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THE SUNS AND PHOENIX'S SPINELESS DAILY PRESS

The comparisons stick in the back of your mind.
The O.J. Simpson story is merely the opposite side of the coin to the now-infamous Phoenix Suns sex party.

The difference is that in Los Angeles, two people died and it caused an immediate media explosion. In Phoenix, a woman may have been raped at a party by a member of the Phoenix Suns and for two weeks the silence was deafening.

The state's two biggest dailies found out about it almost immediately and decided there was no story. They barely asked a question. They just closed the book and decided this was something we had no right to know about.

The California tale involves a famous sports millionaire who may be involved in the murders of his ex-wife and a 25-year-old waiter who was her friend.

It is the ultimate, classic tragedy of family violence that has been written about since ancient Greece; a tale that spans the annals of literature from Euripides and Sophocles to Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Joe McGinnis.

The Suns story involves three young members of the Phoenix Suns, each being paid more than a million dollars a year, taking part in a postmidnight sex party in which a woman claims she was detained in a bedroom and intimidated by Oliver Miller into unwanted sex acts. This took place after a general warning that nothing happening at the party should be made public. The woman refused, out of fear, to press charges when the police questioned her.

Later she learned what had happened to the pregnant girlfriend of another Suns player, Jerrod Mustaf. Mustaf's girlfriend was shot to death. Mustaf's cousin has been charged in the crime.

The list of names of the bad guys in the Suns story starts with Charles Barkley, who makes a reported $20 million a year in commercials and wants to run for governor of Alabama. According to the report, he appears to have served as barn boss at the party. Here is what Barkley reportedly told the assembled guests from his perch on the balcony:

"Before this party starts, I want everybody to know that anything that goes on in this house, doesn't leave this house. . . . If you can't handle that, leave now."
Barkley might just as well have been talking to the editors of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette, because after they read these words in the police report, they decided there was no story. Everything that happened after Barkley's fair warning was off limits to the public.

But it wasn't off limits to Darrin Hostetler, the New Times reporter who pursued the story. He found the girl in the police report and elicited her story and determined it had merit.

So Hostetler wrote the story, shaking up and exposing the cozy relationship between the downtown dailies and Jerry Colangelo, the Suns' chief operating officer.

Once I read Hostetler's story in last week's issue, I knew it would be necessary for the Republic and KTAR-AM, the station that broadcasts the Suns' games on radio, to put their spin on the story.

I tried to get the early version by calling John Oppedahl, the nominal editorial boss of both papers, at his home.

Oppedahl admitted talking to Don Henninger, managing editor at the Gazette, about the story which had already been written for publication in that paper.

Oppedahl says he is concerned about all the publicity that is being given to the private lives of politicians and sports personalities.

He denied that there had been any call from Colangelo asking that the story be killed. I even believe him when he says that.

But there are some things sophisticated men need not say to each other. Oppedahl knows, as well as I do, that Colangelo was the first Phoenix power broker to greet Republic publisher Chip Weil when he arrived in town.

He must know the two are thick as thieves. (Before you get on the phone to your lawyer, Jerry, I mean that only figuratively.)

Oppedahl told me that he had spoken that very afternoon to his page-two columnist Steve Wilson, who would be addressing the issue in Friday's Republic.

I couldn't wait. I love Wilson's column. He is the consummate toady and apple polisher. Wilson is so straight and unbending, it is reported that he wears a white shirt and tie to bed every night.

Sure enough, Wilson's column was there as promised.
Wilson began his essay by admitting that the New Times story about Oliver Miller and the Suns was "the talk of the town."

But then he turned didactic.
"How do journalistic ethics apply?" Wilson asked.
He then told us that the editors at both the Gazette and Republic felt publishing the woman's claim would violate a fundamental standard of fairness. He said nothing about investigating the story further to find out whether it was true.

 

He left us with a message that was a backhanded slap at New Times. The editors at the Republic will continue to operate in the same manner, and that "will preserve a market for the tabloids."

So much for today's object lesson in sanctimonious journalism.
Oppedahl failed, however, to alert me that E.J. Montini was also going to write a column about the Suns on the same day.

I wonder why Oppedahl didn't mention that. Is it that he only speaks to Wilson about such things because Wilson can be controlled?

Wilson's blabbering about ethics was to me reminiscent of Sidney Smith's remark: "The longer he talked about his virtue, the faster we counted our spoons."

At any rate, Montini, who is a champion of the underdog as well as a man of obvious ethical tendencies, took an entirely different tack.

Montini focused on the incident itself and the safety of young women when exposed under cover of darkness to the Phoenix Suns.

