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Leapin' Lizards

We at New Times did not tell the truth.
Was it deceptive?
Of course it was deceptive.
Was it unethical?
Welllll . . . let's talk about that.

Under my instruction, New Times writer David Koen called State Senator Jan Brewer, and during each of the three phone interviews Koen pretended to be Doug MacEachern of the Mesa Tribune.

Despite what you may think, and certainly in contradiction to what you've been told, this ploy is a common, if not honored, journalistic tradition--unless the deception is done by New Times, in which case the tactic threatens to undermine the Monroe Doctrine, the Magna Carta and boy-girl-boy-girl seating arrangements at civilized dinner parties throughout Arizona.

Senator Brewer introduced a bill that would make it illegal to sell certain rock albums to anyone under the age of eighteen. Violators would go to jail. She has fifteen co-sponsors for this incredible legislation, including the normally less-addled president of the Senate, Robert Usdane.

The bill seeks to brand as adult-only any album that encourages violence, violent sex, the illegal consumption of alcohol, the use of drugs, and, I swear to God, sodomy and bestiality. (You did not know that the reason teenagers were dropping out of Arizona schools in record numbers was because Junior wanted to spend more quality time with Rover?)

From the first seductive notes of rhythm and blues to the earliest groin-tingling twangs of rock 'n' roll, certain parents blamed hip-shaking music for the ills of the world. In the beginning, the target was race music; today the heat is on rap, a black urban phenomenon embraced by white kids and described by the Reverend Jesse Jackson as the most important development in American music since jazz.

Brewer's bill occurs just as Florida Governor Bob Martinez is announcing a criminal investigation of Miami rappers 2 Live Crew and at the same time that the state of Alabama is indicting a record store owner on obscenity charges for selling the band's tape, Move Something.

If, after more than four decades of records, the Jan Brewers of the world still insist upon carrying on like cracker Pentecostals with snakes clenched between their teeth, it hardly seems adequate to challenge their booby legislation with pipe-puffing, well-intentioned editorials a la Anthony Lewis of the New York Times. In fact, the more we thought about Brewer's bill, the more we at the paper became convinced that she should be the object of satire.

This presented problems.
What if Brewer refused to talk to New Times? Worse, what if she tailored her response because of the paper's progressive political reputation? And surely Brewer would be aware that this publication devotes more coverage to contemporary music than any medium in the entire state, a fact which would hardly suggest to the senator a hospitable venue for her ignorant beliefs.

We decided to offer Senator Brewer the opportunity to express her views to the Mesa Tribune, a newspaper with a reputation for conservative, Mormon, retired readers (despite the television ads implying what a jazzy, jivey audience resides in Mesa and reads the paper).

So our David Koen masqueraded as their Doug MacEachern.
Good Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, what an uproar.
Morning columnist E.J. Montini was deeply offended. Afternoon columnist Dennis Wagner was highly revolted. Every television station did a spot that included a question on our ethics. The Arizona Republic then ran an editorial cartoon calling us to task. From as far away as Tucson, the Arizona Daily Star found it necessary to editorialize about our journalistic ethics.

Why, the very idea of pretending to be someone you are not!
The Arizona Republic, always on the lookout for a way in which to provide intelligent, evenhanded coverage of its weekly neighbor, commissioned a page-two blowout analyzing our ethics.

The local chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, the fraternal journalism club for reporters who did not outgrow their need to be identified as Greeks, issued a press release alerting the media that they, too, found the Brewer bit deplorable. They asked us to pledge to never again blah, blah, blah.

Finally, citing the Brewer incident, public television station KAET (Channel 8) fired New Times editor Jana Bommersbach as its regular commentator.

No one in this office is surprised at the shabby treatment of Ms. Bommersbach by the Jacques Cousteau liberals at KAET. Save the whales, spare the elephants and screw free speech.

We should have expected nothing less than what we got from our honorable opposition in the Arizona media.

Still, our readers might enjoy a little insight into the hypocrisy and double standard at play in this little soap opera.

