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 Timesreporter, 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 Voiceto 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 Timesand 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 Timesstory ran, so she (Harker, that is) just passed it back to an editor and worked on other things, and . . . and . . .

And then Harker informed me that she didn't want to speak to me anymore, because New Timeswas always twisting and distorting things toward evil ends. She seemed quite upset, ending the interview with more bitter comments about New Times' twisting propensities. "And you can quote me on that!" she loudly announced.

That last jab really hurt, but at least I knew what had happened at the Republic. One out of a couple of hundred reporters went on vacation; important national news could not be reported until that one particular reporter, Susan Leonard, got back.

And that is what happened. After Leonard returned to work, she wrote a story about the investigation. The story was quite well done. It made the top of the front page of the Sunday paper. The story was picked up by the state and national wire services. Local television reported the tale; it was all over the radio.

By God, this was news!
But I still wondered why it had not been news ten days earlier. I still smelled Petrou somewhere.

Two of my inquiries into this particular media failure were instructive, but not as entertaining as a Petrou infestation.

Roberto Sanchez, the county reporter for the Phoenix Gazette, said he didn't touch the story because, "Well, I read Amy's piece, and all I could read into it was . . . , you know, that the investigation was pending. And we've gotten lots of stuff on that before, but I just didn't have the time or any conclusive evidence to jump into it."

I did not really know what to say--a United States Attorney's confirmation is usually conclusive enough for me--so I started on television news. If Petrous were anywhere, I figured they would be at the TV stations.

Actually, though, I wound up talking to Al Macias, assignments manager for Channel 15 news, and he clearly was no Petrou. In fact, he struck me as a reasonable, intelligent newsman, and his explanation was straightforward: Even though he and others at his station regularly scan New Timesfor news they might use, somehow no one had noticed Silverman's story.

"I mean, I've been around here forever, and, you know, I know that the New Timeshas turned enough stories over the years that, you know, something like that certainly bears checking on," Macias said.

Fair enough. Everyone misses a story sometimes, New Timesincluded.
But what about the Mesa Tribune? There had to be a reason that newspaper had ignored a federal investigation for ten days, blowing a chance to scoop the Republicand the Gazette. I figured there would be one person who would know that reason. His name was Bill Davis, and he covers the county government for the Trib.

Once I got him on the phone, I slowly, carefully explained that I was the editor of New Times, and that I was writing a column. I didn't want to be accused of tricking a reporter again.

I had just finished explaining why I was calling, had just gotten the first question out of my mouth, in fact, when Davis made a noise. I have described it to people as resembling the squeal a cat makes if you step squarely on its tail. Actually, though, that description was just my way of being polite.

In truth, Davis made a sound that approximated the screech you hear when cats fornicate.

I played the tape recording of Davis' emission to members of my staff, who all agreed it was worth preserving for posterity. It was so wonderfully inappropriate and nonresponsive that I knew my search for Phoenix Petrou clones, even though incomplete, could not continue long. There was no way to improve on Bill Davis' explanation as to why a metropolitan newspaper ignored an important national story:

New Times: Now, why didn't the Mesa Tribunereport on a major federal investigation?

Bill Davis: (Loud cat penetration noise) GO LIKE FUCK YOURSELF!
This was better than Petrou!

So why should you care that the daily press ignored the jail investigation?
I could affect a scholarly pose and run through the standard First Amendment buzz phrases: public accountability, informed citizenry, the right to know, the role of the press in a democratic society.

Or I might take an ethics-based approach, suggesting that the possible beating of inmates--who are, after all, human beings--is a story that should be told, simply because of its moral implications.

Let me be crass for a moment, however, and raise this little reason for concern: your bank account.

At this point, no one can say whether this investigation will confirm or disprove the allegations of inmate abuse at the jails. Should abuse be proven, though, the taxpayers of Maricopa County could wind up paying for all sorts of corrective actions required by the federal government. More guards. More training. Construction of a jail to replace the inhumane joke Sheriff Joe calls tent city.

And if the feds discover that a lot of inmates have been mistreated, you can expect the cost of settling lawsuits those inmates have filed to rise--astronomically.

So why did almost all of the journalists in this Valley not think it worth their time to tell you that tough-talkin', God-fearin' Sheriff Joe might wind up costing us all millions of dollars?

That's not a question I can answer in a simple way. The daily media have had no problems reporting every insignificant public relations stunt Arpaio and his staff could concoct. Yet those media seem all but paralyzed by important news that reflects negatively on prominent people and institutions.

I've been given all sorts of explanations for this fear of news.
I've been told that it's the fault of boosteristic, meddling, scaredy-cat, ideologically rabid ownership. Or it's the editors, chosen on the basis of tameness. Or reporters who are rewarded for inoffensiveness and punished for enterprise. Then there's the Petrousian explanation: There's just a tradition of journalistic mediocrity here, a cult of incompetence.

All of this may, in one way or another, be true. But even Steve Petrou would have reported the story of a federal investigation of the county jail--regardless of how that story initially came to light. And if the conditions of journalistic employment in Phoenix are so horribly stifling, how is it that some daily journalists manage to do good work? What about Montini and Benson? What about, for example, Susan Leonard?

That's right, Susan Leonard. When she did not return my phone call last week, I decided to reread several stories she wrote earlier this year on the apparent mistreatment of inmates at Arpaio's jails. The stories--which, ultimately, question whether Arpaio's tough-guy talk is encouraging inmate mistreatment at the jail--are solid, important, almost prescient journalism. I wish New Timeshad published them. And she, alone among our horde of daily reporters and editors, rescued the federal investigation of the jail from media oblivion.

Actually, had Leonard not been on vacation, it is quite possible she would have beaten New Timesto the jail story. She was on it hard.

Well, maybe Susan Leonard wasn't the best example to choose, after all. As part of the merger of staffs at the Gazetteand Republiclast week, she was reassigned. You won't often be seeing Susan Leonard's byline on page one anymore. She'll apparently be working out in the East Valley now, doing some kind of zoned or community-based reporting--miles and miles from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and tough-talkin', God-fearin' Joe Arpaio.

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