Fear and Loafing

The Arizona Republic's fealty to Symington isn't just bad for journalism, it's bad for business

But as a tornado of public interest swirled around the governor's financial chicanery, the Arizona Republic/Phoenix Gazette could not climb out of its storm shelter long enough to mention the kickback, one way or another.

So we have another in a series that should have a title: Arizona's Open Secrets. As has happened far too often in the last couple of years, readers of New Times know all the details of a major story about an important public figure. The editors and writers at the Republic know all those details, too. It is only the million or so readers of the Republic who remain in the dark.

After months and years of putting the most positive spin possible on Symington's sleazery, the Arizona Republic finally weighed in with a pair of hard-nosed and accurate stories on October 11. The stories correctly noted that federal investigators are focusing on Symington's felonic tendency to tell financial institutions that he is vastly wealthy (or worse than dead broke), depending on whether he wants to get a loan (or avoid paying one back).

The Republic's main story dwelled on two major points: Symington gave lenders financial statements that varied by $35 million during an 18-month time period (it's actually 11 months, but we'll let that slide); and his former secretary has told federal investigators about the financial statements and a slew of other financial tricks involving the governor.

The Republic stories were competently done, with one not-so-minor exception: News is supposed to be new.

Over the past few years, while the Republic slept, New Times' John Dougherty has written story upon story about the games Symington has played with financial statements. Dougherty wrote about the $35 million swing in the governor's net worth, in detail, a full week before the Republic got around to it.

As far as Symington's secretary goes: New Times executive editor Michael Lacey has written in great depth about a legal document--the "Ivan Memorandum"--that recounts federal questioning of the secretary. Lacey's first column on the secretary's admissions was published in February 1994--a mere 20 months or so before the Republic somehow "discovered" the memo.

The Republic presented this story--this cobbling together of New Times reporting--as if it were an investigative exclusive, even tagging its lead sentence with that hoary journalistic oxymoron, "the Republic has learned." A more accurate explanation would have read, "the Republic is finally getting around to reporting."

It is not the lack of journalistic etiquette--the failure to give credit for previously published information--that galls me and ought to worry you.

What should offend you is that journalists refused to tell you vital information for weeks and even months--and then tried to hide that dereliction of journalistic duty by pretending the information was new. They tried to play you for fools.

Did you see the column Paul Schatt, editor of the Republic's editorial pages, inflicted on the public October 15?

In the first few paragraphs of his piece, Schatt told an outright lie, quoting some unnamed caller to the effect that New Times had falsely reported the governor was under indictment.

After lying about New Times, Schatt went on to suggest that an indictment of the governor was unlikely, or at least that federal investigators are having difficulty putting together a case.

Now, the Republic's own reporters had already written that federal investigators expect to make a decision on whether to indict Symington by year's end. And a few phone calls--even to reporters for his own paper--would have told Schatt just how many people the feds have interviewed recently in regard to the grand jury probe of our pale gov. (Anyone who wants to know how misinformed Schatt was in regard to the probable indictment[s] of the governor should read John Dougherty's piece on page 12.)

Schatt finished his column with this tidy paragraph: "Maybe he's [Symington's] unpopular with some political foes and creditors, but so far, he's merely an unsuccessful developer. If he's more than that, we'll find out soon enough."

I am not writing about Schatt's column simply to say it's the type of dishonest journalism only an extraordinarily bad newspaper would tolerate. I am using his column to illustrate the lengths to which he and his paper will go--and have gone--to avoid, smooth over, look past a problem.

Fife Symington is not just an unsuccessful developer. He is a governor who has gone bankrupt under particularly suspicious circumstances. He is a public official who is under serious federal grand jury investigation. And, coming on the heels of Evan Mecham, Symington threatens to label Arizona as the Louisiana of the Southwest.

Yet, by Schatt's reasoning, we all should just wait silently and see what the grand jury does. We should ignore a public problem, hoping it will go away.

Until it whacks us upside our heads.
Paul Schatt's column is not an aberration. The Arizona Republic has consistently failed to report obvious, easily confirmable facts the public should know about Governor Symington and a host of other public miscreants. It also has put a misleading spin on the reporting that has been done.

In Symington's case, this failure to report became so obvious, inside and outside the paper, that Chip Weil--the publisher who breakfasted with Symington the morning he declared bankruptcy--finally sent word to the newsroom a couple of weeks ago. Sources in the Republic's newsroom say they have been told the gloves are off on Symington.

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