The East Valley Tribune is a pale reflection of its former Pulitzer Prize-winning self, thanks to the journalism-light business model of its current owner, 10/13 Communications.
That's why we were initially stunned when we saw a Trib reporter had penned an article about a murder mystery a couple of weeks ago, which is a departure from the staff's standard happy-news fare.
But our joy soon turned to bemusement. As Eric Mungenast explains in his lede, the deciding factors for choosing to bring this South Carolina whodunit to his readers were the offer of a free meal and to help a private investigator gin up publicity for a possible book or film deal about the case.
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These days, if you see an interesting news story on the Trib's website, it likely was produced not by the paper's staffers, but by the Associated Press, ABC15, or Capitol Media Services' Howard Fischer. As a news junkie and former reporter and editor at the Trib, we happen to miss the old days sorely -- when veteran journalist Chris Coppola (now editor for the Arizona Republic's Scottsdale community edition) was managing editor. In 2009, the Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize for showing that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's shifting of resources to immigration enforcement had resulted in serious injustices in other areas, such as the inadequate investigations of hundreds of sex crimes.
The Trib's home page on Wednesday morning featured six stories prominently as headliners, and only two are written by Trib staffers. One of those is a one-paragraph editorial/advertisement for a free event at the Arizona Science Center. The other's a nice little feature story by Mungenast about a senior citizen who helps people deal with cancer.
The April 13 article about a 2003 quadruple homicide in a small Southern town was clearly a departure from the routine for Mungenast -- in fact, he sounds amazed to be doing it: "After all," he writes, "how often does one become embroiled in an unsolved mystery?"
Coming from a news reporter who theoretically should become embroiled regularly in such things, we thought that line was weird. But we were downright offended at his explanation for why he chose to bring this case to our attention.
Mungenast says in his lede that his involvement began when the private eye, Don Corbett, gave him a call and offered him a free meal to listen to Corbett interview Melissa Ponder, a Mesa resident whose late husband was one of the murder victims.
"It doubled as an invitation to the ground floor of fame -- Corbett said the case is odd enough to warrant visions of a book deal or even a film," Mungenast wrote, adding that he was soon able "to provide objective agreement" to Corbett's assessment of the tale's quality.
Corbett, a retired cop, has been researching the quadruple-murder case for nine years without receiving any fee. Mungenast writes that getting writers to produce articles about the case is one of Corbett's "tactics."
Helping Corbett land a film deal, and maybe being part of such a deal, is not what we'd call a fully legitimate reason for the Tribune to publish this article about a South Carolina case. The Valley has hundreds of unsolved murders to check into, many of which occurred recently, not 11 years ago. And frankly, if visions of book deals are running through a reporter's head, that's fine -- but mentioning that in the news article is TMI.
As for the offer of a free meal, Mungenast tells us he didn't accept it, and that perhaps he should have mentioned in the article that he didn't. We agree.
In general, reporters should not accept free meals, or free anything, in return for listening to a story pitch. Many newspapers have ethical guidelines that prohibit accepting gifts of any kind, including meals. Recently, a story by Morgan Loew of Chanel 5 News, (KPHO-TV) made waves by revealing that a conservative lobbyist group had paid for steak dinners for a number of legislators, the idea being that accepting free meals creates a perception of being in someone's pocket.
Mungenast's supervisor, Tribune managing editor Kelly Mixer, didn't bother to reply to our request for comment.
Mungenast's transgression was relatively minor, and maybe you think we're being too hard on the guy. But we're relating this to you in the sincere hope that the Tribune improves. Inexperienced reporters like Mungenast seem to be secretly crying out to dig into meaty subjects instead of the journalistic equivalent of rice cakes.
Having a real editor would be a good start.
Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.