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FIFEAND HIS PAPERBOYS

It never ends.
You'd think the breach of public trust would bottom out in this state.
You'd think the tales of political corruption at the Arizona State Legislature would inspire the other players in the public arena to show some integrity.

What with our first gubernatorial run-off election only days away, you'd think the media would do their part to cover the race fair and square.

You'd think the state's largest daily newspapers would take their thumbs off the scales and give both candidates an even break.

But this is Arizona.
And it never ends.

It's no secret the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette want J. Fife Symington III as their next governor. Both newspapers endorsed Symington in the general election last November. And their disappointment over Symington's failure to put the race away last fall is obvious.

It's also written all over their editorial and news pages.
In the guise of presenting neutral, objective reporting, the Republic has twisted and distorted its coverage of the election in subtle yet devious ways.

Throughout the run-off campaign, Symington's strategy has been to keep the governor's race on the back burner. It's a front-runner's strategy, and with so many political land mines threatening to explode in Fife's face, it makes sense.

Sure, world and local events this month have helped Symington and his supporters at the Republic enormously. A war in the Middle East and a lurid "sting" operation at the state capitol have given the papers ample cover for burying election news on the obituary page.

But Symington's done his part to deflect attention from the race by refusing--except for one televised debate--to go one-on-one with Terry Goddard. That's another ploy of the front-runner, and with the dailies unable to put Symington on the spot for comment, news of fresh ideas for a state in desperate need of leadership never gets published.

When the news is too big to ignore, when the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal start paying attention to Symington's foibles, the Republic gets tricky.

Like on February 7, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee charged Symington with violating federal conflict-of-interest laws. From the nation's capitol, Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum spelled out Symington's role in persuading the now-defunct Southwest Savings & Loan Association to sink $30.1 million into the Camelback Esplanade while he was serving as a member of Southwest's board of directors. The deal has cost the taxpayers some $22.6 million, according to the senate subcommittee, because Southwest's total investment of $65.6 million in the project exceeded the Esplanade's "realizable value." Resolution Trust Corporation has already written off the $22.6 million loss.

Consider the enormity of this botched business deal: Southwest's partnership with Symington was the largest single investment in the thrift's history; what's more, the $22.6 million loss represents the largest write-off of Southwest's beleaguered investment portfolio. Add to that Symington's alleged violations of federal law, and the emerging pictureMDRV suggests more than merely tough breaks in a sinking economy.

Given this bombshell, how does the Republic exercise damage control for its candidate of choice? Easy. On February 8, it runs a side-by-side story trumpeting a computer error that "slashed by half" the assessed value of Democrat Terry Goddard's home. As if the two stories were of equal weight.

Earlier in the week, Goddard had blasted Symington for seeking annual tax reductions on his Valley real estate to the tune of $3 million. This revelation on February 5 made several compelling points. First, it showed a man willing to use one set of figures for the tax man and another for his lenders. Second, it raised serious doubts about Symington's much-touted business skills and solvency, what with the candidate holding property worth far less than he earlier boasted--and millions less than his outstanding $200 million debt. Third, it showed a man relentless in his greed to wangle out of paying taxes.

How does the Republic handle this one? It takes to the editorial pages on February 5 and 7 with more Goddard hate pieces--they'd already set their venomous tone last fall by endorsing Symington with three quarters of the space dedicated to disparaging the Democrat. This time, editorial page editor William Cheshire assembled "facts" and photos on the financing of Goddard's home that couldn't find their way into a news story.

And speaking of news stories: Symington didn't like the piece written on February 6 by the Republic's prize-winning reporter Mary Jo Pitzl. She broke the story on Symington's shortchanging of county tax coffers by $3.1 million, and prepared a chart detailing Symington's properties and their values.

The following day, Symington sent his soldiers to the Republic to snipe about the coverage and supply more favorable information to the paper from his camp. The Symington delegation met with the paper's managing editor John Oppedahl, Pitzl's editor Laurie Roberts and assistant managing editor Bob Franken. This is a common tactic to put heat on reporters.

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David J. Bodney