The very week that New Times was denounced for our impersonation, KTSP (Channel 10) broadcast an investigative series on private psychiatric hospitals. Using hidden cameras and employees who posed as people off the street, Channel 10's Becky Oliver produced a startling expose of abuses in these institutions. Last June this station's William LaJeunesse won an Emmy for his story on supervisory home care, a story he got by pretending to be a boarder. No one told the targets in these stories that a television reporter was preparing to hammer their brains out with interviews and film footage obtained by flying false flags.

 

Not one single news editor in Arizona printed or broadcast an objection to these stories. Not one single news editor in Arizona printed or broadcast any questions about Channel 10's ethics.

Did you see any pompous posing by the Arizona Republic over Channel 10's behavior? Of course you didn't. This reporter-in-disguise business is old hat. Before Bruce Tomaso left the morning paper, he pulled the same sort of stunt by masquerading as an employee of a nursing home.

When I mentioned this line of thinking to Sandy Schwartz, executive editor at the Mesa Tribune and Doug MacEachern's conventionally outraged boss, his sputtering response was to ask if, in making such comparisons, I thought what we'd done was prize-winning journalism.

And there's the rub.
Journalists believe it is just fine to behave deceptively if they can get an award.

But it is unethical to do the same thing to get a laugh.
Journalists feel just fine about lying--we make ourselves feel dangerous and noble by describing it as going undercover--as long as it's in the pursuit of hard news.

Of course, even that is just so much self-serving nonsense. The Arizona Republic routinely lies, if that is how you choose to look at it, in matters much more mundane than banking corruption.

Consider Republic restaurant critic Elin Jeffords.
Do you think that Jeffords walks into the little cafe in the local strip mall and announces that a professional critic is sitting at the table? Jeffords does not tell the mom and pop owners that someone who understands the nuances of five-star restaurant spicing and who is obsessed with pepper mills is watching their every move. And as much as I enjoy Jeffords' work, there is not a Pulitzer category for reviewing pasta.

In each instance cited an unsuspecting citizen was mugged by a reporter who masqueraded to gain access. (Brewer, unlike every victim mentioned above, was aware that she was dealing with a news organization.)

Is all of this deceptive?
Of course it is deceptive.
Is it unethical?
I don't think so.
And that is not merely my opinion.

During the Jan Brewer uproar, I had a business meeting with Kurt Luedtke. An anointed wunderkind with the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, Luedtke was the executive editor of the Detroit Free Press before turning forty. After quitting journalism, he won an Oscar for his screenplay for Out of Africa. He also wrote the screenplay for Absence of Malice, a movie specifically about newspaper ethics.

Luedtke is more thoughtful than your average Southern Baptist.
The man could not grasp the outrage over the Brewer story.
"I recognize that there is something of a debate in American journalism about whether or not the subject is entitled to know exactly with whom they're dealing," said Luedtke. "But I don't know how the press developed the notion that their obligation is to the subject. Their obligation is to the reader.

"The name of the game is getting into the reader's hands the most accurate information possible. Some people feel a news subject should be able to alter or modify his or her stripes to suit the audience. For the life of me, I don't understand how that is true.

"One of the best stories that I'm familiar with involved the Mirage Bar. To investigate corruption in Chicago, the Sun Times bought, owned and operated a bar. They bugged, videotaped and staffed the bar with investigative reporters. They wanted to find out who you had to pay off to run a bar in Chicago. It was real time, real life, persuasive and deadly true . . . there were those who considered this some odd form of entrapment, which is patent nonsense. I cannot imagine how your state senator has been done wrong."

Jan Brewer was done wrong in the way that most drives bluenoses nuts. She was turned from a paragon of fundamentalist virtue into a parody.

When Brewer recited over the phone to Koen/MacEachern the nasty lyrics that so offended her, our writer taped the interview. Under the headline, "Jan Brewer Talked Dirty to Me--Oy Vey, What If My Bubby Knew?" the senator's remarks were shared with our readers. In a chart that accompanied the story, we learned that co-sponsors of the legislation, Senators Jerry Gillespie, Jesus Higuera, Dave McCarroll, and Peter Rios were completely ignorant of the burning of James Joyce's Ulysses in the Twenties. Equally important, we discovered that the last record Jan Brewer bought was Mockingbird Hill by Patti Page.

