Calling itself the Committee for Clean Air and Better Transportation, a group of Valley business leaders wants Maricopa County voters to approve a referendum this fall. The measure would extend by ten years a half-cent, 20-year sales tax that expires next year, and add another half-cent tax. Most of the money would be used to finish the metro Phoenix freeway system. Some dollars would go toward the expansion of mass transit. The committee is planning a modest campaign in support of the freeway measure, says its leader, Bob Bulla, president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Arizona. A million dollars. A few direct-mail pieces. No TV ads. Bulla can run the campaign on the cheap at least partly because one of the local businesses behind the effort has been donating what amounts to free advertising for months.
The business? Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., parent to the state's largest daily newspapers, the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette. About once a month, lead editorials in the pages of the R&G have extolled the wonders of the freeway proposal.
Besides the editorial support, PNI has made a $10,000 donation to the committee supporting the freeway proposal. That constitutes a quarter of the committee's total receipts as of May 31, the last time contributions had to be reported to the government.
The R&G editorials have not disclosed the financial support of PNI for the freeway-tax proposal. The editorials also have not mentioned PNI's ownership of land that may increase in value if voters approve the freeway taxes.
And more PNI freeway support seems to be on the way.
"As far as I know, they [PNI] are pledging additional money," Bulla says, although neither he nor R&G spokesman Bill Shover would reveal the amount. "The way we look at it," Shover says, "that's [the freeway tax] a community issue, and we have a right to do that sort of thing. We do not participate in any sort of partisan elections." But Tim Hogan, executive director for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, looks at it differently. Partisan or not, it's still politics, he says, and the media should strive for objectivity.
"The newspaper [R&G] actually has a pretty big corner on the print media market," Hogan says. "People do look to the editorials for--not so much for guidance, necessarily--but for what prevailing opinion is.
". . . . When they're actually spending money on exercising even greater political influence, it makes you wonder about what you're reading in the newspaper, and whether it can be trusted or not."
The R&G editorials have been resolutely profreeway. Whether they have been entirely believable is an open question.
In a recent opinion piece, the Republic reported "encouraging signs" that the public was showing approval of the freeway-tax increase, despite the fiscal fiasco surrounding an earlier freeway-tax measure. As evidence of growing support, the editorial cited two polls conducted by the Behavior Research Center.
One showed that 62 percent of those polled favored the increase, while a few months ago, only 59 percent were in support.
What the editorial failed to mention was the margin of error for the poll. According to the Behavior Research Center, this poll had a margin of error of 6.3 percent.
In other words, the 3 percent increase noted in the Republic editorial was, in statistical terms, no change at all.
But the newspaper described the "increase" with this headline: "An encouraging trend."
Although PNI's $10,000 contribution has been mentioned on R&G news pages, R&G editorials do not disclose the donation even as they engage in exuberant support of the referendum.
That's business as usual, says Shover.
"We have the journalism part of this operation and the business part of this operation. And we did not talk with Paul Schatt or Jim Hill [editors of the Republic and Gazette editorial pages, respectively], telling them we're a financial contributor. . . . We do not lean on them at all. "We let them make independent journalism decisions."
"We think we need a transportation system," he says. "It's madness to assume we can sit here and do nothing. . . . There's nothing nefarious about that or hidden.
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"I mean, we're absolutely honest in telling you what we think on the editorial page. Nobody's gonna be misled."
The R&G's financial and editorial support for the freeway tax also raises questions of motivation and profit.
PNI has invested over the years in a number of pieces of property throughout the Phoenix area. One eight-acre parcel, purchased in 1983 for about $750,000, sits at the corner of Grand Avenue and Bell Road--adjacent to the proposed Grand Avenue freeway. Right now, the Grand Avenue freeway is unfunded. But it would be built if the November referendum passes.
"That's where we were going to build another plant . . . a what-do-you-call-it--a satellite plant," Shover says. Instead, the plant was built in Deer Valley. "I didn't even know we still held it--I don't think that [the proposed freeway] had anything to do with it at all. It just is an investment, I guess, that we held onto." Because no specific plans have been drawn for the Grand Avenue freeway, it is difficult to say how much the value of PNI's land would increase if a freeway were to be built, says Bob Francy, an appraiser who has worked with Arizona Department of Transportation. But, Francy says, if the property is adjacent to an exit ramp--and chances are it would be, because the Grand Avenue/Bell Road intersection is a major one--then "I would expect there would be at least a 50 percent increase in price."
Shover says, "We did not support freeways because it might go near our property. That would go totally counter to our ethical position about owning investments and taking advantage of development."
Hogan, however, is reminded of the R&G's eagerness to have the county fund a baseball stadium in downtown Phoenix--a stadium that would sit on land PNI owns. "People talk about sports being a business. So's running a newspaper," he says. "They're [PNI] making an investment. That's what it is. It's economics to them, as opposed to a thoughtful analysis or a matter of principle.