THE SUNS AND PHOENIX'S SPINELESS DAILY PRESS

The comparisons stick in the back of your mind.
The O.J. Simpson story is merely the opposite side of the coin to the now-infamous Phoenix Suns sex party.

The difference is that in Los Angeles, two people died and it caused an immediate media explosion. In Phoenix, a woman may have been raped at a party by a member of the Phoenix Suns and for two weeks the silence was deafening.

The state's two biggest dailies found out about it almost immediately and decided there was no story. They barely asked a question. They just closed the book and decided this was something we had no right to know about.

The California tale involves a famous sports millionaire who may be involved in the murders of his ex-wife and a 25-year-old waiter who was her friend.

It is the ultimate, classic tragedy of family violence that has been written about since ancient Greece; a tale that spans the annals of literature from Euripides and Sophocles to Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Joe McGinnis.

The Suns story involves three young members of the Phoenix Suns, each being paid more than a million dollars a year, taking part in a postmidnight sex party in which a woman claims she was detained in a bedroom and intimidated by Oliver Miller into unwanted sex acts. This took place after a general warning that nothing happening at the party should be made public. The woman refused, out of fear, to press charges when the police questioned her.

Later she learned what had happened to the pregnant girlfriend of another Suns player, Jerrod Mustaf. Mustaf's girlfriend was shot to death. Mustaf's cousin has been charged in the crime.

The list of names of the bad guys in the Suns story starts with Charles Barkley, who makes a reported $20 million a year in commercials and wants to run for governor of Alabama. According to the report, he appears to have served as barn boss at the party. Here is what Barkley reportedly told the assembled guests from his perch on the balcony:

"Before this party starts, I want everybody to know that anything that goes on in this house, doesn't leave this house. . . . If you can't handle that, leave now."
Barkley might just as well have been talking to the editors of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette, because after they read these words in the police report, they decided there was no story. Everything that happened after Barkley's fair warning was off limits to the public.

But it wasn't off limits to Darrin Hostetler, the New Times reporter who pursued the story. He found the girl in the police report and elicited her story and determined it had merit.

So Hostetler wrote the story, shaking up and exposing the cozy relationship between the downtown dailies and Jerry Colangelo, the Suns' chief operating officer.

Once I read Hostetler's story in last week's issue, I knew it would be necessary for the Republic and KTAR-AM, the station that broadcasts the Suns' games on radio, to put their spin on the story.

I tried to get the early version by calling John Oppedahl, the nominal editorial boss of both papers, at his home.

Oppedahl admitted talking to Don Henninger, managing editor at the Gazette, about the story which had already been written for publication in that paper.

Oppedahl says he is concerned about all the publicity that is being given to the private lives of politicians and sports personalities.

He denied that there had been any call from Colangelo asking that the story be killed. I even believe him when he says that.

But there are some things sophisticated men need not say to each other. Oppedahl knows, as well as I do, that Colangelo was the first Phoenix power broker to greet Republic publisher Chip Weil when he arrived in town.

He must know the two are thick as thieves. (Before you get on the phone to your lawyer, Jerry, I mean that only figuratively.)

Oppedahl told me that he had spoken that very afternoon to his page-two columnist Steve Wilson, who would be addressing the issue in Friday's Republic.

I couldn't wait. I love Wilson's column. He is the consummate toady and apple polisher. Wilson is so straight and unbending, it is reported that he wears a white shirt and tie to bed every night.

Sure enough, Wilson's column was there as promised.
Wilson began his essay by admitting that the New Times story about Oliver Miller and the Suns was "the talk of the town."

But then he turned didactic.
"How do journalistic ethics apply?" Wilson asked.
He then told us that the editors at both the Gazette and Republic felt publishing the woman's claim would violate a fundamental standard of fairness. He said nothing about investigating the story further to find out whether it was true.

He left us with a message that was a backhanded slap at New Times. The editors at the Republic will continue to operate in the same manner, and that "will preserve a market for the tabloids."

So much for today's object lesson in sanctimonious journalism.
Oppedahl failed, however, to alert me that E.J. Montini was also going to write a column about the Suns on the same day.

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