 

MDBOLAST VERSION Lacey column

Koen then set Brewer's foul-mouthed conversation to a rap track, creating an X-rated song. Like the Marines in Panama who routed Noriega from the papal retreat by playing loud rock, Koen set up huge speakers outside the statehouse. During a lunchtime demonstration against her bill, Koen blasted Brewer's words back into the legislature. Protesters danced and carried signs: "Brewer Is a Sewer" and "Jan Brewer Should Be Obscene and Not Heard".

Noel Coward it was not.
Still, it is not sufficient to understand the local journalistic outrage over the Brewer affair merely because you understand that the censorship bill was handled by Soupy Sales instead of Woodward and Bernstein.

Yes, it is true that most newsrooms are still owned by people who find Bob Hope funny. National Lampoon, the Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In, Monty Python, Saturday Night Live, David Letterman, Lake Wobegon, Spy magazine, the entire Rose Bowl Parade of modern humor marched past American journalism producing but one single applauding spectator, Dave Barry. Any paper carrying his column was considered to be full-up on its ration of titters. Damn those chuckles and pour on the parts-per-billion environmental- catastrophe articles. Even knowing this, however, does not explain the conniption you witnessed in the wake of the Brewer affair.

After all, in the past twenty years, New Times has executed numerous lampoons, spoofs and satires without ever incurring the moral wrath of our small-town editorialists. What was so dramatically different about the Brewer send-up?

Not one thing except this: By posing as another reporter, Koen turned the table on journalists. If Doug MacEachern could be sucked into this vortex of ridicule, who would be next?

"Now wait just one second . . . " came the universal harrumph from the suspender-snapping press.

In a remarkable burst of paranoia, the media viewed Doug MacEachern as the victim. Jan Brewer was incidental. If I was interviewed once, I was interviewed a dozen times by reporters who wanted to know if Doug MacEachern was all right. Never have journalists expressed so much concern for a casualty.

What the press repeatedly does to the average citizen, without pause or regret, was dangerously close to happening to a journalist. Or so they thought.

There was a sense of violation in every reporter's heart.
Very risky business, indeed.
Last year a storm was created in media circles by a long article of Janet Malcolm's in the New Yorker. Reporters across America were staggered by her stunning opening paragraph: "Every journalist who is not too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does for a living is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns--when the article or book appears--his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and `the public's right to know'; the least-talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living."

Journalists argued over this first paragraph, wondering whether they could possibly be this smarmy.

They could have saved themselves a lot of time by asking the average elected official, the run-of-the-mill government bureaucrat, the businessman in cheap suit or Joe Six-Pack on the street.

Less discussion was devoted to Malcolm's second paragraph on victims: "The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengeance, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist--who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things--never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own . . . "

Warned in advance of the story that one of our people was impersonating him, MacEachern, who used to work at New Times, was given no other details. He laughed it off.

Later, angry, he said he'd assumed the anonymous writer would be a friend of his, not the total stranger David Koen.

 

New Times music critic Koen " . . . never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him [MacEachern] on his story but always intended to write a story of his own . . . " By the time of the demonstration, MacEachern was besieged by journalists who'd selected him as the designated victim.

"These are friends of mine. People I worked with. And they basically used me for their little project and I don't like it. It hurts," said MacEachern to Channel 3.

"Personally, I have a few other reservations. I was used by some friends of mine. And that hurts. I wished it hadn't happened," repeated MacEachern to Channel 5.

MacEachern's understandable anguish is not news or a question of ethics any more than it is news that journalists occasionally pretend to be someone they are not, any more than it is news that all journalists, sooner or later, create victims.

Was MacEachern a true victim?
Was his credibility impaired as was so often hinted at, though such suggestions were never actually spelled out in anything other than the wildest generalities?

If our brothers and sisters in the media will stop hitting poses and cut to the chase, they will see that Doug MacEachern has emerged from this fiasco as a sympathetic figure. His nonexistent role in the satire was revealed in the opening sentences of Koen's article and then beaten to death by every reporter who so much as sniffed at this story. As might be expected, MacEachern has written the two most thoughtful columns on the Brewer affair and he did it without any suggestion that he was the victim of creeping journalistic impotence.

