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.
Why should I care when the Arizona Republic turns a blind eye at news somebody else breaks? After all, the lamer the Republic, the easier my job and the more indispensable this publication.
Call me a romantic, but I like to see journalists do their jobs. I like to see wrongs righted, bad guys exposed, corruption undone--regardless of who is doing it.
Call me naive, but I still believe an informed electorate makes for a better community.
When news is ignored, the journalistic spirit flags. According to an account in the Phoenix Business Journal, an outside consultant reported that the Republic's own journalists view their paper as "biased," "a corporate power broker," "the evil empire in bed with every special interest in town"; and, the journalists say, "the corporate character of the newspaper has come to dominate its public-oriented mission."
There are some talented journalists at the Republic. And the paper seems to have improved in some respects. But it would take Phoenix a very long time to overcome the civic atrophy wrought by the paper its employees describe.
Each year since 1976, researchers at Sonoma State University in California have produced "Project Censored," a compendium of important stories suppressed or ignored by the mainstream media.
How about a Phoenix version? My list of a few recent contenders:
* The Kevin Johnson story. Okay, the Trib and some broadcasters sort of did it. The Republic ran a six-sentence denial without detailing what he'd been accused of. By the time we wrote our story in May, the Republic had printed 242 stories about KJ this year alone. In this case, a massive police report was ignored.
* Sabotage at Sumitomo Sitix. New Times reported on August 7 that Sitix officials were concerned about internal sabotage. Not a peep about sabotage in your newspaper of record. (Special coded tip for research-challenged journalists: The inculpatory Sitix memo is on our Web site.)
* The administration of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. No journalists but New Times' have looked beneath the sheriff's façade to examine the record. Arpaio claims his posses save lots of money. The record shows they are expensive and drain resources from important missions. More disturbing is the dearth of reporting on people who've been abused or neglected in Arpaio's jails--and lived to tell about it. Richard Post, a paraplegic jailed for having an ounce of marijuana, was pulled from his wheelchair and so viciously strapped into a restraint chair that it broke his neck and split his anus. Post has yet to grace the pages of the state's largest daily. He hasn't been on TV, except in Germany, where news apparently is still nachtricht.
* The Symington-Canelos connection. On March 20, New Times reported that Governor Symington's family has extensive personal and financial ties to a Mexican businessman who's had difficulty getting permanent visas to enter the United States. The reason? Federal law enforcers suspect the businessman, Alejandro Canelos Rodriguez, may be involved in drug trafficking.
Dougherty was the author of the piece ("Symington Family Partner Under Suspicion"), which cited federal sources and documents as indicating that Canelos, a Sinaloa produce farmer, shipper and distributor, may have other enterprises as well.
The Symington connections: 1. The governor's wife, Ann Symington, has invested between $25,000 and $100,000 in a Mexican corporation, Melones Internacional SA de CV, headed by Alejandro Canelos. 2. Incorporation papers show "J. Fife Symington" is a director of Melones Internacional. The governor's attorneys say his son, J. Fife IV, is the director. Father and son are normally assiduous about distinguishing between themselves in documents. Why didn't they in these? 3. The governor's two eldest sons are business partners with Canelos' son in at least one Arizona corporation.
Dougherty went to Culiacan to get incorporation records on Melones Internacional.
But the fact that Canelos has been unable to get a permanent visa could have been reported with a single phone call to the State Department. The inquisitors in the mainstream never made that call. Or if they did, they never reported it.
Well, it didn't at the Republic, or anywhere else. It's selective blindness, it's unethical and cowardly.
When Fife Symington is dethroned, the Republic will rush to print a breezy book that will chronicle how its hard-hitting scribes brought him down. It will be revisionary and will have many pages, although it requires only a few.
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As the phantom Canelos story illustrates--even as the governor stands on the threshold of a conviction that reasonable people saw as a certainty three years ago--Republic chieftains remain Fife Symington's vassals. And they are truly terrified of John Dowd.
(Note to Dowd: No, I'll not omit the fact that your client, Alejandro Canelos, has denied being a druggie and has never been charged and was granted a one-year visa on March 25. We'll be glad to report his acquisition of a permanent visa--if he ever gets one.)
God, I love this job.