There's a joke making the rounds in Scottsdale.
"What do Colorado City and Scottsdale have in common?"
The politically incorrect answer: "Incest."
It's not nice to joke about victims of polygamy, but I laughed out loud when I heard that one. Because if you think Phoenix is a small town — and some days, it sure feels like it — you really ought to visit Scottsdale. Our suburban neighbor to the east and north isn't just roiling with tension these days; it's brother against brother, and they're burying the hatchet right in each other's necks.
My entrée into the mess was Mike Ryan. Ryan is vice president of the Arizona Republic's "community newspapers" division and general manager of the Scottsdale Republic. (That's Gannett's way of saying that Ryan is the publisher of the Scottsdale community tabloid that gets inserted into your Republic if you live in Scottsdale or Arcadia. He also supervises other community editions.)
So why is Ryan making headlines instead of just figuring out ways to sell the ads that subsidize them? Let's just say he could be a material witness to the hottest political scandal to hit Scottsdale in years.
Until last Friday, Ryan wasn't just a newspaper publisher. He was also a member of the executive committee of the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce. And though that sounds mild, in Scottsdale in 2009, it's right up there with healthcare reform when it comes to controversy.
Scottsdale is a much-divided community these days: It's not just that there's a clear split on the City Council, and that Jim Lane narrowly bested incumbent Mary Manross in the mayor's race last fall.
There's a real chasm in the community between those who favor growth (e.g., the Chamber) and traditionalists who want the community to retain its Old West flavor.
The traditionalists were having some success at stopping development — and that set off alarm bells at the Chamber. In May 2008, I'm told, its executive director openly pledged to members to turn the Chamber into a political force. He began raising big money for a pro-growth campaign in Scottsdale.
That campaign didn't just push the usual pro-development chitchat. It actually paid for a mailer and TV ad praising the city's mayor and three council members — at the same time they were seeking re-election.
The Chamber did that without registering as a political committee, arguing that it wasn't one and didn't have to disclose its donors.
Really, that's when Ryan should have quit the Chamber.
Instead, the Republic publisher let things unfold. The Republic covered the campaign without ever disclosing Ryan's role, a Nexis search reveals. (Republic columnist Laurie Roberts mentioned Ryan's Chamber involvement in a January 2009 column, but not in the context of the controversial campaign.)
And the Chamber's campaign backfired, big-time. Not only did its mayoral candidate lose, but citizen complaints led to a ruling that the Chamber must pay a six-figure fine and disclose its donors. The Chamber is vowing to appeal.
It is truly an awkward place for a newspaper publisher to be: right in the middle of the hottest news story in town.
Two weeks ago, the Republic finally disclosed Ryan's role on the Chamber. Its unsigned editorial noted that he was recusing himself from the newspaper's discussions about the issue.
I pressed him for an interview, but Ryan instead wrote a column defending himself. "My loyalty is to 'Republic' despite role with Chamber," read the headline.
"As vice president and general manager of the Scottsdale Republic, one of my responsibilities and pleasures is to get involved in the community," Ryan wrote. "I strive to make sure my membership in any group does not influence our coverage. I make that clear whenever I join a group."
Two days later, though, Ryan finally let go of one of his pleasures: He officially resigned from the Chamber.
He wrote that he supported the Chamber's right to appeal the six-figure fine. But the organization, he wrote, should disclose its donors.
"This controversy has cast a cloud over the chamber, with some in the community calling into question what the chamber — or its members — have to hide," Ryan wrote.
Regardless of the political fallout, the Chamber has good reason to continue to hide its donors. And that's this: The donors to the campaign almost certainly include corporations. The Chamber's lawyer, Tom Irvine, admitted as much to me last week.
The Chamber set up its ad campaign with the advice of Irvine, who's one of the Valley's premier elections lawyers. Irvine was, and is, absolutely certain that the Chamber can legally run a campaign without registering as a political action committee.
As he explains it, it's a First Amendment issue. It's also a technicality of Arizona law: Ads featuring more than four candidates, like the Chamber's, are exempt from normal disclosure requirements, unless the ads' sponsor colluded with the candidates in question. That's a complicated legal issue, but Irvine thinks he has it covered.
But if Irvine is reading the law incorrectly — if the outside attorney who surveyed this case is right, instead — the Chamber is in big trouble. Political action committees cannot accept donations from corporations without both parties in the transaction potentially facing criminal charges.
The Chamber has no choice but to keep fighting. Otherwise, its donors could technically end up in jail.
That's not something you'll read in the Republic, of course. To date, the paper has seemed mostly oblivious to the issue's bigger implications.
The question is how much Mike Ryan's Chamber involvement has been a factor in that.