For advanced symptoms of that particular affliction, you must consult the general manager of KAET-TV (Channel 8) Charles Allen.

Pointing to the Brewer episode, Allen fired Jana Bommersbach as the public television station's commentator. He said her position at the paper as editor linked her to behavior that some found unethical. A few of these people had actually phoned the station.

The Brewer flap was not the first time viewers have been upset with Jana.
Bommersbach, a staunch defender of abortion on demand, read pro-choice commentary on Channel 8. A few months ago, an estimated crowd of 10,000 pro-lifers marched on the State Capitol. You can bet those women regard Jana's position as something worse than unethical; those women find Jana supporting murder. Apparently Allen had no problem telling these women to go to hell.

Bommersbach's controversial abortion stance, however, did not occur as Channel 8 was trying to raise money.

Allen's dramatic overreaction in the Brewer affair occurred on the opening day of yet one more pledge drive.

While Allen moved to eliminate Bommersbach, he said nothing to New Times staffers Cap'n Dave and Michael Burkett, who were scheduled to go on the telethon and beg for money for Channel 8. Apparently their direct links to the unethical newspaper would not be allowed to interfere with the cash flow. Only Bommersbach, who'd had the temerity to go on the air and actually attack Brewer's legislation, was to be silenced.

Soon Allen was expanding his explanation to say that although Bommersbach had been fired from her spot as commentator, she might be allowed to return to the round-table discussions on Horizon, "unless other newspapers forbid their reporters to appear with her."

Forget for a moment, if you can, the notion of the John Kolbes and the Mark Flattens of this world attempting to carry Horizon without Jana.

Regard Allen's credo. Maybe because Allen only rents journalists instead of actually hiring a newsroom of his own, he thinks he can get away with this.

In the often antagonistic world of Arizona media, Allen presumes to give other reporters a carte blanche veto over Jana Bommersbach.

This has an all-too-familiar ring.
Duke Tully, the former publisher of the Republic and Gazette, once attempted to exercise this very sort of prior restraint by forbidding his reporters from appearing in public with New Times journalists.

Incredibly, Allen proposes to go Tully one better and let every medium in the state dictate whether or not a New Times editor is a peer.

New Times is the only news organization in the state where four Arizona Journalists of the Year work. The fellow who opens our book has a Pulitzer. No other journalist who appears on Channel 8 has as many commendations, both local and national, as Jana Bommersbach.

Who is Chuck Allen to institute de facto licensing of our writers?
We will not hold our breath waiting for Sigma Delta Chi to launch an inquiry into Allen's ethics.

 

We will say this.
When the attorney general, a few short weeks ago, convened a grand jury to reopen the investigations of the 1977 Don Bolles murder, the Republic and Gazette regarded it as front-page news, day after day until the same grand jury, probing the same homicide, targeted for possible indictment the would-be publisher of the journalistic monopoly Bill Shover. Five days before the Brewer demonstration, the legal problems of Mr. Shover, longtime spokesman for the papers, were buried in the middle of the second section.

The reporters and editors of the city room whose ethics permit this sort of news manipulation are now supposed to sit in judgment of whether or not Jana Bommersbach is worthy to join them on KAET?

Maybe you don't see anything wrong with the play of the Shover article.
Maybe you still find the Brewer episode unethical.
I disagree.

But that is what discussions of ethics are all about, disagreement. When Harvard law professor Arthur Miller posits his ethical quandaries on television, there is uproar, not consensus.

When everyone agrees, it is no longer a matter of ethics but one of dogma or religion.

You will have to excuse us at New Times if we refuse to worship at a church where the likes of Charles Allen serve as deacons.

Save the whales, spare the elephants and screw free speech.

Journalists believe it is just fine to behave deceptively if they can get a prize. But it is unethical to do the same thing to get a laugh.

Jan Brewer was done wrong in the way that most drives bluenoses nuts. She was turned from a paragon of fundamentalist virtue into a parody.

Allen's dramatic overreaction in the Brewer affair occurred on the opening day of yet one more pledge drive.

No one told the targets in these stories that a television reporter was preparing to hammer their brains out with interviews and film footage obtained by flying false flags.


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