He wrote of the dark side of the Suns, things "it might help you to know about if YOUR Phoenix Suns ever make the acquaintance of YOUR Phoenix daughters."

This was not the only mention of the matter last Thursday. Barry Young, who tries to be further to the right than Rush Limbaugh, even accused New Times of being silenced by "the powers that be" because Hostetler declined to appear on Young's radio show at KFYI-AM.

What Young doesn't realize is that he is quite possibly the most detestable, loathesome talk-show host in America. He is a bespectacled pygmy with whom no one in his right mind would spend two minutes.

Young was followed by Bob Mohan. I'm sorry I missed that, because Mohan is a good sort of old boy and irreverent. I missed Mohan because I was obsessed by the television bulletins on the O.J. Simpson story.

Then came the piäce de rsistance, the three-hour talkathon devoted to--you guessed it--journalistic ethics.

This was conducted by Bill Strauss, the ultimate true lightweight of late-night talk shows at KTAR-AM.

Strauss must be virtually brain dead. His vocabulary is so limited that when pressed into debate, his only option is to shout into the microphone at his callers: "You're a jerk. You're acting like a jerk. Why should I talk to you?"

As you can see, that often makes for limited discourse.
However, I decided to listen in from 9 p.m. to midnight because the Republic's city editor, Laurie Roberts, was going to be a guest. She was joined by Jeff Scott, the KTAR news director.

"We try to be fair to everyone, alleged criminals as well as alleged victims," began Roberts, the Republic city editor.

Roberts told the audience that the Republic police reporter had gone out to find the victim two weeks after the paper had turned the story down. This daring journalistic move was made only after Hostetler's story was on the newsstands all over town. She insisted there was no story to print because no charges had been filed.

Strauss kept insisting he was holding this special session because the reputations of two excellent news organizations were being sullied all around town.

People were accusing the Republic and KTAR-AM of covering up the story of the Suns' postseason party. Of course they were making those accusations, because that is exactly what happened.

But Strauss did experience some choppy waters. Many callers supported him. But many didn't and made strong points.

There was a man who called and identified himself as an engineering student during the period beginning when Frank Kush took over as football coach at Arizona State. He compared that situation to the Suns.

"Kush brought in all these bums from Pennsylvania to play football," the caller said. "They were drunk every night. However, they were viewed in the community as heroes. And when it came time to build a new football stadium, they took away the money that was slated for the engineering school."
He cited the similarity between their treatment and that of the present-day Suns:

"The Suns are made into saints, but they behave like animals. We go out of our way to protect them when all they are is overpaid bums. They are not good people."
Anyone who has ever listened to talk radio in Phoenix is familiar with a caller known only as Gabe. He made his appearance late in the show. Facetiously, Gabe thanked Strauss for conducting a "masterful spin job" in whitewashing the Republic and KTAR.

 

"Are you calling my guests liars?" Strauss demanded. "If you think that, then there is no point in talking."
Gabe shot back that the Suns are held up to the public as models of Christian ethics and models of excellence.

Terry, another regular caller, slammed Strauss and his two media guests. He said they sounded like a trio of foxes cackling and chirping about how best to guard the chicken coop.

He said that he had been watching the Republic suppress stories inimical to the interests of the local establishment as far back as the days when the Republic refused to run a story about Senator Paul Fannin's arrest for drunk driving.

Coincidentally, that story, written by a then-young editor named Michael Lacey, appeared on page one of New Times.

David Pasztor, a New Times reporter, also called. He did not call to complain that this paper, which printed the story, wasn't even asked to participate in the discussion.

Pasztor called to ask Roberts, the Republic's city editor, why she wasn't disturbed enough about the allegations in the police report to call for an investigation to see if the woman's charges had some validity.

Roberts then said something that was embarrassing.
"It never occurred to me that there was a police report," she said.
So much for the knowledge of a city editor about how the world works.

The man from KTAR, the station that keeps boasting that it has the state's largest news-gathering team, had a good answer as to why it didn't investigate the report further:

"We don't have enough reporters to do a story like that."
Isn't that wonderful?
Lest you think this Suns sex party is an aberration, I would like to call your attention to an even more serious event that occurred several years ago.

This time, a player who is highly regarded by the Suns took a girl to a party with members of the Seattle SuperSonics.

In that case, the unidentified woman said she was brought to a hotel room here in Phoenix by the Suns player and then forced to have sex with five members of the Seattle team. Back in the ghetto, they have an expression for that. They call it "pulling a train."

The County Attorney's Office had the case, but the girl was afraid to file a complaint. Does that sound familiar?


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