Fear and Loafing

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

Do you ever wonder what the substantial business people of the Valley think of a bankrupt fakir like Fife Symington?

Take some top executive at Intel. Some guy who makes several hundred grand a year and is responsible for a couple of hundred million dollars of business. A guy who's never late with the Mercedes payment. Someone whose bonuses depend on productivity and profit.

Wouldn't you think Mr. Intel is aghast that a corner-cutting loser like Symington is in charge of the multibillion-dollar business that is the State of Arizona?

If he is aghast, so far Mr. Intel has been quiet about it. After all, Governor Symington has offered all sorts of short-range goodies to the Intels of Arizona--tax breaks, environmental laxity, a regular stream of pro-business rhetoric. There hasn't been much publicity about any long-term problems he might be causing.

So I would imagine many Mr. Intels have taken the practical approach: It is not my problem if Symington is a sleaze; getting rid of sleazy governors is what we pay prosecutors for. And, at first glance, that approach to the Symington problem seems perfectly reasonable. It is, after all, the way the civics books say it is all supposed to work.

But when things get bad enough in the public arena--when the government is sufficiently polluted and inept--there is a confluence of interests between the good-government types and the credible people who just want to do business.

Incompetent, corrupt government is a moral problem, but it's an economic problem, too. Truly bad government makes doing business difficult in the long haul.

And things are truly dreadful in Arizona's public arena.
When I say that Arizona's body politic is polluted, I am not referring only to Governor Symington, although his personal sleaze and banana-republic ineptitude have set a certain tone.

We also have a state legislature that spends great amounts of time on unconstitutional, right-wing pipe dreams, and puts very little effort toward solving the problems--in education and pollution and urban sprawl, for example--that threaten the long-term viability of the state and its major businesses.

We have a county government that very nearly borrowed itself bankrupt.
We have a county sheriff who's as silly and megalomaniacal as any public official I've observed.

We have a Phoenix city council that is inhabited largely by mental lightweights and, in a couple of cases--Salomon Leija and Frances Emma Barwood come to mind--no-weights.

The schools are an unconstitutional mess.
So are the prisons.
All cities and states have problems, but Phoenix and Arizona have a problem on top of their problems. The system of public accountability--the method by which problems are revealed and corrected--is not functioning. Yes, Symington is under federal investigation, and so is Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jail. But official investigations can address only the most perverse public wrongdoing.

Government is supposed to be self-correcting. Public problems are supposed to be addressed by an informed citizenry.

Yet the average citizen--including, probably, Mr. Intel--cannot formulate an intelligent response to our collective problems, because the average citizen gets his or her information from the Arizona Republic/Phoenix Gazette and an assortment of radio and television outlets that usually follow the Republic's take on what is or is not news.

That take is consistently timid, controlled, superficial, uncontroversial, rosy--and consistently wrong. For the Republic, all is always well, unless there is no way around reporting that things are not so well.

And even then, things are getting better.
Until everyone gets shocked by an impeachment, or multiple indictments.
Or until the economy falls off a cliff, taking all of us with it.

When I read over the weekend that Symington gave a speech complaining about harsh treatment by the daily press, I laughed out loud. And then I wondered: Does Arizona have a succession law, some way of removing a governor who loses his marbles in office? I certainly hope so, because if Symington really thinks Arizona's gentle press has done him wrong, he is nearer a crackup than I imagined.

I can't think of adjectives that would properly describe the abdication of journalistic duty exhibited by the Valley's daily press throughout Governor Symington's ethico-legal disintegration.

All-encompassing? Shameless? Corruptive, perhaps?
No, none of those quite hits the mark.
What, after all, can you call people who ignore important facts, report only some of what they know, label information long in the public domain as investigative revelation? People who present outright falsehood as truth? People who treat the news as if it were a game that is played for the express purpose of furthering private agendas?

I know they call themselves reporters, columnists and editors. But those titles can't be the correct ones.

Look at what these people have done in just the last month:
On October 5, New Times' John Dougherty reported that Governor Symington had paid a $10,000 kickback in connection with a $10 million loan for the Mercado, that famously failed downtown minimall. The kickback went to an investment management firm; an officer of that firm is now sitting in federal prison for accepting just these kinds of payments.

The story is not, in any way, a journalistic stretch. It is based on public documents that might take all of two or three days to round up.

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.

There are probably a host of reasons that Republic management kept the gloves on so long.

In regard to Symington, I would guess that top editors are having Ev Mecham flashbacks, much as the national press flashed back to Watergate, and then went soft on the Iran-contra affair. I would suppose Republic editors are wondering whether hard-nosed coverage would cause yet another gubernatorial ouster, and another period of national shame for Arizona.

But the problem isn't just that the Republic, for whatever reason, has protected an unfit governor. And the problem isn't solved because Republic editors now are at least saying they will allow their reporters to write about some of Symington's corrupt activities.

The problem is that the Republic, the dominant organization in Arizona journalism, insists that its reporters and editors wear gloves year-round.

Debate over a major league baseball stadium gets distorted or squashed. The county's frightening fiscal practices are glossed over. Public problems are repeatedly ignored and soft-pedaled. Public malefactors continue to pillage and screw up, year after year.

Now, I don't expect my assertion that the Arizona Republic/Phoenix Gazette is failing in its most important job--enforcing public accountability--will have much effect on the people in the higher echelons of that news organization. Actually, I don't write this piece with them in mind.

You see, I consider the paper's owners and directors, along with Weil and his minions, to be consummate followers. They are sheep who just happened to roam into the field of journalism.

No, I'll address the Mr. and Mrs. Intels. And the Mr. and Mrs. Motorolas. The top executives of APS and the city's major banks. All the substantial business people who keep talking about making Phoenix into a World Class City. The people who should have great interest in the long-term financial health of Phoenix and Arizona.

I've got some questions to ask these folks:
Do you know any major city with a dominant newspaper worse than the Arizona Republic?

Do you think a city or a state can become great by ignoring its problems?
Do you think the state is better off if no one knows how crooked the governor is? How risky his supply-side economic policies are? How likely they are to cause another financial collapse? How badly most of his state agencies are run?

Do you think Phoenix and Arizona can prosper, in the long run, if political leaders are protected from the consequences of their worst activities?

Is Louisiana really the proper model for public life in Arizona?
The Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette, as currently run, are dangerous to the orderly development of Phoenix and Arizona.

The owners and executives of these alleged news organizations have allowed and abetted bad government that will, inevitably and inexorably, make this state a worse place to live--and, consequently, a worse place to do business.

I know that the business communities of most developing cities want a compliant, boosteristic press. I also know that, in the short term, businesses want every tax break and government handout possible.

But business executives with vision have to know that no World Class City can be built with banana-republic government. Business people in for the long haul should know that politics and government cannot be properly regulated in an atmosphere that allows only a small-town, country-bumpkin level of public debate.

I may be naive to think that business people would insist that timid executives at the local paper do their jobs and report the news, even when it embarrasses the powers that be.

But I would like to believe that the business people who complete long-term projects like freeways and arenas and nuclear plants are smart enough to understand that inept, corrupt government will, over time, stunt the growth of their city and state--and that a good newspaper is one of the best protections against that eventuality.--Mecklin

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