Blind Ambition

When is news not news?
When you don't get it from the Arizona Republic.
Last week, through the wonders of modern media, Arizona was transfixed by Juror 161, a 74-year-old woman named Mary Jane Cotey.

Cotey's 15-minute fame meter hummed into action as she was excused from service in Governor J. Fife Symington III's criminal trial.

One would think such an ouster would be exceedingly depressing. Think about it: beneath jury duty. That's like Ed McMahon pronouncing you unfit for the Publisher's Clearinghouse. You may already be a loser.

But as the spotlight found its mark, Cotey, a human digression, was sometimes sweet, sometimes mischievous. Sometimes clear, sometimes foggy. But always blithely indifferent to any ignominy.

By many accounts, Cotey was the last thing standing between the governor and an orange jumpsuit. The fact that his only apparent defender on the jury is daft must have rocked the governor like a Holyfield right.

Cotey was bounced on August 19, after U.S. District Judge Roger B. Strand had interviewed all jurors. The transcript of that session in Strand's chambers is a fascinating document. It indicates that Cotey's fellow jurors were quite fond of her and were loath to document her flaky behavior for Strand. But, at wit's end after eight days behind closed doors with her, document it they did.

Cotey's 11 fellow jurors, to a person, told Strand that the frail woman was incapable of helping them decide Symington's fate on 21 criminal counts. They said she was inattentive, unable to follow discussions, unable to say what she had just voted on. Sometimes, she would change her mind after a vote.

Cotey was not exactly Spockesque in responses to questions posed by the judge. Over the objections of Symington attorney John Dowd, who reckoned Cotey to be a pillar of lucidity, Strand excused her from the jury. She left the courthouse that afternoon known only as Juror 161. She made no comment on what had gone on in deliberations.

Who should show up on Cotey's doorstep that evening but Mark Flatten, reporter for the Mesa Tribune? How did Flatten learn of Cotey's identity? He won't say, but the consensus is that he was tipped by one of his fellow friends of Fife. His source notwithstanding, Flatten got a hell of a story. Cotey told him she believed she was being goaded into convicting Symington by the other 11 jurors, and that she had been banished because she was obstructing them.

As the days passed, Cotey waxed indignant to more and more reporters, debates erupted on talk shows and around water coolers. Conspiracy theorists carped that the fix was in.

Questions swirled. Would Cotey's expulsion cause a mistrial? Had she been booted because she wanted to acquit Symington? Was she incompetent or simply eccentric?

What is up with Mary Jane Cotey?
Although the media hung on her every utterance, although she was under the proverbial microscope, precious little emerged that could answer any of these questions.

Then New Times' preternatural reporter John Dougherty went to the Superior Court and punched Cotey's name into the computer. He discovered that Cotey had been involved in a lawsuit over a car accident in 1987.

That was contrary to a sworn statement she had made on a jury questionnaire before she was selected for the jury. Asked if she had ever "been involved in a lawsuit," Cotey checked the "No" box.

Dougherty drafted a story about the discrepancy on Cotey's questionnaire for our Web page, phoenixnewtimes.com; it was posted online on Wednesday evening.

On Thursday morning, August 21, Dougherty went to the press room at the federal courthouse and dropped off hard copies of his Web piece. He attached a copy of the pertinent page from Cotey's questionnaire and a copy of her 1987 lawsuit. The documents are unambiguous.

With the exception of KTVK Channel 3, Arizona's mainstream press did not consider this information to be newsworthy.

Here's why it is: Mary Jane Cotey either forgot that she had been involved in a lawsuit a decade ago, or she lied about it. If she gave the false information knowingly, she committed a crime.

In any case, it speaks loudly to her credibility--or lack of it.
Why would reporters and editors keep this incontrovertible data from you, the citizen?

Because none of them thought to check the court record themselves. Facts be damned. They all know it's news, but because they didn't break it, they all feign ignorance.

Although its coverage of Symington's trial has been excellent, the Republic--by dint of its bloat--remains the biggest ignoramus. In all its voluminous coverage, it couldn't spare even a paragraph to disclose this important point, this potential crime.

Often, when the Republic fails, the effects compound. To the considerable detriment of Arizona, almost all broadcast news outlets in the Valley follow the Republic like so many sheep. It's not pack journalism, it's herd journalism.

The Republic fancies itself a newspaper of record. If anything of significance happens hereabouts, the Republic is supposed to record it straight-away.

This, admittedly, is a tall order. No news organization is ubiquitous. Stories will be missed.

But when a newspaper of record ignores or suppresses news, whatever its source, it fails its readers.

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