There's an interesting subtext here. Gannett set up the Scottsdale Republic as a model for its other "community" editions. The tabloid was supposed to be less like the faceless bureaucratic Republic and more like, well, a real community newspaper.
But there's a problem with that model, as anyone who subscribes to a truly local paper can tell you. When a newspaper is so closely tied to a community, conflicts develop. The publisher wants to mine local advertisers — and influence debate — so he joins the Rotary or the Chamber. The paper picks favorites and develops a point of view. Gadflies smell conspiracy.
So the Scottsdale Republic feels more connected to what's going in Scottsdale. But it's also made more enemies.
I had no problem finding activists in Scottsdale who wanted to criticize the Republic's coverage — and some made very good arguments that the paper simply hasn't been objective when it comes to the Chamber's agenda.
The problem seems to stem from the Scottsdale Republic's organizational chart. In the community newspaper division, reporters tell me that the much vaunted "iron wall" between the news and business side is more of a "dotted line."
For the most part, reporters who've worked for Ryan tell me that he plays it straight. But they also note that Ryan sits on the editorial board, which is at best a three-person operation. And the most influential member, editorial page editor Robert Leger, answers to him.
And Leger has a conflict of his own, one that the paper hasn't reported. Last year, Leger was on the board of a Scottsdale civic group called LINKS.
Why is that a conflict? Well, the Chamber considers LINKS a "community partner," according to its Web site. The Chamber's executive director, Rick Kidder — the guy at the center of the Chamber controversy — is a longtime LINKS board member.
Now, it's worth pointing out that LINKS is a small think tank devoted to exploring local public policy. Its most recent tax return shows just $5,000 in annual revenue. Its own executive director doesn't get paid.
But it's not about money. It's about what, to me, makes that Colorado City joke ring true.
In my experience, people don't get bought off so much as they get disarmed. They make friends, and they don't want to burn them.
And I have some real questions about the way the Scottsdale Republic has covered the Chamber issue.
First, there's the matter of paid advertisements. After the Chamber's ad campaign, a local business owner named Mike Fernandez attempted to pay for a series of full-page ads criticizing the Chamber. The first two were rejected, he tells me, while the Republic demanded tweaks to others. (You can see the rejected ads here and here)
Interestingly, Fernandez ran into no such problems when placing the ads with the rival (and now shuttered) Scottsdale Tribune. The Tribune accepted the two ads the Republic rejected — and was willing to run the others without changes.
John Zidich, president of Phoenix Newspapers Inc. and the ultimate boss at the Arizona Republic, defends the decision.
"Political advertising is a valued revenue stream, and it simply is not good business sense to refuse it," he wrote in an e-mail to me. "[We] have a stringent process in place to make sure political advertising is accurate, appropriate, sourced, and published to allow an opponent to respond." Fernandez's ad, Zidich writes, was set to run the date of the election: "This would have been the first day of publication for those advertisements. As such, it would not have allowed for a response."
There's also an issue of editorial content. John Washington, a mayoral candidate who filed one of the original complaints against the Chamber, recently submitted an essay for the Republic's op-ed about the situation. (See his submission here.) .
The essay seemed fine to me — on topic and well written. But Leger decided the ad wasn't "cogent," as Zidich confirms.
"We have printed pieces before from Mr. Washington and others criticizing the Scottsdale Republic opinions," Zidich told me. "Mr. Leger did offer Mr. Washington the ability to edit and resubmit."
But Leger didn't help matters by publishing a column of his own last week that took pains to downplay the Chamber's activity.
"It wasn't the only independent group seeking to influence the election, nor was it the only one playing loose with the spirit (or the letter) of campaign finance law," Leger wrote. Huh?
The near-rabid response traditionalists gave Leger's column gets at the real problem with a metropolitan daily newspaper trying to "get involved" like a community newspaper.
Everything becomes suspect.
Maybe Leger really does think the Chamber's corporate stash is morally equivalent to candidates who reported donations at the last minute legally possible. (Bizarre, yes, but possible.) Maybe John Washington's submission would have been rejected by any other editorial page in town. (It happens.)
But with all the conflicts here, it's hard to blame citizens for looking at the paper's coverage of the Chamber affair through a cynical lens.
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I understand that Mike Ryan took "pleasure" from getting involved in his community. But the sad fact of being a journalist, or even just a publisher, is that that's a pleasure we can't take.
Especially now that the Tribune's Scottsdale edition is gone and the Republic is the only newspaper covering the city in any depth, if the paper's management gets "involved," it risks losing all its supposed objectivity.
Ryan surely realizes that, or he wouldn't have quit the Chamber. Better late than never — but I bet I'm not alone in wishing he'd been smart enough not to join in the first place.