dowd rejects any suggestion that he and Jay Smith set out to set up Dougherty.
"The suggestion is erroneous. We met with the Mesa Tribune and except for the incident in which Mr. Dougherty lost his composure and had to be physically removed from the room by his editors, we had a very constructive session," said Dowd.
It certainly was constructive. It got Dowd the kind of soft coverage he wanted.
The day after the constructive session, on February 19, the Mesa Tribune ran a story under the headline: "Report will show Symington's actions legal, attorney says." The article was an uncritical regurgitation of the principal points contained in the massive briefing Dowd and Symington would submit to Congress.
Dougherty was yanked from further coverage of the governor the day before the journalist was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., and report on a House committee's probe into Symington. At the time, no other journalist in Arizona was as aggressive and informed about Symington and Southwest Savings and Loan. The response in other news organizations to Dowd's table-pounding has been less dramatic, but it does follow a pattern.
The editor at Institutional Investor described the typical reaction to Dowd's letters demanding retraction.
"You work really hard to get the story right and then you come to work and find one of these letters. It's very disappointing," said Kenneth Klee. "Dowd's letter was very deliberately threatening. It got my attention. You can't help but worry: Maybe these guys know something; maybe we screwed up."
Mary Jo Pitzl at the Arizona Republic recalled her brush with Dowd.
"I remember Doug MacEachern at the Mesa Tribune did a column and Dowd faxed to all the news organizations this letter of demand. It came across the fax to the capital press corps [reporters from all the media stationed at the legislature to cover state government] where I work, so in a sense it was published. I was surprised because MacEachern writes a column and I didn't know you could have a wrong opinion. "Then, I think it was Good Friday, Dowd went after one of my stories. He wanted a meeting with the editors for a front-page retraction. He used all the language you use for libel. We had to put together a memo defending the story and we had to sit down with the attorneys."
Dowd's threats of litigation coupled with demands for a meeting with the paper's editorial brass are sometimes coupled with another tool, a paper tidal wave.
"After we published the article, we got the letter of demand," said Institutional Investor's Klee. "We reviewed the article and our lawyer sent a response. Dowd answered with several boxes of materials. Meanwhile, I was in London on other work. The boxes of papers were not responsive to the point in the story. He sent a lot of papers, prepared at considerable expense, that didn't prove anything. Perhaps in one sense it's an effective tactic. You have to take it seriously. It complicates your life. It was as if he was trying to crush us under the paper."
In an era of hefty lawyers' fees, heftier libel insurance rates and imposing libel judgments, you have to ask if Dowd's saber-rattling has chilled news coverage or commentary.
"That's the sole purpose as far as I can see," said libel attorney Dan Barr, who represented the Mesa Tribune in its battles with Dowd. "It is intended to intimidate you, your editor and the publisher who pays the bills.
"The people who foot the cost have to send letters to me, I have to respond. After a while, it's human nature. You see an attitude: 'It's not worth the aggravation or money we have to pay the lawyers. To hell with it.'"
Despite the cost, despite the threats and despite Symington's ability to finance a lawsuit, most news organizations roll their eyes at the suggestion that they can be threatened.