Barbarism As a Public Relations Strategy

Something felt awful and familiar as I strolled toward the set of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's latest made-for-TV movie (Charred Riots of Fire, MCSO Studios, 1996) when it began shooting at the Durango Jail a couple of weeks ago. The unsavory sense of deja vu had something to do with the sheer number of vehicles sent to quell the riot (which was, the sheriff insisted, a disturbance, not a riot). Eight blocks of Durango Street were filled solid--curb to curb--with police cars and fire trucks and ambulances and mobile command centers and shiny white television news vans with microwave towers stuck excitedly into the sky.

But there were other reminders of some past cinematic media event that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Dozens--no, hundreds--of police and other paramilitary types milled about, trying to look important while they busily did nothing. A semicircle of television cameras on tripods documented a column of black smoke rising behind wire fencing in the desert. Four helicopters whirred above the scene, two circling, two hovering at fixed spots.

But it wasn't until I tried to wander from the officially approved mass-media reporting location that everything snapped into place, and I suddenly realized why this event felt so familiar. Wandering, you see, was not allowed. Moving, looking or interviewing without official approval was gently, pleasantly but strictly verboten.

"We're trying to stage you guys over there," one of the sheriff's flacks cooed--and I recognized the schmooze immediately. It was that particular sort of professional containment that whispered: I'm not your adversary, Mr. Important Media Man, I'm your friendly public information officer; I know how difficult your job is, even if your bosses don't; I'll move heaven and Earth to help you get everything you need before deadline; you just need to help me this one little bit by staying over here with these other incredibly interesting and Important Media Men and Women--which is really where you want to be, anyway, isn't it?

At that moment, I remembered the past cinematic event full of vehicles and helicopters and wire fences and uniforms where I had encountered this type of media schmooze. I realized that Sheriff Joe Arpaio had adopted the media-management techniques the U.S. military had used so successfully during its last major production for the big screen (Desert Storm, The Video Game, Pentagon Pictures, 1991).

If Joe Arpaio has a genius, it is in the publicity arena. Just five years ago, this particular Joe was no one, politically speaking, a hustling schmuck with a two-bit travel agency that made its money grubbing around the seedy edges of the local government contracting game. Now, Arpaio's PR machine has made him into "America's Toughest Sheriff" across the country and around the world. That's a hell of a transition in a damn short amount of time. There aren't a half-dozen politicians who have accomplished anything like it in the past decade.

Call your friends in other states. If they don't immediately recognize the name Arpaio, they'll know who you're talking about as soon as you mention posses, pink underwear, chain gangs or the Tent City jail. And if your friends outside Arizona think this Sheriff Joe guy is a few leaves shy of a full tree--well, that's not exactly outside this sheriff's media plan, either. The more that those foreigners--especially left-leaning reporters from evil places like New York and Washington, D.C.--question the hard justice served up by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the better he'll seem to the solid citizenry of common-sense Arizona. At least, that's the political calculation Arpaio seems to have made, and his figuring has been on the mark so far; he just ran unopposed for reelection because the Arizona Democratic party is afraid of him, and polls generally put his approval ratings in the stratospheric 70 to 80 percent range.

Arpaio's popularity would not disturb me if I simply thought that his media image was inconsistent with reality, that the true nature of Sheriff Joe was seedier, stupider, more cynical than the straight-talkin' tough guy he plays for the public. After all, a significant portion of all politics is subterfuge; politicians are artists of the possible, not the ideal; I am a big fan of the inspired public relations gambit; and Joe Arpaio's PR scams are among the most inspired I've ever seen.

So I don't disapprove of Sheriff Arpaio because he manipulates the media effectively. I admire his skill as a manipulator. I don't disapprove of Sheriff Arpaio because his policies are simplistic and unlikely to reduce crime. The day I start expecting the county sheriff--any county sheriff--to be a sophisticated bulwark against crime is the day I make reservations at the poshest loony bin the New Times HMO will fund. I don't even dislike Arpaio personally. He's a charming guy, in his own bluff way.

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John Mecklin