It's not uncommon for businesses to manipulate news coverage by threatening to withhold advertising from newspapers. Car dealers, real estate agents and grocers--all big-money advertisers--are as adept as they are notorious at intimidating editors and publishers. Their efforts often reshape the news you read.
It is uncommon, though, for such blatant strong-arm tactics to come from a member of a newspaper's own board of directors.
Such was the case last week when William A. Franke, chairman, president and CEO of America West Airlines, fired off an indignant letter to John Oppedahl, publisher and CEO of Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., which publishes the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette. In addition to serving as America West's hatchet man, Franke sits on the board of Central Newspapers Incorporated, the parent company of PNI.
The Flash obtained a copy of Franke's rant, written in response to an August 21 Republic story titled "FAA Critical of AmWest." The story told how America West's maintenance record has suffered since the airline fired its mechanics last year and hired an out-of-state contractor to provide its heavy maintenance. Franke's letter begins:
"I am very distressed by the front-page story that appeared today in the Arizona Republic regarding the FAA's annual audit.
"The reporter was either biased or didn't understand the issues. The editors, in turn, engaged in overkill on the positioning of the story and its headline. Unfortunately, this is another example of a disturbing trend of 'guilty until proven innocent' that the paper has followed in recent months."
Franke goes on to make what appear to be some valid points about the story's context--perhaps foremost among them that America West's inspection was the first of a carrier conducted in the wake of the ValuJet and TWA crashes. He postulates that because of the criticism heaped on the FAA in the aftermath of those crashes, America West may have suffered "backlash" from the airline regulators. Franke also notes that "the local FAA office faces downsizing" because of America West's new maintenance contract.
Franke's letter concludes with a sneering lecture and a direct threat of reprisal:
"I hope he [the reporter] understands my views of him as he wanders around the newsroom today accepting the congratulations of his fellow reporters for the front page 'scoop.' Our employees won't see him or the newspaper in that same light and, if asked, would undoubtedly suggest your reporter and your editors need a refresher in a journalist's responsibility for the stories you create.
"It is particularly offensive in light of the $900,000 we spent in 1995 and the almost $1 million we have spent year-to-date with your newspaper trying to convince the public we are a reliable, low fare carrier. As a business person I need to reflect on the value of that advertising."
The Flash wonders how Franke reconciles his desire to punish the newspaper with his seat on the CNI board. The Flash also wonders how the CNI board continues to reconcile news reporting and its cozy relationships with tycoons and celebrities such as Bill Franke, Jerry Colangelo, John Teets and Charles Barkley.
Other Unnewsworthy Things
In case you require additional examples:
On August 22, the Republic delved into corruption at City Hall by wondering rhetorically whether Phoenix is really one of the best-run cities on Earth, as it touts itself. The Page One story cites citizen dissatisfaction with the city's ramrodding of the Sumitomo Sitix plant in northeast Phoenix, its failure to clean polluted air, scandals inside the police department and even something as arcane as employee overtime run amok.
Conspicuously absent from the otherwise thorough report was any reference to the city's complicity in the downtown stadium project. First, the City Council attached an emergency clause to its rezoning of the stadium site, thereby eliminating any opportunity for a citizen referendum on the project. City Hall also made an end run around a law requiring voter approval for improvements exceeding $3 million to sports facilities--the city accomplished this by pretending that a new, $40 million parking garage to be built across the street from the stadium is really intended to serve the new science museum.
Why weren't these travesties mentioned? One can only speculate--and remember that Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., is an investor in the Arizona Diamondbanks, who will occupy the stadium.
Then last Sunday, August 25, the Republic emitted a fawning special section that told readers everything they could possibly want to know about the outrageous things Charles Barkley did in Phoenix--except, of course, the most outrageous of all: his role in the May 21, 1994, team porno party during which a woman claimed to have been sexually assaulted by then-Suns player Oliver Miller. You might recall that revelers told police that Barkley had warned everyone in attendance, "Before this party starts, I want everybody to know that anything that goes on inside this house doesn't leave this house. . . . If you can't handle that, leave now."
Of course, the Republic had that story, too, but failed to make any mention of it until New Times did so first.
The political press release of the week belongs to Doug Rhodes, who's making a quixotic bid for GOP nomination for county attorney. To wit:
"Incumbent Rick Romley missed a scheduled debate on the Juvenile Justice Initiative with challenger Doug Rhodes who supports the initiative because of a serious infection that required his hospitalization Thursday night."
Yes, well, serious infections are always worthy of consideration when developing public policy.
Romley's infection, by the way, involves shrapnel he carries from his Vietnam war experience. A Romley aide says the county's chief prosecutor should be out of the hospital and back on the stump later this week.
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