NEWS BLACKOUT

When I was a reporter not long ago, I often found myself in the same crowd of journalists as one particular television newsman. This reporter stood out from the journalistic pack. No matter what the event--trial or news conference, government meeting or murder scene--he seemed always to be behind schedule. He would come in after the rest of the press had asked most of the obvious questions and create a great ruckus while getting his cameraman in place. He would know virtually nothing about the substance of the news event. It did not matter that the story had been on the front pages for days. This reporter would come to it blank as a baby, a disorganized tabula rasa, a paragon of unself-conscious ignorance.

He was also physically clumsy. If he were assigned to cover the O.J. trial, at first meeting, this reporter would step on Marcia Clark's foot hard enough to bring tears to her eyes; as soon as she had recovered the ability to speak, he would ask her how to spell Judge Ito's name.

But ask he would. By their inanity and earnestness, this reporter's questions could silence the most confrontative of press conferences. At times other journalists snickered out loud, even hissed when he spoke. Of course, his stories often reflected this professional depth and personal savoir-faire.

Before he left the news business to become--what else?--a lawyer, this Inspector Clouseau of the news media, whose name was Steve Petrou, had turned into a minor legend. In certain journalistic circles, someone who committed a public idiocy might be accused of "pulling a Petrou."

A harsher condemnation could scarcely be imagined.
I wonder if a cloning experiment has gone bad somewhere, and some mad scientist has sent dozens of copies of Steve Petrou to work in Phoenix's daily press.

Three weeks ago, a New Times reporter, Amy Silverman, wrote that the U.S. Justice Department was conducting a civil investigation into the alleged abuse of inmates at Maricopa County's jails. Her story summarized a letter the Justice Department sent to county officials informing them of the probe. Silverman's piece also quoted Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Arizona U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano, both of whom confirmed that an investigation had begun.

The story was important. Federal prosecutors from Washington, D.C., don't poke around at random, just to see whether the staff at some local jail far across the country is beating inmates with impunity, faking reports about such abuse, and denying inmates access to lawyers and adequate medical care. Generally, the feds have some reason before they bother with local doings far away.

The story also had broad appeal. Arpaio's tough talk about his "tent city" jail has made him a regular on the national news circuit. Everybody from the Village Voice to CBS News has featured Sheriff Joe.

And the story was fairly easy for a reporter to nail down. At least four county officials had copies of the letter from Justice, and Napolitano and Arpaio were confirming it. It should have taken a decent reporter all of a day, maybe two, to document the investigation.

But this is Phoenix. As far as I can tell, no one else in the news media bothered to tell the citizens of Maricopa County that their media-buffoon sheriff and his sordid jail were under federal investigation for another ten days.

When I called him last week, Nicholas Hentoff, an attorney who has filed some of the complaints the Justice Department is investigating, was wondering about the evanescent federal investigation, too.

"I thought that was the weirdest thing in the world. I couldn't believe it," Hentoff said. "I just couldn't believe it, that it fell into a black hole like that."

A week after Silverman's piece was published, I could sense the presence of Petrou. I decided to call around to ask what the hell was going on. Here was an obvious page-one byline waiting to be grabbed--and not one reporter seemed to care.

First I phoned Victoria Harker, who covers the county government for the Arizona Republic. She explained why she had not picked up on the story. But then she asked not to be quoted, claiming I had tricked her into answering my questions by identifying myself as the editor of New Times, rather than as a reporter. She said she did not want to get in trouble, that it was hard being on the other side--to be answering, rather than asking, questions. I restrained myself from asking whether there were any Petrous in her family tree. I did not even laugh.

I started over, slowly informed her that I was the editor of New Times and that I was writing a column. Then I began asking questions again.

Harker began, once again, to explain that she did not write the story because another reporter had previously written stories on problems at the county jails, and the other reporter was on vacation when the New Times story ran, so she (Harker, that is) just passed it back to an editor and worked on other things, and . . . and . . .

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