Governor Fife Symington's chief henchmen went to the Mesa Tribune last week for a long-awaited powwow. By the time it was over, John Dougherty-the Trib reporter whose scoops about the savings-and-loan scandal consistently have embarrassed the governor and other politicians-was off the big story, possibly for keeps.
Several sources present at the remarkable February 18 meeting between the Tribune and Symington's D.C. team of lawyer John Dowd and public relations man Jay Smith say the meeting degenerated into a shouting match. At one point, Smith challenged Dougherty to "go outside" and settle their differences. Dougherty banged his fist on a table, stood up and said, "Let's go."
Cooler heads prevailed, however. The meeting continued-with no mention of the "incident"-but the damage was done. And Fife Symington was the clear winner. Soon after Symington's men left, the Tribune pulled Dougherty off the story.
It happened the day before Dougherty was scheduled to fly to Washington, D.C., to cover the embattled governor's appearance before a House panel probing Symington's role in the failure of Southwest Savings and Loan.
"The Symington people got what they wanted-but it has to be this way," says Tribune managing editor John Genzale, one of about ten people at the meeting. It's a slam dunk. I've got to be absolutely confident that John can do objective work [on the Symington story], and at this point, I'm not confident in that anymore."
Dougherty admits he lost his temper. But Dougherty-a veteran business reporter credited in U.S. Senate testimony with breaking open the "Keating Five" scandal-says he's stunned that his bosses yanked him off the story so quickly. (He was replaced by colleague Mark Flatten.)
"I have dealt with Smith and Dowd in other heated conversations over the months," Dougherty says. "But this time, they saw I was mad and I think Jay Smith saw an opportunity to take me out of the story. I took the bait, okay? But the point is, I could have written a fair and accurate story about that meeting or anything else that comes up. I think I could have gotten more support on this from my own people."
Tribune managing editor Genzale rejects the notion that Symington's hit men intimidated the newspaper into removing Dougherty-"one of our best reporters," says Genzale-from one of Arizona's hottest stories.
"Look, John Dowd came out to bully us-we knew that beforehand," Genzale says. "We were kind of laughing about it: The high-powered lawyer from D.C. who comes to Hickville and pushes a lot of bumpkins around. I would have loved for them to have failed. But they didn't fail-not at pushing us around, but at getting our guy to react too emotionally."
Genzale's boss, Tribune executive editor Jeff Bruce, adds: "Fife has attacked what he sees as the forces at work that are supposedly out to get him-the media, the government, et cetera-and we don't want there to be any impression that our coverage is unfair and not objective. Nobody's been running scared here, but taking John off the story was an obvious and easy call for his editors under the circumstances."
Symington's people have waged an intense campaign against Dougherty, referring to him publicly as a "reporter who wants to bring down the governor." (The high-priced Dowd has shown his combativeness before: He represented Arizona Senator John McCain at the Keating Five hearings and was Major League Baseball's "prosecutor" of disgraced superstar Pete Rose.)
Neither Jay Smith nor John Dowd will say much to New Times about the clash, which they characterize in separate interviews as "private."
Dowd expresses surprise that Dougherty was removed from the Symington story. Now that it's happened, Dowd even sounds conciliatory, saying, "I've got no quarrel with the Mesa Tribune. I leave it to them to deal with Mr. Dougherty."
Smith, a veteran political consultant, says, "I certainly don't want to take shots at Mr. Dougherty, verbal or otherwise."
Overall, Symington has had a far easier time with local media than did former governor Evan Mecham, who had an unusually rabid Arizona press corps to contend with.
Earlier this month, the Washington Post contrasted the 85,000-circulation Tribune's "aggressive" reporting on Symington with the coverage by the 500,000-circulation Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette.
"The governor...has found some sympathy in Phoenix's two conservative newspapers," the Post noted. "One of them, the Republic, has furiously defended the governor, calling RTC actions `McCarthyesque.' Smith and Dowd have reacted aggressively to more critical reporting by the Mesa Tribune on the RTC suit. They have sent the newspaper letters threatening libel suits and demanding retractions, and distributed copies to the rest of the Arizona press corps."
The baiting of reporters is a time-honored trick of politicians and their minions. Says Dan Barr, an attorney for the Tribune: "I've never thought the Symington camp is serious about suing the Mesa Tribune, as they have said. I thought they were serious about attacking John Dougherty's excellent coverage and trying to deflect attention from the governor's problems with the RTC."
In the past few years, Dougherty has received national attention for his coverage of the nationwide S&L mess. The most unusual mention occurred as a result of Dougherty's work on the Keating Five scandal in 1989 while he was at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News.
Former Federal Home Loan Bank Board chairman Edwin Gray singled out Dougherty last year for breaking open the scandal involving Phoenix developer Charles Keating and five U.S. senators-including McCain and fellow Arizonan Dennis DeConcini.
"Are you telling us," committee attorney Robert Bennett asked Gray during nationally televised testimony before a Senate Ethics committee, that if this reporter hadn't happened to call you, that...maybe we wouldn't be here?"
"That's probably right," Gray replied.
But Edwin Gray isn't running the Mesa Tribune. Dougherty's boss, John Genzale, insists that he had no choice but to pull the reporter off the Symington case. At the same time, curiously, Genzale praises Dougherty's work for its fairness.
"John is a pro," Genzale says. "I'm almost sure he could have come out of that meeting with Dowd and Smith and written an objective story about it-and many, many other objective stories, and everything would be hunky-dory. But I use the term `almost,' and that's not good enough. I have no feeling that John has been biased, but he's got a lot of emotion wrapped up in this story, and separating himself from that emotion has been a difficult task for him."
Before Dougherty went home last Tuesday, he had one more task: He briefed colleague Flatten on the story.
"I told Mark to keep his eye on the ball," Dougherty says, "because there's a whole lot of curve balls being thrown in this story. Mark's good, and I'll be interested to see how he does."
The Tribune told Dougherty to take the rest of last week off, with pay. John Genzale says he plans to reassign Dougherty to "environmental and transportation issues."
Dougherty tries to put last week's tumultuous events into perspective. "You play hard, you get scraped up," he says. "I may be a royal pain in the butt the way I pursue stories, but no one has pointed out substantive inaccuracies. I wasn't unfair to Fife Symington before I lost my cool, and I wouldn't have been unfair after the meeting. I guess I'm probably as disappointed as Mr. Smith and Mr. Dowd are happy.