Rocking the Boat

GOP bigwigs and their pandering pals in the mainstream press are apoplectic about a state senator and New Times' fight to discover the truth. What're these pols trying to hide?

Now for some unfinished business.

Despite what the rubes in Andy Thomas' office would have you believe, there's nothing unusual about a news organization bringing in an expert to get to the bottom of a story. It's done frequently across the country. Otherwise, public officials would get away with way more cover-ups.

The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Miami Herald brought in experts to analyze the disputed 2000 Florida presidential voting.

Senator Jack Harper's the real guy on a white horse in the election controversy.
Mark Poutenis
Senator Jack Harper's the real guy on a white horse in the election controversy.

One expert who was brought in to analyze voting after the election in Florida was Stephen Doig of Arizona State University. Doig was acting head of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU until he recently returned to being the school's professor of journalism specializing in computer-assisted reporting. Doig was research editor at the Miami Herald, where he worked on projects that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service. He's consulted with media outlets all over the place on computer-assisted reporting projects, including for his old paper the Herald after the presidential race.

Doig has been following the controversy over New Times' bringing in the consultant who's aided Harper in his investigation.

"I don't see any reason why a media organization shouldn't bring in a consultant," he said recently. "I see it done all the time."

Doig said he's never worked as a paid consultant in conjunction with a government official, as Jones is doing. But he discounted the notion that there's anything ethically wrong with Senator Harper's using his subpoena power to get the New Times-sponsored Jones access to the voting machines in question. Thomas has conjured up a bugaboo that this constitutes an "unholy alliance" between a government official and the press -- one that should cost Harper his committee chairmanship.

Doig noted that it's common for news reporters to benefit from the subpoena power of public servants. "Reporters benefit from the subpoena power of prosecutors," he said. "That kind of relationship isn't unusual."

It's true that prosecutors at the federal, state and local levels here have fed reporters privileged information routinely in the course of certain investigations. Prosecutors in the County Attorney's Office over the years have even made such information available to New Times.

Which makes Thomas either naive or a hypocrite.

It was Thomas' office, after all, that made sure the lapdog mainstream reporters covering Harper's investigation of District 20 were handed all of his bogeyman claims that the senator and New Times were violating all that's good and wholesome by using each other to get Jones access to those machines.

It's obvious to anybody with half a brain that the ones who're in an "unholy alliance" are Andy Thomas and reporters like Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services. Consider the headline on a story written by Fischer in Tucson's Arizona Daily Star: "Did Phoenix's New Times buy a subpoena?"

No, we paid to bring in an independent consultant because a state Senate president was either too cheap or too keen on covering the asses of fellow Republicans to order payment for that expert himself. He wanted the whole thing to just go away. We never pulled Senator Harper's strings. It was the senator who righteously decided to use his legal subpoena power.

The big joke in all this is that the mainstream newspapers around here have aided Thomas, et al., in vilifying New Times for working with a government official to discover the truth. The implication is that we've been too close to an official source. But, as evidenced by their coverage of the District 20 issue, papers like the Arizona Republic and the East Valley Tribune routinely pucker up behind powerful government officials to get the propaganda they masquerade as journalism.

I'd die of shock if I ever heard that either of these media jokes was bringing in an independent consultant to get to the bottom of an important issue.

The Republic and the Tribune have condemned Harper's actions in unsigned, institutional editorials -- which means that what's written is not only the opinion of the writer, but that of the hallowed newspaper. They have done this without getting at the point. Without bothering to try to find out why 489 votes magically appeared in a local election. Without bothering to look below the surface, rock the boat, be real journalists.

In its editorial in which it tried to portray Harper as a bumbling Inspector Clouseau character, the Republic closed by harrumphing that it's inappropriate for a state senator to use his political power "to provide a newspaper with a scoop."

The absurdity of this statement (set down by editorial writer Doug MacEachern) is obvious. But the sentiment is telling, because it spotlights how far from the mission of news-gathering the Republic has strayed. A scoop is journalism parlance for getting a story that nobody else has. For telling readers something they wouldn't otherwise know. It's the very essence of the term news.

I know some good journalists at the Republic, and they're embarrassed that their employer, the largest newspaper in Arizona, would come right out and proclaim that it sees no virtue in finding out something important and reporting it first.

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