Harker began, once again, to explain that she did not write the story because another reporter had previously written stories on problems at the county jails, and the other reporter was on vacation when the New Times story ran, so she (Harker, that is) just passed it back to an editor and worked on other things, and . . . and . . .
And then Harker informed me that she didn't want to speak to me anymore, because New Times was always twisting and distorting things toward evil ends. She seemed quite upset, ending the interview with more bitter comments about New Times' twisting propensities. "And you can quote me on that!" she loudly announced.
That last jab really hurt, but at least I knew what had happened at the Republic. One out of a couple of hundred reporters went on vacation; important national news could not be reported until that one particular reporter, Susan Leonard, got back.
And that is what happened. After Leonard returned to work, she wrote a story about the investigation. The story was quite well done. It made the top of the front page of the Sunday paper. The story was picked up by the state and national wire services. Local television reported the tale; it was all over the radio.
By God, this was news!
But I still wondered why it had not been news ten days earlier. I still smelled Petrou somewhere.
Two of my inquiries into this particular media failure were instructive, but not as entertaining as a Petrou infestation.
Roberto Sanchez, the county reporter for the Phoenix Gazette, said he didn't touch the story because, "Well, I read Amy's piece, and all I could read into it was . . . , you know, that the investigation was pending. And we've gotten lots of stuff on that before, but I just didn't have the time or any conclusive evidence to jump into it."
I did not really know what to say--a United States Attorney's confirmation is usually conclusive enough for me--so I started on television news. If Petrous were anywhere, I figured they would be at the TV stations.
Actually, though, I wound up talking to Al Macias, assignments manager for Channel 15 news, and he clearly was no Petrou. In fact, he struck me as a reasonable, intelligent newsman, and his explanation was straightforward: Even though he and others at his station regularly scan New Times for news they might use, somehow no one had noticed Silverman's story.
"I mean, I've been around here forever, and, you know, I know that the New Times has turned enough stories over the years that, you know, something like that certainly bears checking on," Macias said.
Fair enough. Everyone misses a story sometimes, New Times included.
But what about the Mesa Tribune? There had to be a reason that newspaper had ignored a federal investigation for ten days, blowing a chance to scoop the Republic and the Gazette. I figured there would be one person who would know that reason. His name was Bill Davis, and he covers the county government for the Trib.
Once I got him on the phone, I slowly, carefully explained that I was the editor of New Times, and that I was writing a column. I didn't want to be accused of tricking a reporter again.
I had just finished explaining why I was calling, had just gotten the first question out of my mouth, in fact, when Davis made a noise. I have described it to people as resembling the squeal a cat makes if you step squarely on its tail. Actually, though, that description was just my way of being polite.
In truth, Davis made a sound that approximated the screech you hear when cats fornicate.
I played the tape recording of Davis' emission to members of my staff, who all agreed it was worth preserving for posterity. It was so wonderfully inappropriate and nonresponsive that I knew my search for Phoenix Petrou clones, even though incomplete, could not continue long. There was no way to improve on Bill Davis' explanation as to why a metropolitan newspaper ignored an important national story:
New Times: Now, why didn't the Mesa Tribune report on a major federal investigation?
Bill Davis: (Loud cat penetration noise) GO LIKE FUCK YOURSELF!
This was better than Petrou!
So why should you care that the daily press ignored the jail investigation?
I could affect a scholarly pose and run through the standard First Amendment buzz phrases: public accountability, informed citizenry, the right to know, the role of the press in a democratic society.
Or I might take an ethics-based approach, suggesting that the possible beating of inmates--who are, after all, human beings--is a story that should be told, simply because of its moral implications.